The Giant Behind ELF Miniatures: Elizabeth LePla
by Christine Ferrara (Call of the Small)
Elizabeth LePla of ELF Miniatures has helped to transform the landscape of modern miniatures with her stylish and elegantly rendered creations. Since founding ELF in 1996, LePla has been recognized for high-quality custom pieces that bring their owners' dreams to life —be it a chic, functional kitchen, an iconic shelving unit or desk, or a lush bath—and is also considered one of the leading sources for miniature furnishings and accessories, available in her online store, www.elfminiatures.co.uk
ELF office furniture in 1/12th scale. Photo © Annina Diston
I've worked with LePla on a few different projects and have always marveled at her artistry and professionalism. In 2010, she loaned a range of kitchen and office pieces for my Kaleidoscope House display at Design Within Reach in Princeton, NJ, and also did some custom work for the miniature styling photo shoot I did for Ladies' Home Journal in 2011.
Above, ELF green kitchen and below, ELF dining table, in my Kaleidoscope House display at Design Within Reach, 2010. Photos © Christine Ferrara
Left: ELF desk in my Kaleidoscope House display at Design Within Reach, 2010. Right: ELF desk and shelving in my miniature styling shoot for Ladies' Home Journal, 2011. Photos © Christine Ferrara
I also asked LePla to recreate doors for my 1965 VERO house, with stunning results. My ELF wish list keeps growing – I'd love her to fabricate the missing front door of my 1963 Häfner and Krullman bungalow next!
VERO entrance missing front doors, and below, with the ELF-made replacement doors. Photos © Christine Ferrara
I had the opportunity to ask Le Pla how she got started in miniatures, and also get her perspectives on the doll house hobby, especially considering her role in championing and shaping the modern miniature aesthetic.
ELF acrylic vanity unit. Photo © Annina Diston
How and when did you get started making miniatures? What is your educational and professional background? And why the focus on modern?
I started quite by chance when my daughter (now 19) was about 3. Having always “made things” I embarked on a dollhouse for her. it was supposed to be a toy...but ended up rather grander than that! The style was the “usual” mix of Victorian, Georgian, but as I became more interested in making the furniture for my business rather than our dollhouse, I turned towards modern design, purely because that reflects my own personal taste. I can appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship in an antique, but I don’t want to live with it! I worked in the City of London for several years, then lived and worked in Italy, where I ran a jewelery business, designing and making many of my own pieces. After a couple of years as a bilingual PA in Italian back in London, I started ELF when my daughter was small.
ELF display unit with etched glass sliding panel. Shown with Minimodernistas pixel chair. Photo © Annina Diston
ELF 1:12 scale smoked "glass" table with Eames chairs by Reac, and in the corner, an ELF mirror-backed unit in white. Photo © Annina Diston
Could you describe your working method? Where do you seek inspiration for your pieces?
Inspiration comes from the pieces I see around me in public spaces, in showrooms and specialist magazines. Sometimes the materials themselves suggest the form a piece might take. When creating a bespoke kitchen for example, I go through a design process very similar to that of a full-sized designer, taking into account the space available, and the taste and wishes of the individual client. A dialogue usually evolves and the design develops until we reach something that is totally unique and purpose built for the owner (or inhabitant!) of the house.
ELF art deco kitchen designed and built for Jazz. Photo © Jazz
ELF modern country style kitchen created for Jazz. Photo © Jazz
Detail of kitchen built by Marilyn Ormson from an ELF EAZY kit. Photo © Marilyn Ormson
How do you produce so many high quality items? Are there a team of elves at ELF who make it all happen? What is your workspace like?
I work in a very small workshop – it’s only about 7 ft by 8 ft and has patio doors and two other doors in it, so not a lot of wall space! It’s currently VERY untidy ... so not exactly photogenic.
Regrettably there is no team of elves helping me! However, two years ago my sister joined me in the business, and she now deals with all the “routine” orders (the “off-the-shelf” items that we stock), the stock control, and all the admin work. With her help I can now concentrate purely on the design and production side of things – though there are times when a band of willing helpers would be more than welcome!
1:12 scale media unit, made from the ELF EAZY LIVING range of modular kits, with an ELF designer rug, compact sofa and matching coffee table. Photo © Elizabeth LePla of ELF
ELF Oriental bed, chest and sideboard. Photo © Annina Diston
How has business changed for you since you started? Do you find that there is more of a demand now than there was when you started? Also, do you see different demands for scales since you started?
