Small Minded : Creating miniatures of real and fantasy life is big business. And we're not just talking dollhouses here.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I knew I was out of control when I began to daydream about the toaster. It was an old-fashioned, shiny chrome model with inner coils that glowed a vibrant orange when it was plugged in. It was only $39, and it wouldn't take up much counter space since it was barely an inch high.

"Isn't this cute?" marveled Sue Garfield, owner of Petite Designs, a cozy dollhouse emporium in West Los Angeles that specializes in handcrafted miniatures. "I can't keep them in stock."

Fifteen years ago, when I was feverish about collecting miniatures, I would have purchased it on the spot. But my acquisitive lust had waned when I realized my dolls were living better than I was.

For years, I occasionally put together tiny rooms and homes for friends and nieces, but my own dollhouses remained static. And plug-and-glow toasterless. Then a couple of months ago, I noticed that my English Tudor was looking pretty shabby. The wallpaper had faded and the electrical system was problematic. Forced to don my peewee hard hat to make the necessary repairs, I discovered my once homespun hobby had dramatically changed.

For one thing, it's not so little anymore. Miniatures are now a $75-million-a-year business, according to the Miniature Industry Assn. of America. Nutshell News, the dollhouse publication of record, recently celebrated its 25th birthday and boasts almost 50,000 subscribers who pay $35 a year to read articles such as one on how to make a quarter-inch-to-the-foot-scale sofa.

Where once an enthusiast took pride in turning a metal bottle top into a dining room chair, it's now possible to purchase itty-bitty anythings: computers, fax machines, copiers, used bricks, stucco for teensy cottage cheese ceilings, even a staple-sized working X-Acto knife.

At Miniature Estates in Beverly Hills, Michael Lyttle, the appropriately named proprietor, has just received a shipment of homemade nano condoms, diaphragms, Tampax and birth control pills. To complete the theme, he offers a wee gynecologist's table, complete with rivet-sized stirrups.

While the bulk of the customers are adult women who want to re-create a house from their childhood or a fantasy of a house that they wish they could have, many are parents putting together a house for their kids.

Lyttle also sells his diminutive properties to movie companies (one director burned a $2,500 house as background for a dream sequence), to photographers and to child psychologists, who use dollhouses in therapy.

Prices have soared along with popularity. A parent wishing to give a child a furnished four-room dollhouse is looking at an investment of at least $350, said Petite Designs' Garfield, though the expense is spread out over time (no miniature mortgages are yet available).

"Figure $125 for a good-quality dollhouse kit," she said. "Then you can get a cheap and cheerful living room set for around $26, a bathroom for $21, the bedroom is probably around $30, and a three-piece kitchen, $42. Mind you, it's not going to look fabulous and it's not electrified."

It's the adults who become truly addicted, perhaps because miniatures offer a semblance of control that is missing from real life. Nothing bad ever happens in the dollhouse, and the people you meet through the hobby are remarkably friendly and not the least bit concerned with what you can do for them (unless you happen to be particularly gifted at dressing teensy Beidemier sleigh beds or painting itsy-bitsy trompe l'oeil ).

Miniatures provide a fantasy land where you can create any world you want. Hobbyists confined by unreal Los Angeles real estate prices to one-bedroom apartments can own a street of Georgian, Victorian, French Regency and antebellum properties. Prim homemakers oversee bordellos. One mini maven, perhaps a tad over-influenced by "The Diary of Anne Frank," has built a secret annex to her dollhouse to hide a Jewish family, complete with a miniature rabbi and a Passover Seder table.

For devotees unable or loath to spend countless hours painting, tiling, shingling and papering, Petite Designs and Miniature Estates offer complete contracting services (between $20 and $30 an hour, depending on the house). The most anyone has ever spent on the house and decorating at his store was $15,000, Lyttle said. "That included the house, decorated and wired inside and out, but not furniture."

In fixing up my dollhouse, I ran into an electrical problem. Lyttle, who had originally wired the house, spent hours on the phone, gravely talking me through a testing procedure. Finally, he suggested I call Jeffrey Jennings, a miniature electrician who makes house calls.

Jennings, an electrical subcontractor, charged $25 an hour and located the problem in 20 minutes. I'd cut a wire when I removed a cornice. He repaired the damage, put in a kitchen outlet (in case I bought the toaster), and recommended that I send my old light fixtures back to the manufacturer to be rewired with replaceable bulbs.

My heart wasn't in it. In the last decade, craftsmen have significantly refined their techniques. Remodeling a dollhouse, like remodeling a big house, is a sure-fire guarantee that none of your old stuff will ever look right again.

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The hands-down winner of the Magnificent Miniature Obsession Award goes to Carole Kaye, the curator of the luxe 14,000-square-foot Carole and Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures on Wilshire Boulevard across from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Kaye bought her first dollhouse 4 1/2 years ago to amuse her grandson. Today, her privately owned collection is on display in 198 spectacular exhibits guarded by five extra-large security guards in maroon livery.

Highlights include Alexander's Siege Tent. There is an astonishing replica of Fontainebleau with exquisite working crystal chandeliers and microscopic petit-point chairs, a wee violin workshop in a full scale violin and--in an over-the-top manifestation of the adage "the one who dies with the most toys wins"--a solid gold working train with a cargo of diamonds, rubies and sapphires.

On a mission to have miniatures recognized as an art form, Kaye trolls the world in search of tiny masterpieces such as artist Glenda Hooker's tiny version of the O.J. Simpson courtroom, with a thumb-sized Kato (renamed Satchmo after Nicole Brown Simpson's murder), the Akita, on the witness stand.

Kaye declined to say how much her collection is worth, other than "a lot." Pit Ginsburg, a member of the board of directors of the Miniature Industry Assn. of America, said, "It's got to be worth between $10 [million] and $15 million easily. The whole place is filled with what I call 'Pope pieces,' the sort of things you give Popes as gifts."

Kaye's latest acquisition, a dwarf Hampton Court with tapestries and topiary garden, arrived the day I was there. It was made by Kevin Mulvaney and Susan Rogers, the British artists responsible for Fontainebleau (coming soon, the Hermitage) and insured for $750,000.

I paid a brief visit to the adjacent Petite Elite Gift Shop, where prices range from $1.50 for a head of cabbage to $150,000 for a wondrous archetypal American diner made by Hank Kupjack. He is the son of the legendary Eugene Kupjack, who made many of the items in the Thorne Rooms on display at the Chicago Institute of Art (the mecca of miniatures before Kaye's involvement).

I left feeling kind of depressed. I was suffering from a dollhouse inferiority complex.

Then I brightened. Anything I bought for my dollhouse could now be rationalized as an art investment. I returned to Petite Designs and bought the toaster.

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