Why Does a Little House Stir the Imagination?

Seeing the fascination of the children peeking into the Illumaison lantern houses at the German Christmas Market in Mountain View reminded me of the simple magic of miniaturized houses.

Of course, a large part of what makes the Illumaison houses so special is the stained glass effect, the light streaming through gem colors.  But another reason is the universal fascination with a house made small.  I am not referring to the functional dollhouse, which is large enough to accommodate furniture and dolls, but the tiny house, which cannot fit anything in it except a child’s thoughts.  A miniature house does not offer enough space for physical objects, but is hospitable only to the eyes and to the imagination.  When a child is arrested before an Illumaison lantern, I see his fancy padding around quietly inside, then unfurling, and flying about outside, like a fire fly.

What is it about a miniature house that is so evocative for a child?

It’s thought that Saint Francis of Assisi was the originator of what in English we call the “nativity set,” referring to the recreation of the manger, farm animals, wise men, shepherds, and Holy Family.  At Christmas, these representations of the scene of Jesus’ birth–the “Belén” in Spanish (literally, the “Bethlehem”) or “crèche” in French (literally, crib)—pop up all over the world.  They range from elaborate, realistic depictions that encompass the entire city of Bethlehem to crude or abstract approximations of a shed, a sheep or two, and the Holy Family.  At the beautiful neo-Gothic St. Willibrord’s Church in Utrecht, Netherlands, we set the Illumaison chapel next to a life-sized nativity set.


Compare this to the crude set on sale at St. Martin’s Cathedral’s gift shop, also in Utrecht.  This Cathedral–which has had its Gothic stained glass shattered, its statues decapitated by Protestant iconoclasts, and which partly collapsed in a tornado–offered perhaps the least inspiring tiny house of our journey to Europe.


I have written elsewhere in this blog about the Lichthaus, the small house sculpted out of clay, painted, and then baked in a kiln.


Then there was the Dutch version by Delft, which was glazed and fired china. Notice how the Dutch miniature house conjures up the fairy tale quality of the real Dutch home with its elongated proportions and whimsical design features.



Delft Blue Lighthouse

During my travels to the Far East, I found a few other versions of the magical small house in Taipei, Taiwan, and Manila, Philippines.  Near the Yongle Market in the oldest part of Taipei, Dadaocheng (大龍峒), I found a store on one of the narrow alleys full of tea shops, medicinal herbs, and chic shops in the Sino-Japanese aesthetic that characterizes Taipei. Art Laser Unique produces little houses made with laser cuts in the early twentieth-century colonial architecture of the area.  Whereas the lichthaus and the Illumaison are lit up, and the rauchhaus is filled with incense, these little houses have music boxes in them.


Manila’s Spanish colonial section, Intramuros, literally means “between the walls.”  Across from the San Agustín Church, a Baroque and neoclassical sanctuary that goes back to the sixteenth century, is an enchanting boutique called, The Papier Tolé Shop.  Like the Philippines itself, which feels like a piece of Latin America in the Orient, the Papier Tolé Shop blends the European and the oriental.  The merchandising is fanciful, putting a French miniature house at the feet of two wooden statues of Don Quixote and in the shadow of a legion of Chinese bronze figurines.


A cluster of German Fachwerk houses made of composite wood and printed laminate paper was placed next to a Chinese doll of a man dressed in silk.


Across the shop was a pop-art house with strips of multi-colored glitter, a magazine photograph of a young housewife, and crank windows.  There is nothing of the fairy-tale, but a great deal of kitsch.  One has to wonder whether this postmodern take on a miniature house is meant to, as Ortega y Gasset says about art after 1917, signify nothing transcendent or magical outside of its own weird materiality.  But even this little house, unromantic as it is, cannot help stir my imagination, as all these little houses do.


What is it about a little house that gets the imagination going?


Meet Illumaison’s Sister in Europe: the German Lichthaus

Like the German Lichthäuser, Illumaison lanterns take local architecture and miniaturize it.  They light up recognizable buildings with a fairy-tale glow, and transform the familiar into the magical.  But the similarities are not just tissue-paper thin.  Illumaison lanterns share the German Christmas spirit by being handmade, natural, and supporting communities, not large corporations and soulless factories.

Although certainly unique, the Haitian Christmas lantern (fanal) is reminiscent of another traditional Christmas ornament, the German Lichthaus, or Light House, in English.  As we travelled through Christmas markets from Amsterdam to Basel, we encountered handmade ornaments that shared the same spirit as the Illumaison fanaux.

The Lichthaus is a painted, ceramic miniature house, illuminated by a tea light.  Today, some of these are intended to be incense holders, and called Rauchhäuser (smoke houses auf  Englisch).  Either way, as “light houses” or dispensers of sacred smoke, these reproductions of typical houses or distinctive civic and religious buildings are meant to evoke a special ambience.  It is magical to see familiar buildings miniaturized and made to look like components of a fairy tale village.

