November 26, 2022

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Elegant home interior

The Barbie Dreamhouse Is an Accidental Funhouse Museum of American Design

“All six rooms have a modern look,” purrs the voiceover from this 1979 commercial for the vividly decade-specific Barbie Townhouse, as a small hand places Barbie in a bedroom sporting hectic floral wallpaper and a lamp with a fringed shade. “You can help Barbie arrange the living room!” the same voice continues, moving the doll so she’s in front of a white brick fireplace, a white sofa, and a plush white rug. There are ferns everywhere you look—true to form, this iteration of one of Barbie’s many homes had all the latest and greatest touches of the era.

Mattel introduced Barbie in 1959, and in the 63 years since, they’ve produced an absolutely staggering number of dolls, outfits, and accessories, showing careful attention to whatever was happening in the culture at the time. Barbie has been everything from a 1950s “teenaged fashion model,” to a power suit-clad 1980s businesswoman, to a 2020s barista. Accessories have run the gamut: a 1965 scale set permanently to 110 pounds; chunky late 1980s home electronics; a tiny purple facemask.

One result of that deep dedication to the ebbs and flows of consumer culture is that Mattel has managed to accidentally create a funhouse museum of American design, tracking trends and technologies as they filtered into—and out of—American homes. “Barbie has always reflected the culture,” explains toy expert Chris Byrne. “That’s why a Barbie in 2022 really looks nothing like a Barbie in 1950, because Barbie’s always reflected the world that kids see around them. And it’s always been somewhat aspirational, as well.”

A 1960s version of the Barbie Dream House.

Barbie has amassed a stunning real estate portfolio over the years—townhouses, mansions, beach houses, country cottages—but the original was the surprisingly humble Dream House. Introduced 60 years ago, in 1962, it looked nothing like today’s elevator-sporting models. Perhaps the most striking thing to a child of the early ’90s era is the degree to which Barbie’s original home isn’t aggressively pink. In fact, it looks distinctly midcentury modern. Designed to fold up into a carrying case, it’s got the clean lines and the color palette of the era, with eye-searingly yellow walls and wood veneer throughout. 

“With a little imagination, one could discern the influence of Art & Architecture Case Study Houses—bold, modernist designs from the likes of Pierre Koenig, Craig Ellwood, Charles and Ray Eames—that sprang up in California from 1945 until the early sixties,” wrote MG Lord in her book Forever Barbie. And, as a matter of fact, in 2011, LACMA included the original Dream House in the exhibition “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way.” An accompanying essay by the curators noted how Barbie as a whole “allowed young girls to act out their own dreams of a California future. Naturally, this fantasy included a comfortable but modern ‘Dream House’—a cardboard ranch complete with an Architectural Pottery–like planter and Scandinavian-inspired furnishings.”

It’s a weird jumble of what people wanted, what people actually had, and what people were supposed to want, all of it filtered through children’s great love of everything over-the-top.

But it’s not an architectural showpiece sitting high in the Hollywood Hills, either. It’s a modestly sized place with state school pennants on the walls. “It isn’t Philip Johnson’s glass house,” points out antiques appraiser Dr. Lori Verderame. “This is what a normal neighborhood would look like, and this could be your house and Barbie happens to be your neighbor.”

It got bigger fast, though. The 1964 Dream House is less modest, more in-your-face midcentury prosperity, and it’s stuffed with up-to-the-minute design decisions. There’s a pass-through window from the kitchen—which is pink with pinky-orange appliances—to the living room, which boasts a big brick accent wall. Her pink closet has scalloping along the top.

Lord—who sums up the style as “Levittown rococo”—consulted architectural critic Aaron Betsky to parse the influences at work: 

 “‘Well, there’s a brick wall that’s right out of late Frank Lloyd Wright thirties school,’ he said, squinting at the Mattel catalog. ‘Then there’s this slightly Beidermeyer sofa and chair set, next to the television. And over there, next to the modern kitchen, these fake sort of Scandinavian arts and crafts chairs that have suddenly become bar stools.’”  