I think that there has been a swing towards modern design since I first started working in the field. I was one of the first makers to concentrate solely on high-quality modern furniture, producing a wide range of furniture for the whole house (until then, “modern” was synonymous with chunky “play” furniture for small children). I quickly started to specialize in fitted kitchens, due to constant requests from people I met at shows, and I now produce several different ranges of kitchen units, both bespoke and in kit form. I work largely in 1:12 scale, though there is a growing demand for both 1:24 and 1:16 scale, and I do also work in 1:6 or playscale.
ELF 1:24 scale bathroom pieces shown in an ELF 1:12 scale bathroom. Photo © Elizabeth LePla of ELF
ELF 1:24 scale kitchen in black gloss and real ebony, with a raised glass shelf. In the background an Aga range. Photo © Elizabeth LePla of ELF
In my experience too, I find that there is also an increasing number of people who don’t have (nor do they want) a dollhouse, but who are passionate about modern design, and photography, and for them the aim is to create a “set” or diorama, photograph it so that it becomes indistinguishable from the “real” thing, and then to dismantle everything and start over.
ELF narrow display unit with 12V lighting, shown with red Eames rocking chair by Reac. Photo © Annina Diston
How often do you participate in shows? Are they worth the investment of time and money? How do you promote your work?
We do about four shows a year in the UK. It is an invaluable time for meeting clients, giving them the opportunity to see my work up close. Often people will have read about my work, but then choose to come and see it in person first and discuss the possibilities, before making the final decision. However, we have an extensive website which is the main way people get to know my work and with a world-wide clientele, many of whom blog (in various languages) or talk about my work on different dollhouse and miniatures forums, new clients are constantly discovering ELF. My clients therefore are my best promoters! In addition my work has featured in specialist publications in several countries and I have been the subject of filmed interviews and a documentary produced by the organizer of the London Dolls House Festival, the UK’s premier miniatures event.
1:12 scale writing desk made as a special commission. Walnut with an aluminium base and white writing surface. Photo © Elizabeth LePla of ELF
ELF commercial-style bottle chiller made as a special commission for a customer's modern miniature pub setting. Photo © Elizabeth LePla of ELF
How many custom pieces do you do in a year? Any really memorable ones?
It’s very difficult to quantify the number of pieces I do in a year – I don’t have time to stop and count! In addition to kitchens and bathrooms, each of which is very different (even when for example the colour scheme may be the same) I make such a wide range of pieces from commercial appliances to contemporary media units, that it would be hard to pick a favourite, but I enjoy the challenge of something really unusual. I was recently approached to design the kitchen for a house converted from a church, with no available wall space (the walls consisting largely of huge stained glass windows) and my new range of steel appliances for commercial kitchens also followed a special request from a client.
ELF single commercial fridge. Photo © Elizabeth LePla of ELF
Is there anything you *won't* do -- scale, style, or otherwise?
The one thing I don’t make is chairs. I carved by hand a set of Georgian style dining chairs for my daughter’s dollhouse when I first started out, but soon decided it was something I would leave to the experts. I don’t work in any scale smaller than 1:24 because without laser cutting it is almost impossible to create the detail that I feel is required – and I don’t have the space (or the funds!) for a laser cutter.
ELF lighting shop. Photo © Elizabeth LePla of ELF
ELF jacuzzi in wenge. Photo © Elizabeth LePla of ELF
How would you describe the state of the dolls house hobby? And where does modern fit into it?
The dolls house hobby seems to me to be thriving, and modern design is becoming more important within the field as time goes by, partly because it enables people to create fantasy worlds that reflect the kind of lifestyle to which many of us aspire (if only we had the wherewithal!). I think people sometimes forget too that the antique dolls houses we admire in museums were, at the time of their construction, reflecting life as it was then, and if we recreate only images of the past, where will the record be of life as WE live it? However, the desire to interpret 21st century design is also fired by an ever-increasing supply of high-quality furniture and accessories that make it possible to create something beautiful and lasting. I have clients who have been inspired by my work to see that “modern” can be exciting and that the contemporary dollhouse can be just as beautiful as its predecessor.
Detail of an ELF kitchen with panels in Australian silky oak. The carousel revolves (each tray independently) and the chopping board can be removed and used elsewhere. Deep drawers offer accessible storage, and two tiers of lift-up units complete the layout. Photo © Elizabeth LePla of ELF
An ELF tiled bathroom, with sunken bath, recessed shelf with tealights and a Crabtree and Evelyn La Source pamper kit. Photo © Elizabeth LePla of ELF