Veteran marketing executive Lisa Macpherson was thrilled when she and her boyfriend Jim decided to buy their first house together, in Virginia, in the United States, two years ago.
The only sacrifice: he would no longer live full-time in his house in Chicago, Illinois – a passion project on which he had collaborated closely with an architect.
The solution, Macpherson reasoned, was for him to bring that house down to Virginia with him – or at least, a scale model of it.
Macpherson found a British-based model maker, Chisel & Mouse, to tackle the project.
She sent across blueprints, satellite images, photographs and other details about Jim’s home, and connected the firm with his architect in case of questions.
“For someone in love with their home, seeing it reproduced at scale with every detail perfect, it would be a knockout gift,” she says.
“It was the perfect intersection of where we were in our relationship and his passion for that house.”
Sure enough, a few months later, an enormous wooden crate arrived in Virginia: at its centre, painstakingly packed, was a 14-inch (35.5-centimetre)-wide plaster replica of Jim’s home.
The maquette perfectly mirrored every exterior detail; elements of the interior were visible, too.
Through one window, Macpherson could see the fireplace and via another, there was Jim’s platform bed. When she presented it to him, that Christmas, he was left speechless.
“It’s on a glass cocktail table here in Virginia – it’s the centrepiece of the room.”
Custom miniatures are increasingly the focus of Chisel & Mouse, which Robert Paisley runs with his brother Gavin.
The duo turned to model-making while yearning for a more fulfilling career seven years ago after working in software sales and banking.
“We’re both passionate about architecture,” says Robert, who works from their studio, just outside Brighton, the south of England.
“Gavin’s pride and joy is a [Star Wars] Millennium Falcon in Lego, and he loves anything Airfix [plastic scale-models].”
They combined these interests by buying an early Makerbot 3-D printer, with which they developed moulds of notable British buildings such as London’s Tate Modern art gallery and Battersea Power Station.
The pair then hand-poured plaster into those moulds, before custom-finishing each piece.
They were an instant hit with the likes of interior design guru Sheridan Coakley of furniture brand SCP.
The range now includes everything from the Capitol Records building in Hollywood to a Regency townhouse in Bath, as well as aerial view of cityscapes of places including London and Chicago, which can be hung, like a painting, on the wall.
Soon after they launched the firm, Paisley began receiving inquiries such as Macpherson’s: could Chisel & Mouse apply its model-making know-how on a bespoke basis?
In response, the Paisley brothers launched their custom division, which produces made-to-order maquettes such a Jim’s house.
Bespoke models take about 12 weeks and cost between £1,500 (US$2,125) to £5,000.
Today, they form about 40 per cent of its business.
“We’ve always been approached by people who have buildings that are fabulous, and it’s an incredibly joyous experience when they get to open the finished product,” Paisley says.
“Everybody has been over the moon.”
Marking an occasion
The impetus for most commissions is usually a renovation or a sale, he says.
One father received a scale model of the home he had renovated for decades as a 70th birthday gift from his children, while three daughters in Ireland commissioned Chisel & Mouse for more poignant reasons.
“They were moving their father into a home, after their mother had died, so they clubbed together to have a commission done of their family home.
“They wanted one piece for each of them, and one for their dad to take with him.”
Paisley has also worked with the Perez Art Museum in Miami, producing 50 miniatures as “thank you” gifts for major donors, and several condominium developments where off-plan buyers received a maquette of the future building as a closing gift.
But Chisel & Mouse is not alone.
There’s a cottage industry of architectural model-makers in Britain that offer this bespoke service, with Mulvaney & Rogers at the higher end.
“The majority of our work is commissioned from the States,” co-owner Susie Rogers says.
“We’ve made a copy of the London house where a US client lived while he was seconded to London. “His children were born there, and he wanted to remember the happy times on his return to the US.” She says that prices vary, but start at £60,000 for bespoke work. The firm keeps a waiting list, which can range from nine months to three years.
A celebration of architecture
Timothy Richards is another maker of miniature models, and considers his approach to the process as lyrical, poetic even; he treats it like sculpture.
“When you pour that plaster in, you have to let the material go, just to do its magic. I am at the behest of the materials,” says Richards, whose studio is near Bath.
These aren’t simply miniatures such as dolls houses, he stresses, but rather standalone artworks.
“I always say you can make great models out of great buildings.
“They’re avenues, funnels, into this wonderful world of architecture and what buildings mean to us. They’re a celebration of architecture.”
Bespoke commissions form between 45 per cent and 50 per cent of his business; ideally, Richards will spend around six months on each piece, with prices starting at £8,000.
He works in styrene and other materials, building a scale model by hand (just like the Paisley brothers, he was an Airfix model obsessive as a child).
Richards has produced everything from the façade of a house on London’s Hampstead Heath to a tabletop model of one of the few Tudor-era English palaces to remain a private home.
Rather than simply reproducing this building, he added period details to the landscape around it: a Henry VIII-like king and his procession approaching from one side, and a hunt chasing stags on another.
That all these model-makers are based in Britain, is less a coincidence than a legacy of history. Arguably the most impressive collection of small-scale architectural replicas in the world is in London, inside the bric-a-brac-crammed Sir John Soane’s Museum.
In the former home of Soane, a 19th century architect who amassed this collection in his lifetime, his maquettes are staples of courses at architecture and design schools in Britain.
Most were made for Soane by a pair of French artisans, Jean-Pierre and François Fouquet – Regency-era Chisel & Mouse if you will, earning widespread accolades for the intricacy of their miniatures.
They kept the plasterworking technique, which allowed them to execute such detail, a closely guarded secret .
After they died, creating such precise, small scale replicas in plaster was almost impossible.
However, modern techniques, such as computer-aided design, have overcome this two-century impasse.
Certainly, it was the Soane connection that inspired Manhattan lawyer David Stutzman.
Passionate about architecture, he made a pilgrimage to the museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields on a visit to London, and was captivated by the plaster models.
He and his husband had just bought and restored a townhouse on Bleecker Street, returning its façade to its 1850s heyday.
“I thought the idea of having a model of my house was such a wonderful harkening back,” he says in his office, where he keeps the Chisel & Mouse-produced replica on a book case, positioned to face due west just like the original.
“The rendering was so detailed: the cornice, the lintels on the brickwork,” he says.
“There’s this really beautiful blood red door on our house and we wanted that to show up, too.”
Clearly, Chisel & Mouse agreed: in the ultimate accolade, the Paisley brothers added his bespoke design to their catalogue.
So now for US$270, you too, can snap up a copy of Stuzman’s home.