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One afternoon last summer, Anna Kodé, a reporter on the Real Estate desk at The New York Times, and Nikita Stewart, the desk editor, were talking about the upcoming “Barbie” movie when, naturally, the conversation turned to the personal pad from Barbie, the Dream House.
Mrs. Kodé had long wanted to write about the dollhouse that had captured the imagination of many young Americans for decades.
“While people have really analyzed the social significance of Barbie, we haven’t had the same conversation about the Dream House,” Ms. Kodé said in an interview. “We wanted to get that going.”
So she began researching the history of the Dreamhouse and interviewing experts, including executives at Mattel, the makers of Barbie, as well as academics in various fields. She wanted to understand how changes in society have shaped versions of the Dreamhouse over the last 60-plus years.
The article, which was published this past week, documents the ways in which Barbie’s Dreamhouses reflect the social, cultural and economic development of modern American life. For example: In 1962, when Mattel released the first Barbie Dreamhouse, financial institutions often denied mortgages from unmarried women. Barbie’s ranch-style home was modest but all her own, and unlike dollhouses of decades past, it wasn’t built around the idea of domestic roles—it didn’t even have a kitchen. By 1974, when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed, outlawing credit discrimination, Barbie’s Dreamhouse got a fancy upgrade to three stories.
Mrs. Kodé wrote about this rich history, using Barbie’s Dreamhouses to mark different historical moments. Stop-motion animations accompany the text; each animation allows viewers to explore Dreamhouse.
In May, Ms. Kodé, along with Tony Cenicola, a Times photographer; Michael Kolomatsky, Real Estate editor; and Gabriel Gianordoli, associate editor for Digital News Design, bought a 2000 Dreamhouse on eBay and bought several Barbies at a flea market to take test photos. Using the toys, they mapped out the art direction and lighting. But they also practiced moving and photographing Barbie using the stop-motion technique. By always slightly adjusting a pointed foot or a plastic arm, and repeating that effort about 100 times between frames, the journalists could pretend that Barbie was moving around the house.
Ms. Kodé contacted Mattel to see if the team could have access to its headquarters in El Segundo, California. Mattel accepted their request and made more than 20 archival Barbies and six Dreamhouses available for their use.
The team visited Mattel in late May. They spent more than 18 hours over two days in a windowless studio, painstakingly arranging the Barbies in the Dream Houses. (They went through a lot of wire and glue to keep Barbie in place.) Some Dream Houses took more than an hour to set up; the longest shot required moving Barbie 137 times. Mr. Cenicola patiently photographed each arrangement; he was familiar with stop-motion, having previously used the technique in a 2020 article about New York State’s plastic bag ban.
The team wanted to capture moments that felt true to each era. In the 1962 house, Barbie is photographed playing a record. In the 1970s, a decade that experienced an environmental movement, she is pictured bent over her plants.
“For each time period, we had Barbie do actions that spoke to that,” Ms. Kodé said. “In the section that touches on the sexual revolution, we wanted Ken to go to the house and give Barbie a rose.”
Although many scenes represented social trends, some also reflected how economic changes affected the housing market. For example, when the size of the average American house grew in the 1990s, Barbie got a (bright pink) McMansion. But the toys didn’t reflect every change in the market: As Ms. Kodé noted, Barbie was spared from downsizing during times of economic decline.
After visiting Mattel, Mr. Cenicola spent several days editing the photos, removing items such as wires and adjusting slight variations in exposure and tone. Then he combined certain frames, adjusting the speed or alternating the action forward and backward, to give the appearance of movement.
While working with toys — even as adults — can be fun, the journalists approached the photo shoot with the understanding that there was an important story to tell.
“We tried to find a balance between it being a little funny but not being awkward because the tone of the story is very serious,” Mr. Gianordoli said. “It’s a history lesson.”
Assembling the Dream Houses, Mrs. Kodé said, is something she will never forget. Although she played with many Barbies growing up, she said she never had her own Dream House.
Regarding articles, Ms. Kodé said, “I tried on Joan Didion’s sunglasses. I went to fashion shows. I have been to museum openings. But I’ve never played with toys for two full days in a row.”