Whether part of a Christmas village under the tree or as a display in the front window, miniature houses are also a tradition that exists in the United Kingdom and North America. The German Lichthäuser, however,  are signature half-timbered houses, representing the special architecture of Germany.  Akin to English Tudor, and going back at least as far as the Middle Ages, the Fachwerk style uses timber as structural support. The exposed wood forms different decorative geometrical patterns.

The tradition spread north to Holland and even as far as Lithuania. My guess is that they made it to all parts of the former Hanseatic League.  We encountered our first tea light houses in Holland, made by Delft Blue, the famous producer of porcelain china with a distinctive blue and white color palette. These are hand painted ceramic representations of the narrow, high townhouses to be found in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities.  To purchase one, try Heinen Delftware at Amsterdam Centraal train station and Heinen Delfts Blauw, nearby at Damrak 65.

Delft Blue Lighthouse

For a very special shopping experience, take a fifteen-minute train ride from Amsterdam Centraal to the gift shops in the village of Zaanse, a storybook town with working windmills and houses all painted in racing and Kelly green. Once you arrive at the station, follow the crowd to the seaside village.  The small, wooden houses of Zaanse seem as if they could fit under a Christmas tree or on a mantle.


Although many of the tealight houses that you will come across at the Christmas markets in Germany are made by just a few companies, most are still handmade.  Ask your vendor, but if you want to be certain, the handmade ones usually have a number on them, and the word for “handmade” is handarbeit. One such family company, Leyk Lichthaüser, began out of Ursula Leyk’s efforts to entertain herself while on maternity leave in 1983.  Ursula designed the houses out of clay from miniature ones to larger ones in which her child could put tiny furniture.  Her designs include an impressive array of houses, ranging from colorful Fachwerk (half-timbered) houses to larger local municipal buildings, depending on the Christmas market where you find them.

Miniature Fachwerkhäuser Building Christmas Motif

In Basel, at the Münsterplatz Christmas Market, there is a Tonhaus Schlünzen stall, which has Swiss-made light and incense houses created to look like Swiss chalets and local city halls, city gates, and castles.  Many of these handwork companies, founded no more than forty years ago, claim to be the first to have produced the tea-light houses, but the tradition goes back centuries.


Lichthäuser are to be found in many of the cities that were once part of the Hanseatic League.  The painted houses are seen at Christmas as far north as Lithuania, fashioned after their own traditional architectural styles, and exported by companies such as Lumodomo and Midene.  You may find some of these Lithuanian houses as far south as Basel, Switzerland.

In 2019, our Christmas wish is to make the Illumaison fanaux a new part of the European Lichthaus tradition.  The Illumaison lanterns, too, embody the idea of handwork as the heart of Christmas, not the soulless sweat shops of mainland China.  Made with recycled and recyclable materials, employing artists who otherwise cannot scratch out a living, the Illumaison fanaux also embody the German emphasis on handmade and natural Christmas ornaments.


Illumaison Reaches Three Continents in First Season

This past holiday season, the brightly colored paper lanterns that are unique to Christmas in Haiti were shining on three continents:  North America, Europe, and Australia.  This is remarkable, because in 2017, you could not even find them on the Avenue Panaméricaine, the traditional place where vendors sold the fanaux, as they are called in French and Créole.  In former years, hundreds of fanaux lit up that avenue between Pétion-Ville and Port-au-Prince.  The lanterns’ stained glass effect made the otherwise dark, treacherous, cliff-side road look like the inside of a cathedral.

Observing the fascination of hundreds of children walking by the display of fanaux we set up at the German International School’s authentic German Christmas Market in Mountain View, California or the Creekside Crafts Fair in San Leandro, CA, I can see why I returned to Haiti two decades later on a quest to find these lanterns.

I spoke to dozens of artisans in Pétion-Ville, Kenscoff, and Jacmel.  There was no shortage of talented painters, sculptors, metalworkers, and papier-mâché artists.  All complained sales were meager with so few tourists.  It took me some time to find a few talented artists, who were able to produce good prototypes and inventory for export.  Messaging each other through WhatsApp, I was able to collaborate with the artists to make prototypes while working in China this past spring and summer. We were working on lanterns inspired by buildings in Haiti and North America, while I was in Asia and they were in the Caribbean.  This could never have happened twenty years ago.

Unlike the Christmas decorations that are made all in one Chinese city by people who do not celebrate Christmas, these fanaux are completely handmade of recycled materials.  They are made by artists in their own homes, not factories.  Producing the fanaux is not polluting rivers or the air.  It is not creating more waste for landfills or the ocean.

However, there are reasons that China has done so well exporting its Christmas decorations to the rest of the world.  Factories are set up to mock up prototypes quickly, to schedule and produce inventory, and to get it out of the country.  And then there is the issue of price.  It is expensive to buy the materials to make the lanterns in Haiti. It’s even more expensive to ship them. Even getting them to the Dominican Republic, and shipping them from there, involves great expense and risk to a delicate product.

