Standing in front of a perfectly pink diorama of her Dreamhouse one recent afternoon, Barbie, dressed in a checkered pink and white dress and donning white jewelry, waits to welcome visitors to her palace.
The two-story structure, inspired by the Dreamhouse featured in the upcoming “Barbie” film, has Palm Springs vibes all over it, with a pool, pink flamingo floatie and mid-century modern design elements prominently featured. Those who know the city’s architecture will see hints of Richard Neutra’s 1946 Kaufmann House and “That Pink Door” on display. Palm Desert resident Lisa Vossler Smith created the diorama over the course of three days.
In another corner is the Grande Dame of this mini Palm Springs world: Mrs. Silkstone. This vintage blonde Barbie, a character created by Vossler Smith, has a penchant for Chanel clothes and accessories, as well as drama. Whether it’s Ken surprising everyone by bringing supermodel Heidi Klum to a party, Mrs. Silkstone’s own mother stealing her cosmetics or it being too hot to lounge by the pool, there’s nothing this doll hasn’t experienced. Nearly 4,000 followers get a front–row seat to all the action on Vossler Smith’s Instagram account, Tiny Palm Springs.
Life in plastic has always been fantastic for Barbie, the iconic doll who has pursued a multitude of careers and lifestyles over the decades. But Vossler Smith, like Oscar-nominated director Greta Gerwig in her latest film, is giving Barbie and all her friends a new desert story to live out.
Tiny Palm Springs showcases the smallest of the city’s residents, as well as the best of its architecture, thanks to Vossler Smith’s role as CEO of Modernism Week. While the annual architectural event gives attendees a chance to step back in time in some of the region’s most cherished homes, she gets to do the same with her dolls. She’s taken photos of an Elvis doll in front of his and Priscilla Presley’s honeymoon hideaway, and even had a photoshoot with Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe miniatures in the singer’s Twin Palms estate.
Other times, the “soap opera” stories she crafts consist of her “cast” telling stories about Palm Springs and happenings around town. Her dolls talk about mid-century modern design, and they’ve even been to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Vossler Smith, 53, lights up like a child on Christmas morning when she’s showcasing her collection, pointing out her favorite vintage doll in a hot-pink gown, almost as if she’s back to when she first saw it in its box.
“Play is healthy and good for us. It certainly keeps me from feeling like I have to be serious all the time,” she said. “The world is serious enough.”
A little girl’s imagination goes a long way
The Palm Desert resident was a Barbie fan when she was a little girl. As an only child, she had hours on hand to “create wonderlands” with her dolls, who she described as “very glamourous.” They had boyfriends, convertibles and phones and went out to the disco whenever they could.
“It was such a wonderful, healthy aspect of play, and I really believe it was very therapeutic to me as a child,” Vossler Smith said. Her favorites were the Malibu and Superstar series, which she received when she was around 10. “I grew up originally in Oklahoma City, and I moved here when I was 10. These Barbies were tan and blonde and beautiful, and they looked like California to me.”
But as every child does one day, she put her dolls away and forgot about them for decades. It wasn’t until a friend gifted her one about 10 years ago, and later Vossler Smith’s mother-in-law started sewing clothes for the doll, that her interest was piqued again.
She initially started collecting dolls and accessories that she always wanted, like a No. 3 Barbie in a black and white bathing suit, a cruise ship and vintage fashions from the 1960s and 1970s.
“Once I discovered that every Barbie I ever wanted as a child is available on reselling sites like eBay, I sort of lost my mind,” she said with a laugh. Her mother even saved all of her dolls from childhood, which brought back so many positive memories. Vossler Smith said she has more than 200 dolls at this point, with several lined on shelves or in their original packaging.
Eventually, she started photographing the dolls out and about in Palm Springs. But when she got her hands on a Don Draper collector doll from the 1960s-set series “Mad Men,” “this sort of mid-century period storyline kind of evolved,” she said. Thus, Tiny Palm Springs was born.
At first, it was short stories, but the tales of Mrs. Silkstone (her name comes from the Silkstone material some Barbie dolls were made of) and her rambunctious family have morphed into a long-running series over the years.
“Just like a child plays in their head, I was developing stories and relationships between the dolls,” Vossler Smith explained.
Her family has also been supportive with her projects. Her husband, artist Phillip K. Smith III, helps make backgrounds and furniture pieces, and his aunt gifted Vossler Smith with a vintage Barbie and Ken collection.
