I’ve spent the past month recreating my dad’s old law office (which was basically a second home, a babysitter, an afterschool program and a playground for my entire childhood) in miniature.
This is my second miniature, after assembling a kit as a gift for my sister over the holidays. As I was building that one – a cozy little library – it kept bothering me that it wasn’t personal at all. None of my sister’s books were represented on the shelves (which, if you know my sister, is ridiculous).
That little “what if?” sent me down a wild path. Each “what if” question begat some new crazy experiment, because the answer always seemed to be “why not?” What if I could include some books that would actually mean something to my sister? Okay, what if I could put in some of her actual furniture? Okay, what if I could incorporate some videos and audio too?
I’ve also started following a lot of miniature makers on Instagram over the past few months (I’m particularly obsessed with @marinasminis and @dannycortesnyc) so the possibilities really seemed endless.
Before I knew it, I had bought a 3d printer (they’re surprisingly cheap!) and had decided to attempt to build my father’s office, customizing a book nook kit to give myself a running start.
Why my dad’s office? This was a huge part of my childhood. My siblings and I all went to elementary schools around the corner, so we inevitably wound up hanging out here most afternoons. I’d do my homework, play old Mac games, make silly business cards on the typewriter. After college, I went to law school around the corner and my dad hired one of my college friends as his secretary. Going over there and distracting him until my dad started yelling got me through some rough years.
After renting the space for maybe thirty-five years, my dad decided to clear out during the pandemic. I went there one last time to pay my respects and take a bunch of photos. It really did feel like losing a part of my childhood (the part made up of Bankers Boxes and Wite Out). So recreating it was an easy choice when I was trying to decide on my next project.
I spent probably half of this month creating, sourcing and assembling pieces (mostly from Thingiverse and Etsy), and another half of the time coding. The actual assembly of the miniature didn’t take a ton of time (indeed, I assembled the one for my sister in about 48 hours)!
Physical computing was an unexpected frolic and detour for this project. After creating a tiny computer for my dad’s tiny desk, I thought: “wouldn’t it be more fun if we could see him typing? I wonder how small they make LED screens these days.” Turns out, pretty small. That unlocked a whole lot of Raspberry Pi fun.
Once I started thinking about AV, I got to thinking about the dictation tapes my father used to make for his paralegals. I asked him if he still had any kicking around, and soon enough I had a bunch in my hands.
And then I thought, we can’t have dictation tapes without having boring letters. Having found a tiny LED screen, I was pleased to find that tiny e-ink screens also exist.
Absolutely the hardest part of this entire project was getting all the AV working together. A 1.14″ TFT screen, a 1.02″ e-paper display, and audio all require a lot of overlapping pins from a Raspberry Pi’s GPIO board. I had to get creative here, learning about SPI interfaces and mapping pins and using pulse-width modulation for mono audio. It all worked out in the end, but wow, what a mess. The script that runs it all can be found on github.
I also spent a comical amount of time getting an ambient soundscape working. The office phone had to be just right (Lucent). The typewriter had to be just right (IBM Wheelwriter III Series 2). The gurgling water cooler had to be just right.
The final product is chockablock with in-jokes and references that will mean nothing to anyone who didn’t spend years in that space.
A little pushcart I made in elementary school. Photos of my siblings and my dad’s old sailboat (upscaled and retouched). The red and gold wooden dowels attached to restroom keys hanging by the front door (to keep the keys from being accidentally stolen). An old Chesterfield covered with papers. Trash and recycling bins both filled with papers, inevitably dumped into the same waste basket by the janitor. I made and 3d-printed a radiator cover grille pattern to match the one my grandfather, a carpenter, had made and installed in the 80s.
On a personal note, this project was surprisingly emotional for me and my siblings. We spent a LOT of time here, and our dad worked long, late hours. The whole dynamic was not great for any of us. I sent my siblings little pics over the month and was surprised by which things activated them. For me, it wasn’t until I saw the finished product that I started having more complicated emotional reactions. It’s weird to have a strong nostalgic affection for a dusty old office, a generic function-over-form beige box lost in time. It’s even weirder when complex family dynamics are at play. (“Have you sent this to your shrink?” my siblings keep asking. Not yet!)
Time to figure out what’s next. I have an endlessly deep well of nostalgia, and I take a lot of photos of spaces when I leave them — no memory is safe from my meddling hands. In the meantime, the cat will be thrilled to finally be allowed back into my office.