Ask the Designer: An Interview with Cathy Frankel

Cathy Frankel, VP for Exhibitions and Collections

Cathy Frankel, VP for Exhibitions and Collections at The National Building Museum

Dollhouses conjure up memories of childhood afternoons creating stories and adventures, so you can imagine how pleased I was to catch up with Cathy Frankel of the National Building Museum, to find out more about their latest exhibition Small Stories

Small Stories is a collaboration between the National Building Museum (Washington, DC) and the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood (London), can you explain how that partnership came about?

The Museum was approached by the V&A Museum of Childhood back in 2008, after they decided that they were going to develop an exhibition to include houses from their historic dollhouses collection. At the time, the houses had not yet been conserved or chosen, and the outline of the themes of the exhibition had not yet been determined. But being admirers of the collection and exhibitions of the Victoria & Albert, the staff here said “sign us up,” with barely the blink of an eye.  And we are so glad that we did.

As well as the historic dollhouses, the National Building Museum commissioned The Dream House, can you tell us a little bit more about that?

At the installation at the Museum of Childhood, about a dozen “dream rooms” were commissioned from local designers, artists, and shops. They were lovely but it was eventually decided that these rooms would not be traveling to the U.S. This however, provided a wonderful opportunity for the National Building Museum to commission mostly locally-based artists, architects, and interior designers to create rooms to assemble our own unique Dream House.  And the results exceeded our expectations.  The creativity and variety of rooms has made for a truly wonderful installation.

The Dream House

The Dream House

The mission of the National Building Museum is to tell stories of architecture, engineering and design, how do you feel that Small Stories fits with that vision?

Small Stories has been a wonderful way to engage visitors with our mission. We are proud of our mission that not only speaks to educating about good design in our built environment, but how individuals and communities help to shape the world around them. And in the way that Small Stories – by using the tiny residents in the houses – informs people about the times in which the house was created, and how the tiny homes reflect the lives that were created to live in them.

How do you choose a colour and design scheme for a show like this?

It was decided early on that we needed a muted, but rich colour scheme for the exhibition. The colours from the dollhouses range dramatically from muted browns in the early homes, to bright colours of the homes from the 1960s and beyond. Additionally, we were lucky enough to be able to use graphic elements from the time period of each house, from the Victoria & Albert’s amazing collection of textiles, to help create spaces for each of the houses.  So it was important for us to choose colours that worked with the variety of materials, while still providing a warm, domestic-feeling space to showcase the amazing dollhouses.

We know this is like choosing a favourite child, but can you tell us which is your favourite house in the collection?!

From the beginning, I have been enamoured with the Whiteladies House. I saw images of the house early on in the process, and was just bowled over when I saw it in person. It was created in 1935 by artist/designer Moray Thomas. It is a modernist country home with a swimming pool and tennis court that captures that imagination.  And the gold bathroom is over-the-top and spectacular!

Whiteladies House

Whiteladies House made in England in 1935 by Moray Thomas (c) Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The exhibition focuses on dollhouses, but what was your favourite toy as a child?

My favourite toy as a child, that I still own, was my dollhouse. It is not nearly as lavish and detailed as the houses in Small Stories, but I remember spending hours upon hours, arranging the furniture and the tiny tea sets, magazine, and children’s toys, to create a perfect home.  I still have it set up, and my daughter sometimes plays with it.  Though I sometimes sneak in and move the furniture to spots where I always placed them as a child.

If you were to design your own dollhouse, what would it be like?

I am somewhat of a minimalist in my own home, but I would pack a dollhouse full of the odds and ends that I don’t always allow myself to put in my home.

And finally, if you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

Without hesitation, London. It is my favourite city in the world. I would be happy just wandering through all of the wonderful neighbourhoods, historic buildings, amazing museums, and great shopping.

Small Stories is open at the National Building Museum in Washington until 22nd January 2017 – check out a few more of the houses below.

Kaleidoscope House

Kaleidoscope House
Laurie Simmons, Peter Wheelwright and Bozart, USA, 2001
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London


Betty Pinney’s House (set in 1910s)

Betty Pinney’s House (set in 1910s)
England, 1870
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London


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Rebecca Maclean


Rebecca’s interest in interior design began as a teenager when she had the ‘bright’ idea of painting her bedroom a striking tangerine shade. Today that passion for colour permeates her working life, and at home she enjoys trying new ideas while decorating her first home. Rebecca loves to travel, seeing the world and discovering new landscapes, sights and flavours.

The Chromologist 2019 | Farrow & Ball

The Chromologist