In a photo from 1980, 10-year-old Lisa Vossler Smith sits cross-legged on the carpet of a home, smiling at the camera and holding up a 1977 Superstar Barbie doll. She looks a little self-conscious.
“You can see it in my face,” Vossler Smith said, pointing to the photo. “I’m sitting there thinking I’m too old to be playing with dolls.”
Vossler Smith’s 10-year-old self couldn’t have been more wrong. At 53, she still plays with dolls — and along the way has racked up more than 4,000 followers on her Instagram, @tinypalmsprings, where she posts vignettes and snapshots of her dolls in an ongoing soap opera starring dozens of her more than 200 dolls.
Like most other kids, Vossler Smith packed up her dolls for storage after childhood. Unlike most other kids, she returned to that storage box years later.
And about a decade ago, one of her friends gave her a doll. “She told me the doll reminded her of me because she had a blonde ponytail and this modern dress,” she said.
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That’s when it clicked for Vossler Smith: She thought it would be perfect to photograph the doll in front of some iconic Palm Springs architecture. Though she officially created her account in 2016, she had been taking photos of her dolls since 2013.
“I was just doing it for fun,” she said. “It was really my husband’s encouragement that made me take the first step to posting them online.” Her husband, local artist Phillip K. Smith III, now acts as her volunteer production manager.
While Vossler Smith photographed the dolls, she couldn’t help but imagine them in conversation or in a storyline. “They just have attitude,” she said. “That’s how the stories and storylines started to develop, because I would see characters and expressions in the dolls.”
What started with a couple funny one-off stories began to evolve into a years-long saga involving about 75 of her dolls in a rotating “cast” of characters.
“I hear myself telling these stories as though I’m talking about real people,” she said. Often, Vossler Smith will find herself waking up first thing in the morning to write down an idea after having a flash of inspiration.
Her main story for the dolls centers around two sisters who live at the Silkstone Estate in Palm Springs, a reference to the Silkstone material that Mattel uses on some dolls that mimics the look and feel of porcelain.
The two sisters, one a blonde and one a brunette, throw parties, hang out and get into trouble in settings in and around Palm Springs. There’s often more lore in her stories than in most Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and Vossler Smith plans out stories and character arcs months in advance.
Vossler Smith also never uses Photoshop to fake the backgrounds of her photos. If she goes on vacation, she’ll take one or two of her dolls with her and use her surroundings as inspiration.
A doll couple, for instance, just eloped in Las Vegas during one of Vossler Smith’s recent vacations to Sin City. She photographed another doll gallivanting across Europe during an Italian vacation.
One of the most memorable storylines was inspired by a trip to Vermont. “Naked and Afraid, the Barbie Edition” saw the blonde beauty in the buff, covered in mud, her hair askew, clinging to a tree and trying to eat a mushroom.
Fans will notice the doll is strategically pixelated, even though she is, well, a doll. “Instagram can shadowban accounts for nudity, [so] I started censoring my work,” she said. And despite the disclaimer in her bio warning of “grown-up stories,” she still wanted to protect Barbara’s reputation just in case any kids came across her page.
Besides those more exotic locations, the architecture and design of Palm Springs, both real and miniature, feature prominently in Vossler Smith’s photos. The influence of her day job as chief executive officer of Modernism Week has been part of her account’s DNA since the beginning.
Locals will also notice familiar bright colors and patterns on the dolls’ custom clothes, their 3D-printed mid-century modern furniture, and homemade mid-century modern sets — including in Vossler Smith’s recreation of the Barbie Dream House from director Greta Gerwig’s recently released “Barbie” movie.
“The set in the movie was, of course, inspired by Palm Springs and [Richard] Neutra’s Kaufmann house,” she said. “Everyone in Palm Springs will recognize the mountains and the palm trees in the background of the movie, too.”
An opportunity to ‘choose creativity’
Vossler Smith ran her Tiny Palm Springs account anonymously for years, and despite all the hints and breadcrumbs in the account, not many people in her real life knew about her hobby. For the longest time, she said, she hid it from strangers and friends alike.
“At first, I didn’t know if I was going to keep doing it,” she said. “But also, I didn’t want anyone questioning how I spend my free time.”
When she was out taking pictures of her Barbies in public, she would get embarrassed whenever anyone asked what she was doing. “I said I was taking a picture for my kid, and that always seemed silly to me because I don’t have kids,” she said.
She was worried about her friends’ reactions, but since being more open with her hobby in the last year, Vossler Smith said they couldn’t be more supportive. “The thing I was embarrassed to tell people about myself has now actually become [the thing] that’s brought us closer together,” she said. “They know me better now.”
