Barbara Millicent Roberts — or Barbie, as you may better know her — first arrived in Malibu in 1959 and has been at the center of many debates over social ideals ever since. Every inch of her plastic makeup has been scrutinized, but now a new book looks beyond the world’s most famous doll herself and delves deep into her surroundings.
“Barbie Dreamhouse: An Architectural Survey” provides an all-encompassing look at the sometimes fantastic, sometimes surprisingly ordinary homes that Mattel has released every year since 1962. Inside, six Dreamhouses are presented, alongside their associated furniture collections, in an attempt to draw parallels between the culture of the time and how it influenced the design of the spaces and objects. Commissioned by Mattel to mark Dreamhouse’s 60th anniversary, the 151-page publication is the brainchild of the team at PIN-UP Magazine: graphic designer Ben Ganz and editors Felix Burrichter and Whitney Mallett. “Both Felix and I grew up with Barbies,” says Mallett. “They brought Felix into interior design and brought me into storytelling – so playing with them was very impressive for both of us”. When it came to pitching an idea to Mattel, the couple’s background in architectural publishing offered a unique perspective that had yet to be applied to the doll’s famous abode.
“So much ink has been spilled to write about Barbie, but almost nothing has been written about the spaces she exists in or the things around her,” says Burrichter. “But I think all the things she surrounded herself with are always a direct reflection of the things that people want and inspire each to add in each era”.
“Barbie has been Instagram-ready from the start”
The book takes a look at six houses from the years 1962, 1974, 1979, 1990, 2000 and 2021. Apart from the words of Mallett and Burrichter, contributions are written by Kim Culmone, Mattel’s vice president of Barbie Design, and architectural historian Beatriz Colomina. Culmone, who has been with the company for more than 23 years and witnessed some of its most seismic shifts, delves into the creative process behind creating a Dreamhouse, while Colomina – a renowned professor at Princeton University – explores the correlation between the Dreamhouse and and the broader landscape of mid-century modern architecture, notions of play, home ownership, and the similarities between the first iteration and the Playboy penthouse. “The bachelor pad that Barbie’s 1962 Dreamhouse immediately reminded me of is the 1956 Playboy Penthouse Apartment,” she writes. “It is a representation of domestic life for an audience. That way, Barbie has been Instagram-ready ever since [then].”
Culmone’s contribution comes in the form of an interview with the book’s editors. The designer, who took her first steps in the industry through a degree in textile design, took a job at Mattell in 1998 and worked in the doll design department for ten years. Her favorite Dreamhouse is the 1979 A-frame model — “the original before it went pink in the ’80s,” she says. “I was obsessed as a kid and I think it still influences my personal taste today.”
At various points in the book, the cultural context in which the Dream House is introduced to the market is an important topic of discussion. Barbie came onto the scene herself in the late 1950s and had moved into her own single-family home by 1962 – a time when women in the US couldn’t even have their own bank account. “Barbie’s first Dreamhouse was a declaration of independence. Foldable, portable, and made entirely of cardboard, here was a vision of a bachelorette party for a liberated single woman — with plenty of books on the shelves, varsity pennants adorning the walls (evidence of a college degree), and no kitchen,” Mallett and Burrichter write.Inside, the furniture was a perfect reflection of the modernist styles popular at the time, emanating from Charles and Ray Eames, Herman Miller and Florence Knoll.
Then, in the 1970s, Barbie seems to set her sights higher – a few floors to be exact – by trading her “humble ranch house” for a ten-foot-tall mansion. Complete with six rooms, the color scheme was textbook of its time — pink, orange, and green plastics that Mallett and Burrichter say harken back to singles bars or the era. By the late 1970s, her style had progressed significantly again, and the A-frame house, which was becoming a popular style for middle-class homes in America, was the basis for its new form. “The form of Barbie’s sophisticated late-1970s playhouse also feels symbolic of a time when trailblazing postmodernists like Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown experimented with wild visual riffs on folksy housing typologies, transforming the forms of the past into a vision for the future,” said Mallett and Burrichter.
However, the real jewel of the 1979 Dreamhouse is the furniture. Individual pieces created for the book are made to look large enough for actual human use, and the shapes and colors resemble a piece plucked straight from a retro furniture enthusiast’s Instagram page. Space-age-looking shapes juxtapose with the distinctly suburban environment, their bright colors colliding with the subdued color palette. “Even Barbie’s furniture emphasized flow and fun, the lanky sofa and chair harmonizing with Michel Ducaroy’s time-defining Togo sofa,” the editors add.
“With so much focus on the experience economy, it’s no wonder the Dreamhouse remains the envy of toy stores”
The book’s back pages feature quotes from designers, architects, journalists, critics, educators, and curators. Many of them describe their first encounters with Barbie and her magnificent plastic house. One, architect and educator Oana Stănescu, has a memory of the 1990s Dreamhouse, which, in her words, was “big and pink.”
“A dream house is overwhelming as an idea,” she tells the editors. “That became clear to me during my first acquaintance with Barbie’s house, in the summer of 1990, when the borders were just opening, when we went abroad for the first time from Romania, my brother and I first let loose in a toy store , were allowed to choose one thing. After several grueling hours, the Barbie Dreamhouse was the winner. I remember it being big and pink, and I viscerally short-circuited from experience.
The book closes with houses from 2000 and 2021, which couldn’t be further apart in terms of style and inspiration. Given that the first was released around the turn of the century, it was openly “neo-medieval” in appearance, complete with turrets and old-world detailing. In 2021, the editors found that the transformative period Barbie had gone through – in terms of becoming more diverse and inclusive – was reflected in her environment. The house was less prescriptive to encourage imaginative play, but details influenced by social media trends had also been considered.
“With so much focus on fun, action and the experience economy, it’s no wonder the Dreamhouse remains the envy of the toy aisle,” conclude Mallett and Burrichter. “Barbie’s fun yet practical beachy-bohemian update captures the zeitgeist while continuing the legacy of playful modernity that has defined the Dreamhouse since 1962, proving that after 60 years, an interior landscape of possibility can be recreated forever.”
Barbie Dreamhouse: An Architectural Survey will be available for purchase from December 16 on the Mattel Creations website.