The Fisher Dollhouse: A Venetian Palazzo in Miniature

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We were completely mesmerized by the dollhouse created by art collector and patron, Joanna Fisher. Stuck in bed and unable to move during the height of Covid, Joanna discovered the dollhouse, a replica of a Venetian Palazzo, online. Immediately she knew she just “had to have it” but sadly it was sold. She sought out the designer of the original dollhouse, set designer, Holly Jo Beck, and commissioned a replica of the one made forty years ago. Joanna then proceeded to furnish the house with original artworks by artists and artisans all over the world. “The project was my savior, it cost me more than furnishing one of my own homes, but it was worth every penny.”

Fortunately we can experience this extraordinary palazzo in miniature first hand by visiting the exhibition, The Fisher Dollhouse: A Venetian Palazzo in Miniature, on display at The Museum of Arts and Design, through September 26th, 2021.

You’ve literally embraced the shrinking world of Covid for the past year by creating “The House Within.”

I suppose it’s the nature of the times in that people are looking for something safe and warm and cozy. It’s been a very special project for me which has taken on a life of its own, something I never expected. For me, the dollhouse was really my savior. It gave me tremendous solace. I would go into my studio very late at night and I would tinker away in solitude. Yet it also created a connection to people all over the world. I reached out to dozens of artists and artisans and would talk to them about the history of things and where they came from and who made them and how they made them. So it went from a process of isolation to being a project of socialization.

What is it about dollhouses that are so appealing?

I just think the whimsical nature of tiny things appeals to people. It’s just a fun thing to look at and you actually tend to study things more in miniature form. It’s a fantasy.

Wicker basket by Will Werson, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, with brussels sprouts by Shirley Chalkley, West Sussex, England, and gong, c. 1910, probably made in England.
The Receiving Room.
Black Hole by Ryan McGinness, New York.
Baroque Revival fireplace by Sue Dubowi, Cornwall, England. Dancer (Ballerina) by Michele Oka Doner, Miami and New York, warms up by the fire.
Pygmy Owl Micro Icon by Peter D. Gerakaris, New Hampshire and New York. Nippon-style dragon vase by Vince Stapleton, Leadville, CO.

It’s an obtainable fantasy. Can you walk me through the process? How and when did you come up with the idea?

Well, I’ve loved miniatures since I was about three years old. My mother had a friend in Westchester, where I grew up. And on each wall in her octagonal dining room — instead of art or mirrors —  she had a beautiful miniature — like a picture box — of a different room each in a different style. And they were back-lit. I was totally fascinated by them. My mother’s friend had four boys, so they never looked at the picture boxes. They didn’t care.  I insisted on going every day after nursery school and she was so thrilled to have me come over. And I would stare at these things and obsess over them. And you know, the minute I was old enough to have my own dollhouse, I had one. My mother and I made one together in my room when I was little.

Did you actually make your first dollhouse?

We made it together with my dad. We made the furniture and the curtains and everything. My mother made paintings and even needle pointed rugs for it. And then when my daughter was born, the first thing I did was set about making her dollhouse, which I still have. It’s in her room in Chappaqua and it’s a beautiful one. Then I became an interior designer for about 30 years doing projects for mostly people that I knew. I did it for fun and enjoyment and I did it while my kids were at school. But Kips Bay asked me to make a miniature one time for their showhouse.

The Loggia. Bust of Julius Caesar by David Castillo, Barcelona; Borne settee, a 19th-century form; Blown-glass hanging lamp by Ana Felipe Royo, Zaragoza, Spain. Balloon-canopy chair, by Nancy Summers, Greenfield, IN, like one in Joanna Fisher’s home, and Venetian glass mirror.
Late-19th-century desk with marble top by J. D. Schneegass & Sons, Waltershausen, Germany, with antique cruet set and opera glasses.
Small Miracle by Darren Waterston, Kinderhook, NY.

Oh, did they really? When was that?

It had to be about 30 years ago. And I still have it. It’s in my daughter’s room and it’s built into the wall. Fast forward 30 years — not only was I home-bound because of COVID, but suddenly I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t take a step and I couldn’t get any medical attention for it. Everything was being turned over to COVID. It was the height of it.

That’s scary.

I was hobbled, you know, I could not walk. So one night I was searching the internet and I came across this beautiful, old vintage replica of the Gritti Palace in a dollhouse form. And with the help of my friend Amy Kristy — she’s a miniature expert – we tracked it down. And I started to cry. Because it was very expensive and I thought, you know, “I’m not going to buy that. That’s crazy.” And then as time wore on, and the weeks passed, I still couldn’t walk and I still couldn’t do anything. I finally decided I had to have this thing. I said I don’t need any jewelry. I don’t need any clothing. I can’t even buy a pair of shoes. I’m buying this thing! We found the woman (Holly Jo Beck), who’s a set designer in England. She had used it at the Hyde Park Dollhouse Fair, like 40 years ago, as the opening thing for her booth. And then she said to me, “I sold that one, but I can make you a new one.”