We designed the inventory to be shipped flat, and the lanterns came in pieces, which needed to be assembled. This enabled us to get them out of Haiti by air in time for Christmas without making them prohibitively expensive.  The first versions of the disassembled lanterns were, however, not the easiest to put together.  They required glue and a certain level of dexterity.  We learned a lot from these, assembling nearly thirty lanterns for display and demos.  In the future, customers will be able to assemble the Easter and Christmas 2019 lanterns with tabs and slots and no glue.  Assembly time will go down from about 45 minutes to ten minutes!

The first retail shop to carry our lanterns was the Cathedral of Christ the Light, a large and diverse parish of the Roman Catholic Church in Oakland, California.  When Michele Zaugg, the manager of the store, saw the ecclesial inspiration behind so many of the lanterns, she created a special display.  The fair trade gift shop, which already carries some Haitian crafts, showcased an array of lanterns inspired by churches and chapels, as well as typical gingerbread-style houses, for this large and diverse congregation. The congregation of the parish of Corpus Christi Church, also in Oakland, bought hundreds of them, supporting the Illumaison fair trade project.

While they may no longer adorn the streets of Haiti for Christmas, the traditional fanaux were seen all over this Christmas.  After being showcased at two crafts fairs in California, we took them to Europe to be viewed.  In order to find future markets for the fanaux, we travelled to Christmas markets in Cologne, Rudesheim, Bamberg, Wurzburg, and Nuremberg, Germany; Strasbourg and Riquewihr, France; Amsterdam, Holland; and Basel, Switzerland.

In the best German-style Christmas markets, the goods for sale are handcrafted.  These include as many figures as you can imagine for the Krippenstall, or nativity displays.  There are unique interpretations everywhere of the wooden Weinachtspyramide, a mutli-layered carousel with angels and other figures, powered by candles and a windmill.  Hand-blown glass tree ornaments and decorations made of natural materials are displayed in the Weinachtsmarkt stalls.

The closest things to the Haitian lanterns are the porcelain or clay reproductions of traditional houses in Holland and Germany.  In Holland, you put a little tea light in a blue and white Delft porcelain reproduction of the distinctive, high Dutch buildings with fanciful facades.  In Germany, there are colorful, painted clay houses that mimic the half-timbered houses of Bavaria.

Even with such beautiful manifestations of the Christmas spirit, the Haitian fanaux amazed people.  This Christmas, there may have not been many traditional Christmas lanterns in Haiti, but in places as far away as New York, Oakland, Melbourne, Edinburgh, Utrecht, Bamberg, and San Juan, people were experiencing the Haitian Christmas tradition.

Finding a Home for Haitian Crafts in European Christmas Markets


For Christmas of 2018, we traveled through Europe to look for homes for the Illumaison lanterns.  When I went to Haiti in November to pick up the inventory, many of the stores already had Christmas decorations.  In a country where there are so many beautiful handicrafts, it was sad to see that the stores were inundated with factory-made ornaments made out of synthetic materials.  This has been the trend world-wide, to import decorations–some admittedly, quite cute–from China.  In central and northern Europe, however, the Weihnachtsmarkts–Christmas markets, in German–have survived the centuries and are still thriving. In the massive markets of Amsterdam, Brussels, and Edinburgh, you still come across a lot of inventory that is mass-produced.  Travel into the heart of Germany, eastern France, and Switzerland, however, and the markets are dedicated to beautiful, handmade products.  Surprisingly, the handicrafts are all moderately priced, locally produced, and reflect the specific culture of each town and region.

We splurged for the first week, and took a guided tour down the Rhine with one of the best river cruise lines, the AMA Waterway.  AMA, like Viking and Avalon, has a number of themed cruises that go down the Rhine, the Main, and the Danube Rivers hitting many of the most beautiful destinations.  After a great deal of research, we booked the last room on a cruise that set sail from Amsterdam in the middle of December and ended in Basel, Switzerland.  The Danube has its share of charming markets, set in magisterial cities, like Prague and Vienna.  However, the Rhine and its tributaries connect the Germanic cities that, altogether, are the heart of Christmas.  The prevalent architecture, the half-timbered house, or Fachwerk Haus (auf Deutsch), is the coziest possible architecture, immediately calling to mind the fairy tales of childhood.

Before we went to Europe, we had a taste of the German market in Silicon Valley.  We participated in the German International School of Silicon Valley‘s annual Weihnachtsmarkt in Mountain View.  Set up largely by German expats, it is as authentic as you can get.  As on of the organizers said to me, if you squint enough to blur the palm trees out of the background, you could be in Germany.  And, indeed, that was true.  Most of the activity centered around the many booths offering German food and drink, but there were also quite a number of booths selling handmade products.

There were performances and singing during the day.  One of the sweetest parts of it was a petting zoo with adorable goats, pigs, lambs, rabbits, chickens, and other animals.  Although the market opened in the morning, it was at sundown that it looked especially beautiful, with twinkling lights, and our own booth’s sparkling Christmas village.   Their Facebook page faithfully captures the spirit of a “Frohe Weihnachten.”

As you can see, Illumaison made a spectacular debut in the South Bay area, captivating children and amazing adults.  Even before we crossed the Atlantic, we had international customers buying our fanaux to take to the United Kingdom, Europe, and Asia.