Barbie’s Dream House
Mar 28, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I’ve been in a mid-century mood as of late – you can blame it on the Wrights! This weekend I was happily pinning away all manner of fab vintage fashion when what should pop up on my Pinterest feed but Barbie’s Dream House, circa 1962. It looked like something sketched out in “Guide to Easier Living” and in that moment I realized I may be familiar with Barbie the gal, but I actually know very little about where she hangs her hat.
In most cases a home’s interior decor is the mark of the lady of the house, but in Barbie’s case it may be quite the opposite. In many ways the house has inspired the woman. You see, dear reader, before Barbie even existed her furniture had already been designed! To explain, let’s meet the woman behind the woman (so to speak) – Barbie’s inventor, Ruth Handler. Picture this: the year is 1938 and Ruth, with her high school sweetheart and now husband Elliot, had just moved from Denver to Los Angeles. To put ourselves in their shoes, here are the main headlines from their first year in the city of angels: Superman hit the newsstands for the first time, the War of the Worlds radio broadcast incited mass hysteria, and Adolf Hitler was named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year.”
Amongst all this hustle and bustle, Ruth and Elliot went into the furniture making business. Let me rephrase that – they went into the plastic furniture making business. Utilizing the new wonder materials of Plexiglass and Lucite, they set their sights on harnessing the cutting edge of technology. Ruth enthusiastically ran the sales division and, while she landed many major clients, things weren’t exactly taking off. Elliot and his new business partner (who went by the name Matt), decided to leave furniture behind and make picture frames instead. But this new manufacturing process left a lot of scraps in its wake. What better way to use them (and reconnect with their former business model) than to create dollhouse furniture? As we’ve seen time and time again, fate intervened and soon the demand for their unique dollhouse furniture overshadowed the need for their picture frames. The trio took this new success as a sign to enter the toy industry. Mattel was born (get it? Matt and Elliot!) and the world would never be the same…
Many toy designs quickly followed, but you couldn’t call any of them a true run-away hit. Undeterred, the group kept on sketching and manufacturing. Ruth, always the observant inventor, noticed her daughter playing with paper dolls as though they were miniature adults. This play-acting of the future inspired her to create a three dimensional doll that didn’t break or tear. Along with Jack Ryan (a former missile engineer), Barbie was created. Her design was inspired by a German doll named Bild Lilli and informed by the space-age plastic knowledge Ryan brought to the table. Barbie burst onto the scene in 1959 at the New York Toy Fair and, interestingly enough, she was not an immediate hit. But after a brilliant ad campaign, she soon became the toast of the town. Three years later her first home debuted to an eager crowd of girls, keen to give Barbie that perfect adult life. While Ruth is credited with designing the first Dream House, I think it’s interesting to note that her collaborator Jack Ryan had a keen architectural passion himself. Oh, to be a fly on the wall during their design sessions!
Over the years, Barbie’s Dream House continued to follow the trends of the day – from design to functionality. The first Dream House was lightweight (made of cardboard) and folded flat for transportable play. Remember those days when kids took their play outside? Barbie’s home reflected the furnishings, colors, and design elements found in real-life houses, adding a dose of reality vital for the specific type of play girls were enjoying. In recent years, even Barbie’s dwelling has not been immune to the “McMansion” trend, proving that she is ever on point when it comes to style. Looking back through the years it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I do have to say the original holds a special place in my heart – which vintage dream house is your favorite?