The Italian balustrade.
Murano-style chandelier by Mario Ramos and Mariana Grande, Madrid.
Mounted deer head.
Hierophant by Dustin Yellin, New York.

So, she basically replicated one that she had already sold?

Correct. The one that she had made 40 years ago. She sort of recreated that same feeling again which I’ve never seen; a Palazzo Dollhouse. There are many different styles of dollhouses but I’ve never seen one that looks like the Gritti Palace. And she was able to add even more unusual things like lighting and tile work and things that they didn’t have back then. And it took forever. Partly because she got COVID and got very sick. And then, you know, nobody could send anything during the height of COVID.

How long did it all take?

It took about four and a half months from when I ordered it to when I received it. But there was a lot of commotion about the shipping. And finally, I said, “Look, I’ll pay extra, just don’t wait. Call special services. It’s worth a fortune anyway. And let’s just get it here. I don’t care what it costs!” By that time, I really needed it. I was going out of my mind. So, it arrived and …

The hunt room.
“Venetian” metal lanterns hang from the ceiling.
Wild boar’s head by Victoria Chernysheva, Rostov-on-Don, Russia, like one in Joanna Fisher’s home.
Homage to Concerto Op.19 Andantino by Federico de Francesco, New York.
“Venetian” mask by Fátima J. Doña, Granada, Spain, on a “Savonarola” or “Dante” chair, a 15th-century form.
Viennese bronze tiger rug.
“Bamboo” magazine rack.

It arrived unfurnished? And empty?

Yes, it arrived completely empty. A lot of it, like the balustrade, was there. That’s why it was so fascinating to me. I’d never seen a dollhouse with an Italian balustrade … it was just so unbelievable. And I changed all the lighting. The lighting was very cheap and British. The whole thing was a royal pain because there’s only two people in the whole world who can still work on that lighting in the United States.

How did the connection with MAD come about?

Well, because my inspiration was sort of the Stettheimer Dollhouse.

The music room.
Clavichord with view of Venice on lid. Mandolin made in the Philippines.
Drinking glasses and tin carrier by F. W. Gerlach, Naumburg, Germany, imported by Tynietoy, Providence, RI, 1920s. Behind: Display cabinet with fossils by David Castillo, Barcelona.
Powder horn made in Italy.

Yes, it’s amazing. We’ve done a piece on it.

Okay. So, I’ve loved that since I was a very little girl.  I was talking to Rachel Hovnanian, who’s one of the artists who did a piece for the dollhouse. She said, “Why don’t you make it…?” And since most of my social friends are all artists, I said to them, “If I were to do a dollhouse, would you make me a little…?”

Makes sense.

There were no galleries. There were no showings. You know, there was nothing. So they all were thrilled to have a little mini-project to work on at home with no expense.  So everyone I asked accepted. I could have had even more artists participate, but I got sort of overwhelmed with everything because I felt like now I had a deadline. When I told my friend who’s involved on the board at MAD, she jumped on this and said, “We want it. We want it.” And I’m like, “But you want what? I haven’t done anything.” Anyway, it started to all just come together. So little by little, I designed the rugs. I contacted the artists and I gave them free rein. I said, “Make whatever you want to. The only thing you have to do is make it fit. That’s all!”

The dining room. Far left: Chinoiserie coal bin. Far right: Bronze urn by Joseph Addotta, Cypress, CA, on demilune cabinet.

Joanna by Hunt Slonem, New York.
Murano-style chandelier by Mario Ramos and Mariana Grande, Madrid; Silver covered serving dish by Pete Acquisto, Queen Creek, AZ.
“Mona Lisa” dinner plates and a blown-glass ewer by Salvador Marce Romero, Barcelona.
Joanna’s favorite piece, a bisque monkey figurine attributed to Hertwig & Co., Katzhütte, Germany. “The camel is fully jointed. Those pieces can move.”
The wash room.

Did you lay out the rooms yourself?

Yes, I did everything myself.

 And then the little pieces of furniture that were…

Everything was purchased and vetted  from all over the world.  I call it “The House Within,” because it enabled me, even though it was an isolation project done at my dining table at three o’clock in the morning. But I had contact with artists from all over the world. People who are specialists in a little clock that works, or those Venetian chandeliers. And there was constant contact and emails and calling and texts back and forth.

Did you find the people by word of mouth? I mean how did you find all the sources from all over the world?

It’s incredible the web of what’s out there. There’s an incredible, underground miniature world. A lot of it is tacky and junkie, but a lot of it is… there’s a Guild of artisans for miniatures in England. Honestly, the things in this house ended up being more expensive than regular furniture. For the prices that I paid for some of these things I could have redone all my three houses.  If I include the artwork, for sure.

