When Mark Lusink first started his career in engineering, it wasn’t long until he was building nuclear submarines. Now, he’s building something he said is much more complex: Dollhouses.
These aren’t the Barbie Dreamhouses you might have played with when you were young. These dollhouses are treated like and decorated like a house you’d buy in a nice neighborhood in town. They don’t come out of a mold and have only a passing familiarity with the word “plastic.”
And there’s a reason for that — these dollhouses can sell for $40,000 or even $100,000.
“Well, I enjoy making things,” said Lusink, standing in his Lula basement surrounded by houses he designed and built. “And knowing we were going to retire at some point, I wanted to have something to do when I retired. I didn't quite realize I was going to be involved as much as I am.”
But he’s about as involved as he can get. He has a CNC router in his basement that cuts the large sheets of Baltic birch plywood to make the sides and walls and roofs of the houses. And on the other side of the shop sits a laser engraver that cuts intricate designs for the doors, windows and smaller touches for the houses.
He’s made a full business out of it, selling houses and parts online with his wife, Chris. And keeping up with the business takes a lot of work — none more so than designing the homes themselves, which require as much care and precision as actual homes.
“It takes more time to design it and put it in the computer than it does to cut it and build it,” Mark said. “Everything's got to be exact. A small change on the bottom makes a huge change on the top.”
One of those houses he designed and built is called “the Palace.” It’s a European-style, grandiose dollhouse with stairs and columns in the front. There’s a chandelier hanging in the foyer and a harp in the music room. There’s a lady’s bedroom and a gentleman’s bedroom along with a couple sitting rooms, a nursery, dining room, servant’s quarters, wine cellar, butler’s pantry and music room. Then there’s Chris’ favorite room — the kitchen.
It’s outfitted with everything you’d see in your own kitchen if you owned a mansion: hearth, stove, pantry, cabinets, a table (dressed, of course) and chairs. The room itself, like much of the house, is wallpapered.
“It's an addiction,” Chris said. “And the thing that's so neat is you can put things in it that you might not put in your own home.”
She has about $300,000 worth of furniture, decorations and people in curio cabinets in her basement that she’s collected from miniature shops over the years. It’s taken about 25 years to get it all but everything has its place and is special in some way.
“What I've noticed over the years, it's really got to be special for me to buy it now,” Chris said. “Because I have so much.”
Even with so much and numerous dollhouses completely decked out, Chris remembers the beginning of it all. She bought a dollhouse kit from the store, then started buying up furniture from stores she found while traveling for work and got hooked.
One of the stores she frequents is Miniature Designs in Lawrenceville. Chris has been going there for years and it’s where Mark sells many of his dollhouses.
“Mark has incredible designs,” said Beverly Simon, who co-owns the store with her husband, Ken. “He’s a very, very talented man.”
She said the Lusinks sell some of those windows, doors, railings and trim to the store, too.
“Typically, someone in the dollhouse industry that sells houses, they sell houses that they can build and turn,” Beverly said. “But Mark builds dollhouses that are unique. The furniture will actually be workable in the room and they're unusual designs. So they have more curves, more angles, more intricate trim than the ordinary dollhouse companies that sell them.”
After a while of shopping around at stores like Miniature Designs, Chris saw a dollhouse in a magazine and told her husband she wanted it. That was before he had all his fancy equipment, so he went to the basement and got to work designing and building it by hand.
He said “it was much slower” than it is now, but he got it done.
“It’s better than the magazine,” Mark said.
That house still sits in the basement, across the room from The Palace. Though it’s not as ornate with a $300 oil painting inside and beds that were dressed for $200 a piece, it’s just as grand and special to the Lusinks.
The hobby is special to a lot of people, too. Chris said most of her customers who buy from her website are at least 40 years old. But it’s a community she said is still very active and popular. And it’s a community she and her husband will never give up.
“We have Lula friends, but then I have friends all over the country that are my miniature friends,” Chris said. “You might only see each other on Facebook or you might from time to time call one another just to see how you're doing, but we're close with each other.”