Danielle McGurran Builds Delightful Miniatures to Preserve a Bygone Era of New York

Posted inDesigner Profiles

There’s just something about miniatures— an itsy bitsy, teenie weenie version of a life-size object, or person, or building, or anything, really— that’s charming as hell. Of course, it’s partly the meticulousness of the artistry itself, and wrapping your head around the fact that a common pair of a human hands has somehow figured out a way to recreate a pint-sized replica of something else. But on a deeper level, I think we’re responding with awe and disbelief at the sheer audacity of the artist who got a wild hair to make a miniature in the first place.

There’s no one more audacious in this way than miniaturist Danielle McGurran of Cityfolk Studio. The New Yorker builds miniatures primarily of gritty, grody, and decaying storefront facades throughout the city, capturing the beauty in the dingy, beloved small businesses that, in all likelihood, will turn into Duane Reade pharmacies within the next few years. McGurran is as gregarious as she is fastidious, and recently chatted with me at length about her journey to miniatures, her pursuit of delight instead of happiness, and her healthy lack of ambition.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

How did you find yourself in the wonderful world of miniatures?

I have an art background because my mom was a calligrapher and then a sign painter, and then she became an interior designer, and then a furniture designer, and then a graphic designer. My uncles— her brothers— were all musicians. My dad was a truck driver and is a maniac, and that’s the other side of me, the OCD side, which is how I’m able to do 10 million hours of research and never move and get all this information that I can then filter into my work.

But for most of my adult life, I was totally fucking miserable. I had the worst day jobs, I worked for the stupidest places, doing the stupidest stuff, writing emails about things that didn’t matter at all. I even went to grad school and I got my Master’s degree in Library Science. Why?! I’m not a librarian; I’m very loud! Why am I in library school? But I did it! I went to library school for three semesters!

But I would always go to Pearl Paint— which was the bastion of art supply stores, R.I.P.— and other art supply stores when I was traveling or living in other places, and I’d buy balsa wood, and basswood, and different glues— but I’d never do anything with it. I’d just put it in a pile and leave it so I could see it, and know I wasn’t doing anything with it. Torturing myself in a way because I couldn’t get over myself.

I was young. I was in my 20s and 30s; I was an idiot. And the beauty of getting older is that you get over yourself. And you’re like, Actually, I just want to make stuff. I don’t care if anybody sees it or if anything ever happens with it. I just want to be happy. I want to take that pile of art supplies and I want to do something with them.

The biggest thing that happened was I met my wife, Bret, who is an absolute dream and the greatest, most amazing person. I don’t want to be one of those people who’s like, You have to be in love and be in a relationship to have your life change, but in my case, I had spent too much time alone. Too much time in my head. And then I finally met someone who was like, Hey, you’re cool. I love you for all of your weirdnesses and the fact that you can eat peanut butter and jelly for three meals a day, and I support you, and you should make stuff if you want. She just gave me this psychic permission, and my heart opened, and my spirit opened, and I was like, You know what, I’m gonna take that pile of stuff and I’m gonna do something with it.

McGurran’s first miniature, the facade of Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown.

Why do you recreate storefronts specifically? Was there one storefront in particular that kicked off this whole project for you?

I have the James and Karla Murray book called Storefront. They’re husband and wife photographers and New Yorkers who have taken these beautiful photographs of New York storefronts for years, and now many of them are gone. So I was flipping through the book, and I saw the storefront for Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which, as a new lifelong New Yorker I was vaguely aware of, but I’d just never gone. And I was like, I’m gonna make Nom Wah Tea Parlor. I’m gonna make it!

I’m not one of those artists who’s like, I kind of suck. I don’t. I’m pretty good at what I do. But what’s crazy is I was really good at it right away. People were like, How did you do that? How did you not ever do that, and then you did it? And I’m like, Well, it’s because I’m crazy, and I’ve been thinking about doing it for 15 years. Having said that, I mean, I made mistakes. I used the wrong glue, I woke up one morning, and half of the thing had peeled off because it was hot in my apartment. It also took me four months to make.

But it was amazing! We went to Nom Wah for lunch one day and I brought it with me, and I was like this is weird, but I’m going to show it to the owner. And he was like, Holy fucking shit. What is that? And that was it! That’s what started it. And that was about six years ago. 

I’d imagine you have to be borderline obsessed with the subject of whatever miniature you’re making, considering how much time and effort goes into each one. How do you decide what miniatures to make? What rises to the level of obsession for you? 

I tend to want to depict something that’s gone or going to be gone. There’s an element of knowing that I can’t save the place itself, but I can make this small thing. And if you take a picture of it with no hand or scale in it, is it that place? Is it still alive? Is it still there? 