The kitchen.
Jamón by Julia Gladilina, Moscow.
Damigiana, or wicker-wrapped bottle, on worktable built and finished by Amy Christie.
Copper pots in stand by Mariangela Gagliardi, Milan, like in Joanna Fisher’s home. Wood-burning stove by Mariangela Gagliardi, Milan.
Goose by Viktoria Kova, Rostov-on-Don, Russia, maker of the other hanging meats.

I know you don’t want to name prices or anything, but give me an example of one thing and how much it costs.

Well, the green chandelier that hangs in the center was $17,000.

Wow. Well, emotionally, it seems like you really got a lot out of this process.

I needed it. And you know, my husband went along with it because he could see how much the project meant to me. It created a mood and a whole life within itself. It’s all over the Italian press now. And they’ve invited me to Italy. It’s going to the Bruce Museum after the museum at MAD for three months. And then it’s going to Palermo, Italy for the Fendi Foundation.

The guest bedroom.
Ca’ d’Frizzante dog bed by Laura Lobdell, New York, with pre-1900 Staffordshire bull terrier in ceramic.
Needlepoint rug by Joanna Fisher, New York. “Venetian” painted chest with faux-marble top by David Castillo, Barcelona.
Jasperware ewer by Vince Stapleton, Leadville, CO.
Brass table with feet made from World War I bullet casings.

Do you have any particular objects or anything in the dollhouse that you’re just over the moon about?

I think my favorite piece is the bisque monkey in the dining room, riding the camel that’s fully jointed. Those pieces can move. I remember when I was young, everybody had those monkeys. I think it’s Nymphenburg. They were the musical monkeys. They had an orchestra of monkeys playing instruments. And they were very valuable and very expensive. And I remember a lot of people had them. This monkey is very, very old. I just love him in the dining room.

The little mini portrait of you is amusing.

Oh my gosh. That’s the ancestor portrait. And I think it’s fabulous. That was done by one of the artists, Antonio Serafino.  He’s a wonderful guy. And he also did the catch of the bridge that’s in the garden room.

The master bedroom. In front of the bed: “Hepplewhite” desk by Bespaq Corporation, South San Francisco, laden with books, including a readable Lincoln.
Blown-glass hanging lamp by Ana Felipe Royo, Zaragoza, Spain, with nearby mirror and a cabinet painted by Helen O’Keefe, Great Britain.
Ancestor Portrait by Antonio Pio Saracino, New York and Italy.

Wonderful. Were there any hurdles or challenges that you didn’t know how to get past? 

The needlepoint rugs were a challenge. They needed to be backed and the people to do that were booked for months; six, eight, 10 months. I didn’t know what to do because I had designed these beautiful rugs and chose the colors, all for this dollhouse.  So I go to send them out and they told me they couldn’t have them for like eight months. I said, “They’re two inches long. What do you mean you can’t get them back sooner?” And they’re like, “We’re sorry, it’s in order of first come first served.” And I’m like, “No, no, you don’t understand. This is going into a museum.” So after a lot of asking  around someone gave me the name of a place in Philadelphia that I never knew about and they did it in a week! They had an in-house finishing room. I gave them extra thanks in the exhibit.

What do you want people to take away from this when they look at it?

A lot of these things were created for very special miniature homes throughout history so there’s a lot of history in each piece.  There’s a candle thing there that was in Queen Mary’s dollhouse. There are things in this house that have great historical importance. And the artists, of course, have created these beautiful pieces for it. But what I think people will take away from it, without my leading them to this thought, is that they’re seeing something that makes them feel safe and at home. Everyone is involved in things they can do at home these days because we’ve had no choice. But this is a different home. This is a fantasy home. This is something you can get carried away with. And somewhere I could go to escape.

Chinoiserie bed, with fur blanket by Jillian Aufderheide, New York.
“Longhorn” chairs, popular in the 1880s, flank the bed.

Just to backtrack a little bit. How did you decide to put the kitchen on the third floor? Was there a reason you put the rooms in a certain way?

I loved the grandiosity of the first floor. In the old days too the kitchen would never have been on the first floor.

The kitchens were in the basement.

The kitchens were in the basement but I had no basement.  I didn’t want it to be on the floors that were what you would call presentation rooms. If you look, the rooms that are on the first and second floor were all decorative. Because it would be full of servants. It’s not like these days where people gather in the kitchen. That wasn’t happening then. So that’s why I put the kitchen and the dining room up there.

Clearly it is all insured.

Everything is insured. The museum won’t take it without being insured.

Well, it’s really extraordinary, a wonderful project that many, many people are going to get so much joy from.

I’m glad that you like it. I enjoyed doing it, but to me it’s never going to be finished.

Photographs by Jenna Bascom

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