The Barbie Dreamhouse Has Always Reflected the Times

A new book presents the ever-evolving Barbie Dreamhouse, which turns 60 this year, as a curious reflection of its era’s architectural and cultural sensibilities.

Barbie’s Magic Mansion, 1990. All photography by Evelyn Pustka

Barbie is having somewhat of a marquee year. Teasers for the highly anticipated Barbie movie, directed by Greta Gerwig, are taking the internet by storm ahead of its July release. Barbiecore is constantly trending on TikTok. The millennial-friendly paint brand Backdrop recently launched a line of Dreamhouse-inspired shades ranging from the “iconic Barbie pink to perfect purple and turquoise.” The Dreamhouse itself is celebrating its 60th anniversary—and to mark the occasion, Mattel teamed up with Pin-Up magazine on a limited-edition art book that not only presents the Dreamhouse as an ideal home for single, empowered women, but tracks the evolution of its design sensibilities over the years.

The 151-page tome, called Barbie Dreamhouse: An Architectural Survey, offers six examples of the doll’s ever-evolving domicile as a product of its respective era, shaped by contemporary cultural and architectural forces. It all starts in the early 1960s—a time when, Mattel senior vice president of design Kim Culmone notes in an interview, women couldn’t even own their own homes or have their own bank accounts. “But here’s Barbie: a single gal owning her own place. She’s got her hi-fi, she has a closet, she’s got books, a picture of her boyfriend, she’s got multiple careers,” she says. “That to me is what the Barbie Dreamhouse is about: a young woman running her own life, with her own job, doing her own thing.”

“Barbie Dreamhouse: An Architectural Survey.”

The backdrop to Barbara Millicent Roberts doing her own thing has changed drastically over time, in step with shifting design tastes. The historian Beatriz Colomina, who penned the book’s introduction, argues that architects were fixated on play at the time—take the Case Study Houses in Southern California, or Marcel Breuer and Gregory Ain’s structures in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art, which allowed visitors to walk through and let their aspirational fantasies run wild. Barbie’s early-‘60s bachelorette pad reflected the era’s forward-thinking Modernism, complete with clean-lined furniture and a narrow single bed that, as the editors note, assured “Ken was certainly not sleeping over.” Its foldout cardboard construction also nodded to the growing influence of television, particularly Lucille Ball’s strong female archetype in I Love Lucy. 

Barbie soon “moved on up” in the ‘70s, settling in a three-story bohemian townhouse festooned with psychedelic pinks, oranges, and greens evocative of the era’s singles bars. Later in the decade, the loud aesthetic calmed to a suburban A-frame house whose earth tones signaled Barbie’s maturing tastes and environmentalism following the energy crisis. It certainly nodded to the A-frame’s popularity, courtesy of progressive architects like Rudolph Schindler and John Campbell showing how pitched-roof structures can deliver optimism and leisure, as well as Charles Moore’s Sea Ranch offering an atmosphere of playfulness and ease. She even sports a slouchy sofa not unlike the era-defining Togo by Michel Ducaroy. 

Barbie’s Dreamhouse, 1979
(FROM LEFT) Barbie’s Dreamhouse, 1974. 1979.
Barbie’s Dreamhouse, 1962

The Dreamhouse shifted from practical to aspirational in the ‘80s, culminating in the 1990 debut of the bubblegum-pink Magical Mansion adorned with Doric columns and Palladian windows reflecting the McMansions taking hold of American suburbs. (Inside, rose-patterned wallpaper recalls the era’s floral-friendly romanticists like Laura Ashley.) Though these mansions were increasing in scale, the 2000 dreamhouse dialed things back. The Victorian manse largely eschewed the Y2K era’s blobby, space-age styles, though its castle-like build reflected the era’s palatial pastiche promoted on MTV Cribs, which debuted the same year. And to no surprise, the most recent edition is a “TikTok-ready tower” whose on-trend touches (disco balls, a moveable slide, a swinging lounge chair) allow Influencer Barbie to shoot hours of viral content. 

“Yes, Barbie’s houses do reflect the transition in architecture from Modernist to Postmodernism to, well, whatever we’re calling contemporary architecture these days,” the architecture critic and Surface contributor Ian Volner writes in the book. “Their stylistic evolution is embedded deeply within other trends exogenous to design as such: television, film, fashion, and the unique way these and other media filter down to the junior set who have fueled Barbiemania through the years.” 

Barbie’s Dreamhouse, 2000
Barbie’s Dreamhouse, 2021

Though the dreamhouses reflect their eras with wit, Barbie has received a fair share of criticism over the years—particularly for not promoting a realistic body image among young women. Culmone, who assumed her role at Mattel in 2013, has been working diligently to reverse that. Under her purview, the line now comprises 35 skin tones, 94 hairstyles, and 9 body types, including those with access needs such as prosthetics. The 2020 dreamhouse even features a wheelchair-friendly elevator. “We feel an enormous responsibility to make sure that all kids see themselves reflected in the brand,” she says. And while the book doesn’t delve too deep into the dicey politics inextricable from the Barbie name, it’s a thrilling tour de force that suggests the plastic doll has always been dialed into the cultural zeitgeist.

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