The Barbie Dreamhouse has always reflected the times – SURFACE

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A new book presents the ever-evolving Barbie Dreamhouse, which turns 60 this year, as a curious reflection of the architectural and cultural sensibilities of its time.

BY RYAN WADDOUPS

December 16, 2022

Barbie’s Magic Mansion, 1990. All photographs by Evelyn Pustka

Barbie is having a landmark year. Teasers for the highly anticipated Barbie film, directed by Greta Gerwig, is taking the internet by storm ahead of its July release. Barbiecore is constantly trending on TikTok. Millennial-friendly paint brand Backdrop recently launched a range of Dreamhouse-inspired shades ranging from “iconic Barbie pink to perfect purple and turquoise.” The Dreamhouse itself is celebrating its 60th anniversary and to mark the occasion, Mattel has partnered with Pin up magazine on a limited-edition art book that not only showcases the Dreamhouse as an ideal home for single, empowered women, but tracks the evolution of her design sensibilities over the years.

The 151-page tome, titled Barbie Dreamhouse: An Architectural Investigation, offers six examples of the doll’s ever-changing home as a product of its respective era, shaped by contemporary cultural and architectural forces. It all started in the early 1960s, a time when, Kim Culmone, senior vice president of design for Mattel, noted in an interview, women couldn’t even own their own homes or have their own bank accounts. “But this is Barbie: a single girl who owns her own house. She’s got her stereo, she’s got a closet, she’s got books, a picture of her boyfriend, she’s got multiple careers,” she says. “To me, that’s what the Barbie Dreamhouse is: a young woman living her own life, with her own job, doing her own thing.”

“Barbie Dreamhouse: An Architectural Investigation.”

The backdrop of Barbara Millicent Roberts doing her own thing has changed dramatically over time, keeping pace with changing design tastes. Historian Beatriz Colomina, who wrote the book’s introduction, argues that architects were obsessed with play at the time – take the Case Study Houses in Southern California, or the structures of Marcel Breuer and Gregory Ain in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art, which allowed visitors to walk around and let their ambitious fantasies run wild. Barbie’s notebook from the early ’60s reflected the edgy modernism of the time, with clean-lined furniture and a narrow single bed that, as the editors note, ensured that “Ken certainly wasn’t sleeping. ” Its fold-out cardboard construction is also reminiscent of the growing influence of television, particularly the strong female archetype of Lucille Ball in i love lucy.

Barbie quickly “moved on” in the ’70s, moving into a bohemian three-story townhouse decked out in psychedelic pinks, oranges and greens reminiscent of singles bars of the time. Later in the decade, the boisterous aesthetic died down in a suburban A-frame house whose earth tones signaled Barbie’s maturing tastes and environmentalism after the energy crisis. He certainly nodded to the popularity of the A-frame, thanks to progressive architects like Rudolph Schindler and John Campbell showing how pitched-roof structures can offer optimism and recreation, as well as Charles’ Sea Ranch Moore offering an atmosphere of play and ease. It even sports a loose sofa that is reminiscent of Michel Ducaroy’s Togo that defined the era.

Barbie’s dream house, 1979

(FROM LEFT) Barbie’s Dreamhouse, 1974. 1979.

Barbie’s dream house, 1962

The Dreamhouse went from practical to ambitious in the 1980s, culminating in the 1990 debut of the candy-pink Magical Mansion adorned with Doric columns and Palladian windows mirroring the McMansions taking over American suburbs. (Inside, the rose-patterned wallpaper is reminiscent of period floral romantics like Laura Ashley.) Though these mansions have grown in size, the 2000 dream home has a ringing bell. The Victorian mansion has largely eschewed the space-age blobby styles of the year 2000, although its castle-like construction reflects the palatial pastiche of the era promoted on MTV cribs, which debuted the same year. And unsurprisingly, the most recent edition is a “TikTok-ready tower” whose trendy touches (disco balls, a moving slide, a swinging lounge chair) allow Influencer Barbie to shoot hours of viral content.

“Yes, Barbie houses reflect the transition of architecture from modernism to postmodernism, well, everything that we call contemporary architecture these days,” said the architecture critic and Surface contributor Ian Volner writes in the book. “Their stylistic evolution is deeply rooted in other trends exogenous to design as such: television, film, fashion, and the unique way these and other media filter down to the junior set that fueled Barbiemania over the years.”

Barbie’s dream house, 2000

Barbie’s dream house, 2021

Although Dreamhouses wittily reflect their eras, Barbie has received a fair share of criticism over the years, especially for not promoting a realistic body image among young women. Culmone, who assumed his role at Mattel in 2013, has worked diligently to reverse this trend. Under his leadership, the line now includes 35 skin tones, 94 hairstyles and 9 body types, including those with access needs such as prosthetics. The 2020 dream house even has a wheelchair-friendly elevator. “We feel a huge responsibility to make sure all kids see themselves reflected in the brand,” she says. And while the book doesn’t delve too deeply into the inextricable risky politics of the Barbie name, it’s a thrilling tour de force that suggests the plastic doll has always been embedded in the cultural zeitgeist.

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