A few years ago I did a mini of the CBGB bathroom. CBGB is this very famous rock club that famously closed down and is now a John Varvatos store. So it’s that old New York story of a shitty, crappy company taking over an amazing space. Like, Oh, now that’s a Chase Bank or now that’s a Duane Reade. CBGB was where The Talking Heads got started, and The Ramones, and Blondie, so it was this amazing place, but its men’s bathroom was very famous for being disgusting. So I made that.

I veer toward stuff that’s from the past because I have stories attached to them. That’s why I made an old cigarette machine, and so many people commented about how their mom or dad would make them go get them cigarettes out of that machine. I just wanted to make it because I thought it looked cool and I love old, analog shit: machines, record players. It’s very cool to hear people connect to and have a visceral reaction to this little thing that’s a representation of a big thing that’s no longer around.

I always have a running list of ideas, but because I don’t have a lot of room, I usually can’t be working on multiple things at the same time. I have no space— I live in New York City. I’m talking to you from what I call my “Cludio”— it’s literally a closet. My whole studio is a closet (it was supposed to be where the washer and dryer was). This is why I have to work small! Being gay and working in a closet, making miniatures and being in a closet— the jokes just write themselves.

McGurran’s studio set-up in one of her apartment closets, which she affectionately calls her “Cludio.”

I came upon your work originally from your recent sign painter’s studio miniature. Can you describe your relationship to that piece and why you chose to create a sign painter’s studio?

I had been thinking about that piece for probably two years. My mom was a huge influence; she and my dad recently sold their house (the house I somewhat grew up in on Long Island), so I was feeling a little sad about that. I had seen her old sign painting box when she pulled it out because all of her old stuff was down in the basement, so I was sort of doing it as an homage to her.

But also, I love minutiae. I mean, it makes sense— I make miniatures, of course I like minutiae. The idea of recreating an electro-pounce machine, or a mahl stick— things that most people have no idea about, unless you know the world of sign painting— that’s fun to me. To really get into the nitty gritty.

How long does it typically take you to make one of your miniatures? 

I’m a little bit of a whack job. I have a Mind Palace; I build things in my head for so long, I think about stuff for years, and I obsess. I work on the slower side because of this ruminating factor that I have in my process and in my brain. I don’t want it to be this slog, so I’ll do some computer work in the morning and some gluing in the afternoon, and then I’ll putz around, and then I’ll hang out with my wife and my dog, and we’ll watch Real Housewives, so I have a life. I do stuff. I should be more focused, but I’m not very ambitious…

Ambition is overrated!

I think it is too! But I would say my process is very varied, and overall my bigger, more complicated pieces probably take about two months. I spend hours researching, and hours in Photoshop having to recreate labels and boxes; I make everything from scratch. Occasionally I’ll use household items to make things, but I just don’t do any 3D printing or engraving, since I don’t have any of those machines because I have no room.

Why do you think people are generally so enamored and charmed by miniatures? 

The engine that keeps me going is the idea of people being delighted by my work. I love the idea of delight. I don’t really believe in happiness because I feel like that’s a made-up thing that maybe only Danish people know about, but I do think that delight should be the goal in life. My miniatures are these delightful little confections that people can dip into. Handmade delight and handmade magic is something that people really react to. I’ve been in a couple of group shows and it’s fun to watch people look at my stuff. It’s super cool because I really get to see them delighted. 

I think the delight is twofold. It’s not only how did they make that thing? But on a base level, people just like tiny stuff!

They do! They really do! They do like tiny stuff! They like the tiny version of the big thing. It kind of comes from childhood, if you think about it. Fisher Price people, and little army men, and dollhouses, and trains, and Polly Pocket— all of these toys are already miniatures, so it really is evocative for people from their childhood, even if it’s unconscious.

What is the main emotion you feel when you complete a project that you’ve dedicated so much of yourself to? 

Sometimes I get very cranky; I’m upset that it’s over. I’ll think that maybe there’s more I can do, or I’m not ready to give it up. Other times I’m so tired of it. There are pieces I’ve done where, even if I’ve loved them in the beginning, they were such a slog because of some technical element or something. But once I get over that, and usually after I post on social media, I feel this great sense of accomplishment.

In the case of the sign painter’s studio, the Nom Wah piece, and the CBGB bathroom, I think, Holy shit, how did I do that? I really do. I’m like, I don’t know how I did that. I think that’s because sometimes there’s this flow when I really get into something where time has no meaning and I’m just doing my thing, and I forget to step back. So when I’m done I’m like, Oh, wow, cool. So generally it’s this very excited feeling of accomplishment and a little bit of amazement.

Keeping in mind that I’m 50, I spent a lot of years not making art, so now I really appreciate it in a way that’s profound. I want that for everyone. I wish everyone could feel that who wants to be creative. It does take time sometimes to get there, and some people never do. It’s a choice. Being excited to do this thing and choosing to keep doing it. I didn’t do it for so long because I was just stopping myself. I was leaving that pile of art supplies in the corner or hiding it under my bed, haunting me. And it just was that one day of taking it out and sitting down and just going.