Like Russian Dolls, But for Apartments

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When interior designer Susannah Talley moved out of a 3,000-square-foot carriage house in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts, she downsized to a 475-square-foot studio on the Upper East Side — her “treehouse,” she calls it. That was 27 years ago. In 2008, downsizing took on a whole new meaning for Talley when she found an abandoned dollhouse on the street and decided to lovingly restore it back to life.

When she found the five-room dollhouse, it sparked an entirely new adventure in decorating. “Lovie! Look! I just found our second home!” she wrote in her 2015 self-published book, The Dollhouse: A Love Story. At the time her husband, Truman “Mac” Talley, was ill and confined to their apartment (he would pass away in 2013), and Talley was on the hunt for creative activities that they could share within their tiny treehouse kingdom.

Today, the living room of the Talley “treehouse,” seen above, evokes a cozy country home, filled with family portraits and comfy chairs surrounding the fireplace — which is actually a decorative piece that Talley designed around a flat-screen TV. The mixed “Tree of Life” patterned fabric on the armchairs is from Jofa, and the wall-to-wall carpeting is from Patterson, Flynn & Martin. Talley had lots of practical tips for living well in small spaces: “Floor-to-ceiling mirrored walls in key areas double the space,” she advises. Here, the wall on the right is mirrored. “Furniture that has the proper scale — do not use sectional seating as it tends to be oversized and a challenge for reading lamps,” Talley warns. She favors comfortable club chairs with well-placed reading lamps and movable ottomans rather than having sofas.

Talley has lived a life filled with many loves, many houses, and many children, and she knows a thing or two about creating beautiful, inviting rooms — as you can see here from the entrance to her studio. Photo: Susannah Talley
The day of my visit, I immediately thought how lovely it is to have a fire on a frosty afternoon. But a second take revealed that the fire was crackling on the flat-screen. The portrait above is “a family relic — unsigned, unfortunately,” Talley says. Photo: Wendy Goodman
When Talley was on a walk and found her abandoned dollhouse sitting on a heap of trash, she says its crayon scribbles and glitter and clumps of glue spoke to her. “My prayer for a creative project had been answered,” she wrote in her book. “Faster than one can grab a tape measure, I lifted the orphaned dollhouse down from the heap and, rescuing us both, hailed a cab to take us home.” Photo: Susannah Talley
Talley sanded the crayon and marker doodles away, drilled holes for lighting (Christmas-tree lighting worked best), and primed and painted the exterior a deep shade of eggplant so it would blend in with the apartment décor. She then got to work decorating the rooms. With Mac, seen in photographs in the living room, she had a home away from home. Photo: Susannah Talley
The Tiny Dollhouse Store on East 78th Street was Talley’s mecca; she found perfect pieces like “a two-inch dog bed, a thimble-size bunch of bananas, or a fist-size baby grand.” Photo: Susannah Talley
The dollhouse kitchen leaves nothing to the imagination; it was even furnished with teeny pots and pans, plates, cookbooks — and, of course, a great bottle of wine. Photo: Susannah Talley
“Polly, my treasure of a treasure-hunting sister, gave me a beautiful black-and-gold japanned bed with matching chairs,” she says. Talley put deep pewter-blue damask on the walls, and navy-blue felt was laid down for wall-to-wall carpeting in the boudoir. The bedspread was made from a purple cocktail coaster from India, and the bedside table is an upside-down beaded votive holder that’s “the perfect scale,” Talley writes in her book. The picture hanging on the wall is by Talley’s daughter, the Expressionist painter Isabelle Peabody. Photo: Susannah Talley
What would a home be without a beloved menagerie of four-legged friends? Photo: Susannah Talley
A Designer’s Beloved Dollhouse and 475-Square-Foot Studio