Ella Doyle, 13, loves elaborate dollhouses, with beautifully furnished rooms and tiny rugs and artwork. Not to play with — to create, display and sell.
The creative, entrepreneurial teen’s intricate miniatures have become a small business, Life in a Dollhouse, and have won her some high-profile fans, including Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper” fame.
Ella makes her creations in her family’s Mendota Heights basement, where she has a 3-D printer, a painting station with a sprayer and an inventory of tiny furniture pieces awaiting her customization.
“I love interior design — I hope to be an interior designer,” she said.
In her miniature designs, Ella likes “to see how detailed I can get,” and she gets extremely detailed, even putting postage-stamp-size photos of her family’s two cockapoos on tiny nightstands.
It all started with Tiny Kitchen videos, a series in which human hands prepare miniature meals in elaborate miniature kitchens. Ella got hooked on watching them, intrigued by the realistic detail of thimble-size sauce pans and inch-long mixing spoons.
“I decided to make some room boxes,” she said, starting with a kitchen. Then she decided to tackle an entire dollhouse.
She built the house with her grandfather — “from scratch, not a kit,” she said, using real home-construction techniques, including studs in the walls. “Every weekend I would go to Grandpa’s house and work on it. It took all summer.”
While she enjoyed construction, her favorite part turned out to be interior design — finishing the rooms with dot-size penny tile, matchstick-length wood floor boards stained just the right color, and rugs and wallpaper that she produces on her 3-D printer, then furnishing the rooms and accessorizing them with tiny plants and artwork.
She kept tweaking the design until it lived up to her vision, even redecorating much of the dollhouse after it was finished.
Along the way, Ella started an Instagram account, began selling some of her pieces on Etsy and eventually launched her own website. Her bestselling item is a tiny succulent pot for $6.50, she said; her lemon trees in porcelain pots, $25, also are popular with her customers. Her younger sisters, Audrey and Lillie, sometimes help her make the tiny clay lemons.
Ella also takes custom projects, such as a complete kitchen she’s making for one client that will go for $600, plus shipping.
Her parents, Katie and Sean Doyle, who build full-size houses through their firm, SD Custom Homes, have watched her passion and progress with amazement.
“We didn’t realize how big the world of miniatures is,” said Katie. “She’s always been super-creative. It started when she was really small. She was giving furniture pieces and plants to our interior designer. I’m shocked and so proud. You can see her progression.”
Ella started making her miniatures in a 5- by 5-foot basement room that she quickly outgrew. “She took this room by force,” said Sean of the family’s former playroom.
Her parents are now building a new house for the family, also in Mendota Heights, where Ella will have a studio. “She’s designing her own space,” said Sean.
“It’ll be nice to have more room,” said Ella. “My new room will be on the second floor but I might still call it the basement.”
If she ever has a brick-and-mortar store, she knows exactly what it will look like because she’s already created it — in miniature. Her Life in a Dollhouse storefront, a charming blue building with arched windows, also is on display in the basement. “If this was my real-life store, this is what I would want it to look like,” she said.
Her most ambitious project so far has been an exact miniature replica of Silos Baking Co., the bakery at Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Market complex in Waco, Texas.
“My favorite show of all time is ‘Fixer Upper,’ ” Ella said.
The family even took a trip to Waco to see the Gaineses’ empire in person.
“She loves Joanna. She did a sixth-grade biography project on her,” said Katie.
Once again, Grandpa stepped up to help Ella build the bakery structure, and Ella finished it in precise detail, including tiny clay baked goods and wooden coffee stirrers, cut, stained and laid in a herringbone pattern to exactly replicate the flooring at the real bakery.
She started tagging Joanna Gaines in her Instagram posts about the project, which Gaines then shared with her enormous fan following.
“I got a lot of followers from that,” said Ella, who recently reached 15,000 Instagram followers, a milestone celebrated with balloons in her basement studio. Gaines then asked for her address and sent her an autographed copy of her design book, “Homebody: A Guide to Creating Spaces You Never Want to Leave,” which Ella proudly displays next to her Silos replica.
Ella’s miniatures also caught the eye of a Dallas interior designer, Caitlin Wilson, who recruited Ella to design the kitchen for her designer dollhouse, part of a House Beautiful event in New York.
“It was her first business trip,” said Sean.
Ella balances her business with homework and her life as a student at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in West St. Paul. “We’re trying to help her manage being a 13-year-old girl,” said Sean.
Meanwhile, she’s still creating new miniature worlds. She recently found a miniature barn on Craigslist that she plans to turn into a quaint wedding barn, with a reception venue on the bottom and a bridal suite on top.
“I want to keep doing things nobody’s seen,” she said.