It’s less pure stylish California modernism, maybe, but it’s a very prosperous 1960s Sunbelt, like the sort of now-dated ranch houses that Chip and Joanna Gaines might show clients on Fixer Upper. The outside featured a red-brick patio with a built-in barbecue, floor-to-ceiling arched windows looking out on it from the living room. “There’s even a sliding door that really opens!” boasted a commercial for the model. (But for how long, and with how much frustration, wonders the skeptical parent.)

A detail of Barbie’s 1974 Townhouse, which was highly patterned alá the period.

It’s hard to imagine a better time capsule of the chaotic aesthetics of the 1970s than Barbie’s Townhouses through the decade. Any sleek modernist lines are gone, in favor of an absolutely unhinged layering of styles, patterns, and colors typical of the decade. These had printed-on backdrops for each of the rooms, and that’s where you can really see the fashions changing. There were several kitchens in various slightly tweaked versions across the decade: yellow appliances with wood veneer cabinets and white stone floor; white lower cabinets and green upper, with orange-red walls and countertops against a neural tile floor; goldenrod yellow cabinets with an earth-tone floor.  

A 1979 Dream House in the iconic A-Frame shape.

Perhaps the single most iconic Barbie home, one beloved by collectors, represented a dramatic new look: the A-Frame. Introduced in 1978, it testifies to the peak of the shape’s popularity in American architecture. (Fisher Price manufactured a similar model from 1974 to 1976.) The shape, with its distinctive peaked roof, was first associated with woodland vacation homes in the boomtimes of the midcentury, but that silhouette had insinuated itself deep into the suburbs by the close of the decade. Barbie’s Dream House is less Vermont than it is southern California, white and yellow with an orange roof, planters and indoor-outdoor space everywhere.  

But trends kept moving and Mattel adjusted accordingly. The ’80s went glam, befitting the Dynasty era. The Townhouse got an entryway with a black-and-white checkered marble floor and a sweeping staircase straight out of a primetime soap. By 1990, she lived in the “Magical Mansion,” reminiscent of nothing so much as the achingly tasteful colonial from the 1991 Father of the Bride remake, written by Nancy Meyers, patron saint of the tasteful and expensive kitchen. But not for long: “Victorian Revival linked to ’90s gloom,” declared Newsday in 1993. “Victorian rooms, painted in dark colors, stuffed with knickknacks, peer out of magazine ads everywhere you turn. Often engulfing a central, four-poster bed, they are velvety, mysterious, ultrafeminine.” Sure enough, the 1995 Dream House had decorative stained glass windows, gingerbread trim, and—of course—a turret. But it was also equipped with another latest-and-greatest feature of the era, a fold-out jacuzzi tub (in bright blue).  

The back view of 1990 Barbie’s Magical Mansion, which features patterns and influences from decades prior.

Of course, there’d be little point to these houses without furniture. And that was, if anything, even more trend conscious than the houses themselves. “A lot of the puff and play furniture from the ’70s,” Dr. Lori Verderame explains, “a lot of that was patterned after the dresses of Jackie Kennedy, the Marimekko dresses from Scandinavia.” Other furniture looks like Eames, or Herman Miller—”There is a Barbie executive chair that is the Herman Miller executive chair that everyone had.” You could upgrade your 1978 A-Frame with an orange-and-yellow combination stove and microwave, or a pink vanity and stool with art deco revival lines. Barbie embraced white wicker when it was in vogue, and then the over-the-top lacy plush look of the late 1980s with her “Sweet Roses” collection

Many of these houses are full of excess—but they’re not off in the stratosphere, either. In Forever Barbie, Lord compares the plastic doll to the “almost intimidatingly tasteful” first generation of American Girl dolls, with their gorgeous accessories. Felicity’s stunning Early American pieces and Kirsten’s gorgeous hand-painted folk art trunk wouldn’t be out of place in an early 1990s magazine spread about a WASPy executive’s home in the most bucolic parts of Connecticut. Despite Barbie’s dedication to trends in design and consumer culture generally, she never went repressively tasteful.  

