An Architect Reviews Barbie Dreamhouses

published May 3, 2018
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(Image credit: Courtesy of Mattel)

*Disclaimer: Although I practiced for five years, I never actually got licensed as an architect. Becoming an architect is actually really hard. You can read all about the requirements right here, and then, the next time you see one of your architect friends, tell them you’re really impressed with what they’ve accomplished.

When I was little, I begged my mother for a Barbie Dreamhouse. It was the toy of toys: utterly huge, insanely pricey. I never got one. Instead, all my Barbie dramas played out on a set of white plastic modular shelves, which were, in retrospect, the perfect Barbie stage set, with plenty of floor space and room for little hands to reach in. But I never quite got over those Barbie Dreamhouses. My love for homes and for design led me to study architecture in college, and practice for five years after, so I thought it might be fun, in light of all that architectural education, to re-visit the dream houses of my youth.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Mattel)

My research for this post led me to the very first Barbie Dreamhouse, which was very different from the mansions of my youth. It debuted in 1962, and was made entirely from cardboard, except for the plastic hangers in the closet. There were other things that made it remarkable as well. Later, Barbie Dreamhouses were designed as townhouses, or even freestanding single-family homes. But this one is clearly a studio, the home of a single girl living life on her own terms.

1964 saw the introduction of a new Barbie Dreamhouse, as seen here in that year’s Sears catalog, from Wishbook Web. The house and the furniture were still all made of cardboard, but this one had multiple rooms and resembled a suburban house. The design—painted brick, stone living room walls—is very ’60s.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Mattel)

The iconic Barbie townhouse, which debuted in 1974, has appeared in many iterations over the years. The townhouse has a design detail that bugged me as a child, and still bothers me now: the furniture and features printed on the wall. You’re not fooling me, Mattel. I want an actual pool, not a picture of one. (In later versions, the graphics on the back wall were updated to reflect the times, but the basic setup of the house remained the same: three stories, six rooms, connected by an elevator.)

(Image credit: Courtesy of Mattel)

This Barbie Dreamhouse from 1979 actually has some serious architectural bona fides. It’s a bit Swiss chalet meets midcentury modern, and the combination actually works very nicely, with the modern elements lightening the twee-ness you sometimes get from cottage-style homes. The indoor/outdoor vibe of the top story, with its walls made of glass, recalls Neutra, and the jalousied windows of the lower story feel very hip.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Mattel)

Measuring four feet long, three feet high, and almost two feet deep, the Barbie Magical Mansion was truly luxurious. And, with those proportions, there was actual space to arrange furniture inside, which is something other Barbie houses tend to be a bit short on. With all that wallpaper and wall-to-wall carpet, the style here is very true to what was popular in the ’80s and early ’90s. The Magical Mansion had working lights and a functioning doorbell, but, interestingly enough, no toilet.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Mattel)

The 2012 version of the Dreamhouse changed up the elevator position a bit from the original Townhouse design. I would live here. This is one of the rare Barbie Dreamhouses that actually addresses the necessities of both bathroom and kitchen, while also providing a realistic way to move between floors. It also provides an utterly unrealistic touch, a rooftop hot tub, but no Barbie dream house would be complete without a touch of the fantastic.

The Barbie Happy Family Sounds Like Home Smart House, spotted on QVC. The big sell for this house was supposed to be that it talked to you as you were playing, but I think the real draw was that it acknowledged the need for a secondary bedroom in a Barbie house. There’s even a storage spot under the staircase, although there is absolutely no way those stairs meet code.

(Image credit: Target)

This is the most recent iteration of the Barbie Dream House, which can be purchased from Target for $169.99. Here we have an actual bathroom and kitchen, and a feature that, to my knowledge, has never been seen in a Barbie abode before—a garage. It’s interesting to note that, although the features of the house itself have become more realistic over the years, the design has become more and more fantastic. While the ’60s and even ’70s dream homes look like miniature versions of a place someone might have lived in those decades, the modern dream home, with its endless curlicues and bright pink palette, is clearly a toy. But for Barbie, that’s just fine.