It’s a Small World
By Babs Rodriguez
Photos by Jeremy Enlow
Suzanne Crowley can do a lot with a tiny house.
Bespoke textiles, parquet floors, crystal chandeliers, marquetry furniture, pedigreed oil paintings and her own clay sculptures are all at home in the petite rooms, some of which measure little more than 10 by 12 — and that’s inches, not feet.
The author, artist and longtime collector of miniatures used the downtime of last year to reboot her passion for sleuthing out and commissioning miniscule treasures on a grand scale.
A room above the garage of the Southlake house that Crowley has called home for 17 years is devoted to the tiny dollhouse furnishings she first installed in open-fronted “room boxes.” Her finds from more than 40 years of collecting and curating are beautifully displayed in ranks of built-in cubbies, dollhouses of three different scales, a collector’s cabinet and — the piece de resistance — a magnificent custom-built, four-level chateau crafted for her by Jon Fish in the style of 17th-century French houses designed by Versailles architect Louis Le Vau. “Jon is the best of the best. We’ve been friends for a long time. As I watched him build beautiful homes and palaces over the years, I couldn’t wait to commission one for myself when he had an opening,” she says.
Crowley, a noted author of young adult/preteen books (her newest title is Finding Esme), has been enchanted by miniatures since childhood, dating back to visits with her Uvalde grandmother who would stash hand-painted porcelain pieces in a blue willow-pattern ginger jar for her to find. A girlhood passion blossomed into a lifelong fascination with fine interiors, many featured on major magazine covers, and a desire to re-create such luxury at a delicate 1:12 scale (1 inch to a foot, but she has houses on other scales, too).
A self-proclaimed jack of all trades, Crowley makes some of her own dollhouse furnishings. At 16, she created a four-poster bed, and she is equally handy with upholstery, porcelain, sculpture and needle arts. But although she broke out the kiln during COVID, she now commissions sofas, chairs, artworks, flower arrangements and decor from big names in the little-things community. She courts famed artisans who have lengthy waitlists, including a furniture maker who told her he wouldn’t reach the end of his waitlist in his lifetime.
Crowley actively seeks out new talent, too. “I told a friend, maybe I need to find someone in Siberia,” she says. Soon after, she found an artisan in Poland working on furnishings in a Barbie-doll-world’s scale. She reached out. “She said she’d always wanted to try dollhouse scale.” The artisan is now hand-carving a chair that replicates an antique one Crowley found in a Sotheby’s catalog.
Crowley is critical of her earliest vignettes, calling her first room box “clunky.” It appears polished and refined, as does her second effort, which contains a 150,000-stitch petit point rug that she spent three years making. Her most elegant early room was inspired by Elvis’ own designer, William R. Eubanks — whose elegant interiors she’d seen in issues of Southern Accents and Veranda magazines. It features Crowley’s own cast-bronze pieces and upholstery fabric created by her daughter, artist Caitlin Crowley.
Another room box houses a replica of an interior design by Mario Buatta, nicknamed “the Prince of Chintz” by Architectural Digest. And because there was no miniature scale chintz fabric, she created her own for the overstuffed chairs.
Among the items on display in Crowley’s collection room, originally a home office, are miniature porcelain pieces her grandmother gifted her: a little table and chairs, a pitcher and dishes, each painted with tiny flowers.
While studying journalism and English at the University of Texas at Austin, Crowley began publishing in magazines dedicated to miniatures, and her research drew her to the fine quality artisanal works she now collects. But as a perfectionist, she likes to focus on one thing at a time. Her pursuit of miniatures diminished during the years she raised her three children and wrote her first two books.
When the pandemic hit, little things mattered a lot as Crowley’s daily focus became fully furnishing the masterpiece Fish delivered two years ago.
“Elaborate” doesn’t begin to describe the 300-pound French chateau built in his New Braunfels workshop, driven to her door and carried, one level at a time, up the stairs. “It was years in the works,” she says. “The details became more fanciful and elaborate as we exchanged ideas and inspirations.” She laughs. “I believe it became his folly as he poured his heart and soul into its creation.”
The manor arrived fully finished out with hand-laid parquet floors, elaborate paneling and molding, fireplaces and bookshelves. Fish wired each of the four floors as he installed them, lighting the ground level country French kitchen and the library’s Swarovski crystal chandelier, sconces, niches and alcoves. There is a secret passage and — a special surprise for Crowley — each riser of a tucked-away staircase to the attic is hand-painted with the name of a French author sharing her first name.
Unable to attend shows, Crowley began to scroll social media and cultivate new relationships to engender shared info on interesting finds. It’s a competitive, if friendly, small world filled with the thrill of the hunt. She shops the way a broker works a buzzing stock exchange floor, and she’s keenly aware of what’s on the market in France, Italy and Japan.
An open-front collector’s cabinet, custom-built for miniatures not yet housed, is filled with shelves of tiny treasures arranged in museum-like displays that include antique ivory busts on pedestals, floral arrangements, a little bundle of asparagus she carved and painted, and elaborate French furniture. Some pieces are covetable antiques, others collectible reproductions. Every painting, from postage stamp- to credit card-size, is a genuine oil, created by painters such as Johannes Landman, the highly acclaimed miniaturist who works with a single-strand sable brush in the style of a Dutch master.
As she “walks” a visitor through her magnum opus, she opens hinged panels in a delightful, slow reveal of each room. Furnishing is still in progress, but she reels off the names of the creators of pieces already placed, including rare marquetry by Denis Hillman. “Two of his pieces sold at auction for $22,000,” she says. “But some of his works were somehow overlooked in an auction lot that I discovered. I had to buy the whole lot to get his French pieces, but it was a steal and quite the scoop.” Hand-painted wall panels are exact copies of works by Rubens.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the artisan names that Crowley drops. “I try to source from as many as I can; I like to spread the love around,” she says. Every little thing demands closer inspection, and an hour’s viewing is as pleasantly exhausting as spending a day in the Met in New York.
The house she calls Fish’s folly may be her own as well. “I want the house to be furnished as if it has been lived in for generations. Layers of antiques, but modern touches, too. That’s why I added a glam dressing room with Chanel bags.” The search for more is ongoing. “I get in bed and start looking on eBay on my phone.” When she turns out the lights, she says, she often mentally moves furniture in the rooms of her miniature kingdom. “Sometimes, after my husband is asleep, I’ll sneak out my phone for one last search.”