If you own a Department 56 Christmas village you might have pieces of Jeff Junkins’ work on your mantel or tabletop.
Junkins designed nearly 200 miniature buildings for the Eden Prairie-based producer of ceramic holiday collectibles.
“I have all my pieces,” he said of his work for Department 56, which includes buildings from the Original Snow Village and the “Christmas Story” movie village.
But that’s not all Junkins has.
In his Golden Valley basement, he’s created a one-of-a-kind winter wonderland village featuring intricately detailed replicas of iconic houses from some of his favorite movies
There’s the Bates Motel from “Psycho” with Norman Bates staring ominously from an upper window. Nearby is “Annie’s house” from “The Birds,” complete with a tiny Tippi Hedren look-alike. Perched on a “hill” is the dramatic modernist Vandamm House from “North by Northwest.” There’s even a steam-spouting train that chugs its way through the cinematic landscape.
Junkins started working on his village a few years ago. “It was my therapy after my dad died,” he said. “I was blue.”
His miniature houses are made of balsa wood and foam core, with handcrafted architectural details, such as gingerbread trim and hand-painted stone. Each structure takes him about 40 to 80 hours to complete, working in the evenings after his day job as a graphic designer.
“It’s hard for me to sit and just watch TV,” he said. “I have to be doing something.”
The village, which stays up year-round, is a popular part of the decor at the holiday party that Junkins and his husband, Mike Dillon, host most years.
“The party is the high point of the season for me,” said Junkins. “The bar is set up here, next to the village,” and he enjoys sharing his creations with party guests.
Junkins pours his creativity into his village. The houses nestle into a “landscape” base made of Styrofoam cut with a hot knife, painted to resemble terrain, then sprinkled with “snow.” Snow-dusted twigs and weeds become trees. It’s winter in the village because “winter is easier,” he said. “I’m an amateur at landscaping and snow is easier than grass.”
And besides, winter is the season of Christmas.
“I’m crazy about Christmas,” he said. “It’s my favorite time of the year.”
In addition to the village, Junkins and Dillon also decorate four Christmas trees. Most are traditional, with a mixture of blown-glass collectibles and family heirloom ornaments.
“The downstairs tree is more contemporary, midcentury,” he said, befitting their midcentury rambler. “That’s Mike’s tree.”
It started with a train
Junkins’ love of Christmas and fascination with creating tiny toy-sized structures began in childhood in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “My mother is a big Christmas nut. She let me decorate the tree when I was little,” he said.
When he was 7, his parents gave him a model train. “My train was a big part of my growing up,” he said. “I would tinker with little houses, and I started to make my own buildings as a way to save my allowance.”
Years later, as an adult, he was tinkering with little houses again, as a side business creating replicas of people’s homes. Minnesota Monthly magazine featured his work, which prompted a call from Department 56 and the opportunity to work as a contractor, dreaming up new buildings to be turned into ceramic village collectibles.
“I would design a house and make a little foam core study,” he said. It’s basically the same process he uses to create his own little houses for his basement village. “But these are clad in wood and more detailed,” he said.
His first houses were made from kits, but soon he was designing and building his own from scratch.
“I watch the movies over and over,” he said, studying the architectural details. “Sometimes you can find still shots online,” he noted. And sometimes, especially when the whole house isn’t visible in the movie, he improvises. “It’s fun to make it up,” he said.
He took some creative license when crafting one of his favorite houses, inspired by the tower-topped dwelling in the movie “Hocus Pocus.”
“You only see a little snippet of it in the movie,” he said. “It had an awful ’70s addition. I made it a little prettier.”
The grand Victorian mansion from “Meet Me in St. Louis” was the hardest one to replicate.
“There’s so much detail,” he said. He relied on a friend’s laser cutter to produce the tiny detailed rickrack trim. “I could never get that small with an X-Acto knife.”
Junkins has lots of plans for future pieces, including adding Mount Rushmore to the landscape near the “North by Northwest” house.
And there’s a Twin Cities landmark he’s eager to tackle.
“Next I want to do the Mary Tyler Moore house,” he said. “It’s such an iconic Minneapolis house. It will be a big challenge because of the turrets. I am so inspired to do more!”