On social media, she discovered the “Miniverse,” an online community where collectors around the world showcase their Barbies and Kens. That was the “most surprising” aspect of her hobby, Vossler Smith said, adding that she didn’t realize how many other adults were making clothes and accessories, creating dioramas and photographing their dolls.
“We became friends and a community truly developed. I have people that I talk with from all over the world,” Vossler Smith said.
She’s met several other middle-aged men and women who have a nostalgia for their childhood, and others who weren’t allowed to play with Barbies and “were deprived of the toy they really wanted.” But now as adults, they can have all the Barbies and Kens they want and live out whatever stories they have. Her creative outlet also showed her how important it is for adults to find hobbies that they love and that fulfill their lives, and it became a lifesaver for her during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vossler Smith has even met up with friends at regional doll shows. The 2024 National Barbie Doll Collectors Convention will be held July 30 through Aug. 3, 2024, at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Desert. Vossler Smith will obviously be in attendance and is “looking forward to being part of the host committee.”
Vossler Smith and other Barbie collectors have been on a mission to “turn Instagram pink” for the month of July to celebrate the “Barbie” movie. Once photos of the film’s Barbie Dreamhouse hit the internet, the Palm Desert resident got to work on her own diorama of it.
Much like how the film’s production led to an international pink paint supply shortage for one company, Vossler Smith said it became a challenge to find bubblegum pink scrapbook paper and craft paints in stores. Once she did, she created rock walls in various shades of the color and built the exterior to the Dreamhouse. She has even colored well-known Silkstone Estate scenery pink with new walls and furniture. She has crafted up five different rooms that will be showcased the rest of the month on Tiny Palm Springs, including a chic poolside environment, living room parlor and a bedroom with a hot pink peacock bed.
A little Palm Springs in Barbie Land
As much as Vossler Smith’s Barbies get to live a perfectly chic Palm Springs life, the dolls in Gerwig’s film also get to experience the magic of the mid-century modern city.
The Barbie Dreamhouse gets much of its inspiration from the Kaufmann House, production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer shared in a recent Architectural Digest interview.
The iconic desert house was designed by modernist architect Neutra and built in 1946 for Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann. Key features of the home — such as its post and beam architecture, rock wall and flat roof — are notable aspects of the film’s Dreamhouse set, Vossler Smith said.
Perhaps what made the Kaufmann House the perfect candidate for the film’s set is Slim Aarons’ iconic 1970 “Poolside Gossip” photo. The photographer captured a sophisticated gathering at the home with a glamourous Nelda Linsk dressed in yellow and Helen Dzo Dzo Kaptur in a white-lace ensemble. The women look like “living dolls,” Vossler Smith said, and ready to join Barbie’s giant blowout party in the film.
In “Barbie,” the titular character, played by Margot Robbie, as well as Issa Rae, Emma Mackey, Hari Nef and Alexandra Shipp, all live next door to each other. Their homes have no walls or doors, similar to the toy houses kids would play with, and also feature other mid-century modern design elements, like breeze blocks, retro furniture, and, of course, pools (although there’s no water in Barbie Land).
The Palm Springs influences don’t end there. The cul-de-sac where all the Barbies live in is very reminiscent of the Canyon View Estates community in south Palm Springs, which was prominently featured in Olivia Wilde’s thriller “Don’t Worry Darling.” A painted backdrop also shows the San Jacinto Mountains, and Vossler Smith said the palm trees remind her of Coachella Valley date palms.
“They really mimicked the paradise that we all know and love and call home as the perfect dream Barbie Land,” Vossler Smith said. “It not only so enhances our destination brand as a fantasy location, but I think it also (shows) how mid-century modern design and architecture is such iconic style. It’s timeless.”
The film’s plot has been kept tightly under wraps, but trailers reveal that life in Barbie Land is bright, fun and perfectly pink for all the Barbies and Kens. But when Robbie’s Barbie starts to think about “real world” things, like death and flat feet, she has an opportunity to go to the land we call home and discover the joys and perils of living among humans. The film also stars Ryan Gosling as Ken.
Vossler Smith purchased a ticket for a Thursday night showing and said she was “excited to see what they do” with all that Barbie represents.
“I am not a plastic personality. If anything, I’m more like the Kate McKinnon doll that wears Birkenstocks. But yet she’s always resonated with me and she’s a fantasy, because life can be fantastic in plastic for her,” Vossler Smith said. “I think that’s what it’s going to be a play on. Life isn’t always perfect for her, and so she struggles with the real world and Barbie Land.”
Ema Sasic covers entertainment and health in the Coachella Valley. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @ema_sasic.