And while the A-Frame Dream House was presented as a lavish blockbuster Christmas gift in a commercial from the early 1980s, these don’t seem like the richest people in town: “Even the windows work!” exclaims Grandma. “That’s more than you can say for ours,” the proud Dad remarks ruefully. Dr. Verderame points out that the pool sold separately to accompany the Dream House during the economically miserable late 1970s isn’t the in-ground pool that Barbie would have had, if she’d been fabulously wealthy—it was quite obviously an above-ground pool with decking around it as a sort of disguise, the type of pool that was much more attainable. “A lot of people did that in the late ’70s and ’80s because, well, you wanted a pool but you couldn’t really dig into the ground and do all this excavating—it was too much money,” she says.  

Unfolding over the decades and within every particular dwelling, Barbie’s style is a chaotic mishmash. That’s what makes it so interesting—because it’s a weird jumble of what people wanted, what people actually had, and what people were supposed to want, all of it filtered through children’s great love of everything over-the-top.

“Barbie stays relevant by reflecting the sensibilities of contemporary children,” Bryne explains. “If you gave a child the Barbie with the cat eyes and the black-and-white striped bathing suit that she had in 1959, it wouldn’t really make any sense to them. It’s not a design language that they can relate to.” As a consequence, Barbie’s many, many residences have traced design history as actually lived by Americans, tracking what was chic at the time, what Americans actually had—and what they really wanted. (Giant bathtubs. They wanted giant bathtubs, at least until fairly recently.)  

The most recent iteration of the Barbie Dreamhouse.

Over the years, Barbie’s homes have gotten a little less aggressively trend conscious—the Dreamhouse today (now styled as one word) is less concerned with the “modern look” and more about providing a giant pink clubhouse for Barbie and her sprawling, diverse friend group. If anything, they’ve gone a little nostalgic: in the Netflix series, Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures, which ran from 2018 to 2020, there’s that much-beloved A-frame roofline right there in the credits. The interior is a mix of the pink-and-purple Barbie palette and clean California lines. The iconic elevator is now wheelchair accessible

But despite the style’s near-total takeover of American design in recent years, Barbie’s never embraced the Modern Farmhouse aesthetic, for instance. Despite more time than I’d like to admit spent pouring over product images for this piece, I’ve never spotted any shiplap, and it’s impossible to imagine Barbie in a house with completely whitewashed walls and old-timey brass light fixtures. She shows no signs of reviving the Country Living Cottage, either, despite the continued popularity of Cottagecore. (Though Mattel did get the team from The Home Edit to imagine their own version of the Dreamhouse.)

Instead, after Dreamhouse sales skyrocketed during the locked-down first year of COVID-19, Barbie became a part of what’s following hard on the post-pandemic heels of Modern Farmhouse. As maximalism creeps back, one of the forms it’s taking is what many outlets have dubbed “Barbiecore.” Emerging as a clothing trend roughly the same time as leaked set photos from Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie movie—part organic reaction to a decade-long tendency to minimalism, as well as a tumultuous and traumatic two years, part Mattel once again catching the zeitgeist and an anniversary just right and riding that wave—it’s now spread to home interiors.

The look is shamelessly pink and cheerfully over-the-top, right down to the Barbie™ Dreamhouse™-branded paint you can purchase. Need a sofa? That’s available, too. The doll who’s lived a thousand lives and a thousand careers is taking on the form of an interior designer and, through her influence on the children of the 1980s and ’90s and even the early 2000s, doing what no one thought could be done: helping shove the whitewashed shiplap into the dustbin of design history.

Top image of Barbie’s 1996 home, courtesy of Mattel Inc.

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