Artist John David Mooney is explaining to a genteel audience in the ArchiCenter gallery that he had a much larger project on his mind when the invitation came along to design a dollhouse. It was 1981, and Mooney, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, was busy dreaming up ideas for the redesign of Navy Pier.

That was Mooney’s usual scale. He already had a resume full of gigantic projects, most of them using light as a medium. He had blocked off Ontario Street and paved it with synchronized headlights; planted a forest of 2,400 tungsten-halogen lamps in the heart of Zagreb, Yugoslavia; and staged a “searchlight ballet” across eight miles of Chicago lakefront.

But in 1981, Mooney says, the Brits were smitten with their new princess, and an architectural journal based in England was sponsoring a competition to create a dollhouse–initially for Princess Di and, when her pregnancy was announced, for the royal heir– open to architects all over the world. Mooney was one of only two nonarchitects who received a special invitation to participate.

He accepted, though the project stumped him at first. Not only would it be a radical shift in scale, but Mooney, who “had never played with a dollhouse, had no sisters, played with no girls,” had no clue as to what a dollhouse should be. When he tried to draw on his own experience, all he could dredge up were memories of archetypal boys’ activities: digging holes in the ground, building forts.

So that’s what he started with–a sketch of a hole in the ground. Then he began to add ramps or stairs leading out of the hole, thinking first about forts and later about tree houses, thinking that the dollhouse, like a tree house, should be a place that excludes everything else, a world apart. He did some quick studies of ramps leading into the sky, began to explore the relationship between planes and stairs, and that’s when he hit on it–the ultimate escape, a cloud house. “When I had this drawing, I knew I was almost home,” he says, pointing to a sketch that resembles a reclining harp–a horizontal line topped by a soaring, undulating curve.

This image was so strong, Mooney was grabbed by it. It spoke to him of the midwest landscape he has known since childhood, the endless flat plains and billowing white clouds. It took over his work entirely–first the dollhouse and the dollhouse furniture, then a profusion of full-size furniture that seemed to follow of its own volition: chairs with backs in the shapes of clouds, cloudlike beds, tables, sofas. The gleaming white wood pieces with their undulating shapes crowded into his studio.

And when he turned back to his work on Navy Pier, the image was still with him. He saw the pier in a glorious cloud incarnation, billowing into the lake, a couple dozen towering cloud curves arching in succession over its roof, like waves in the sky. He made sketches for it, adding a 350-foot-wide cloud-shaped waterfall that would cascade over a parking ramp. When a drawing of the Cloud Pier flashes up on the screen at the ArchiCenter, the audience stirs and laughs nervously. Mooney is so mellow, so charming, so handsome in that reassuring, tweed-jacket, midwest way. He can’t be serious. “You can relax,” he says. “I’ve abandoned all these ideas.”

It was back in the early 80s that Mooney’s cloud period blew away, but two of his chairs wound up in Governor Thompson’s office, and his dollhouse has temporarily come to rest in a commanding window on the second floor of the Monadnock Building, as part of the ArchiCenter’s exhibit of dollhouses from that competition. Mooney meant for his house to be spare and suggestive, a springboard for a child’s imagination. He didn’t want it to have any rooms–“no containers.” It was to flow from one space to another. He made it of wood, with five floors, four cloud arches, and a majestic pair of floating stairs. To give it a satin finish he applied seven coats of primer and 22 coats of white paint, and set blue and coral neon into the arches to cast the glow of a vivid sunset over it.

The elegant result may be more successful as sculpture than as a toy. At the conclusion of Mooney’s ArchiCenter lecture, one listener remarks dispassionately to her companion that “no little girl would want to play with it.” That’s too sweeping a judgment, but when British children had a chance to vote for their favorite among the houses, they chose the antithesis of the cloud house, a precisely detailed vacation home full of workable gadgets.

As it turned out, the royal baby was a prince instead of a princess, and Mooney says the focus of the competition changed. Most of the commissioned houses were auctioned off to benefit the Save the Children Fund. Mooney, who jokes that he was more interested in “saving the artist,” managed to hang on to his. It won a sculpture award at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1984.

Since then, Mooney has played a role in some major public celebrations. He orchestrated a 10,000-candle symphony of light in Perth for Australia’s bicentennial, and turned Chicago’s IBM Building into a blazing geometric canvas for four nights last year in honor of IBM’s 75th anniversary. He’s still working on ideas for Navy Pier, but his current preoccupation is a performing-arts showcase, the Great River Project. He hopes to launch a flotilla of art barges in Chicago in 1992 that will float from here to New Orleans, with stops in major cities along the way.

The ArchiCenter show of 15 dollhouses (and drawings for others) continues through September 4. It includes a house from France that looks like a Lucite lunch box lined with tiny doors that open to reveal real-life bugs looking disturbingly large in this context. The first-prize winner, a starry three-foot tower from England that a small child can walk into, offers a similar little shock of scale. An upper-level window in one wall affords a view of a tiny room with fireplace, mantle, and wall mirror, flanked by lighted floor lamps. Look in, and you’ll meet the eye of a disconcertingly familiar giant.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.