When she poses her dolls in public now, Vossler Smith proudly hands curious strangers a tiny business card with her Instagram handle, and invites them to follow along on Barbie’s adventures.
And there’s much more that goes into the production than fans of the account may realize.
In crafting her storylines, Vossler Smith often needs specific props or clothes that Mattel just doesn’t make. She started buying custom-made props, like champagne buckets, and has even created her own miniatures, like a surprisingly realistic turkey dinner or Louis Vuitton accessories.
She also buys much of the dolls’ clothing from artisans and craftspeople online, some as far away as Paris or Milan. “They have a way better wardrobe than I do,” she said. Her mother-in-law also sews tiny dresses adorned with beadwork and embroidery for her.
It’s those kinds of handicrafts that take Vossler Smith right back to her childhood, when she made miniature bath mats and books with her grandmother for her dolls. When Vossler Smith dug her old dolls out of storage, she found many of the handmade dresses her grandmother had worked so hard on.
“She passed away at 99, but I was able to share this hobby with her again,” she said. Her grandmother knew she was back to collecting Barbies as an adult, and even gave her some of the old Butterick and McCall’s patterns she used to make the dresses.
Along with homemade fashion, Vossler Smith also had to make some homemade Barbie real estate.
“I didn’t have a real Barbie Dream House,” she said. “So I just used shoe boxes to make my own house and my own furniture.”
Vossler Smith loves the creative challenge that’s involved in every element of the project, from the storytelling and photographs, to the crafting and shopping.
“Before Tiny Palm Springs, I worked all the time. And when I wasn’t working, I was exhausted or doing other obligations,” she said. “Carving out time for a hobby was something I didn’t really give myself.”
And when Vossler Smith first started her account, she didn’t realize there were other similar accounts. “I always thought this was just something I was doing alone,” she said. She soon discovered a nurturing and supportive community of hundreds of similar accounts, run by people the same age as her — and older.
“There’s that part of your childhood brain that matures and goes dull,” she said. But she and the other members of “dollstagram” have held on to that innate childlike desire to play and imagine.
Vossler Smith now considers people she met online her real-life friends. They send each other holiday cards (regular and doll-sized), collaborate on posts, and even have a group chat to share Barbie news.
Her online friendships officially moved offline when she met some of her friends at a doll show in Southern California. “I never imagined I would make other adult friends through this hobby,” she said. “The greatest thing to come out of all of this is the relationships I’ve made.”
Her Instagram photos, what she once thought would end up being ephemeral social media posts, moved into the real world, too. In December, Vossler Smith’s friend at the Palm Desert shop Rancho Relaxo encouraged her to do a pop-up sale of framed photos and other merch.
“It sold out, and now we’re going to do another line for Christmas this year,” she said.
Now, with the release of the “Barbie” movie, Vossler Smith and other members of “dollstagram” have had a busy month. Thanks to all the buzz and hype, she thinks more people will learn about and appreciate the artistic side of Barbie collecting.
Perhaps another 10-year-old girl playing with Barbies, just like Vossler Smith once did, will choose a similar creative outlet later in life.
“This is where we have that opportunity in our lives to choose creativity,” she said. “And why not? Why not choose to have fun and have the best day ever?”
Below are Vossler Smith’s responses to a few questions from The Post:
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Occupation: Modernism Week CEO
Neighborhood: South Palm Desert
How long have you lived in the desert? Since 1980 (with time spent away for college)
What brought you here? My mother, Judy Vossler, went to work for her father, PGA Hall of Fame golfer, Ernie Vossler, at La Quinta Hotel and soon became the general manager.
What keeps you here? We live in paradise!
What is your favorite time of the year here? February during Modernism Week!
How do you beat the heat? I switch to drinking frosé (frozen rosé wine).
Do you have a personal philosophy by which you live? Yes, there are a few, but “carpe diem” remains a constant in my life. We must seize the day!
What was your first job? Restaurant bus girl at La Quinta Hotel (1982)
What’s your favorite place to eat? Locally, I love Fresh Agave Mexican Restaurant.
What’s the biggest issue facing our community? Affordable housing.
What’s your favorite thing to do or place to go in the desert? Taking photographs of Barbie poolside at The Pink Cabana at The Sands Hotel in Indian Wells.
What’s your guilty pleasure? Making miniature food for my Barbie dioramas while listening to old Bossa Nova records.
What would you tell people about Palm Springs that they might not already know? We have the BEST airport in the world!
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