Paris, 1899: How To Make A Tiny Steampunk Utopia

Hi, I’m Fiona and I make tiny things!

Earlier on this blog I showed you how to make a tiny armadilloIn this entry, I’m going to share about one of my favourite tiny things to do: customising miniature diorama kits. 

The kit I’ll be using is the “Roaming Around In Paris” box theatre kit: a 1:144 scale model that fits inside a metal box roughly the size of a tobacco tin. The kit sells under a variety of trade names (in this case, CuteBee) and on many sales platforms. In this post, I will show you how I customised the kit into a steampunk version of Paris with references to nineteenth-century fantasy authors and artists, difference engines, and maybe a pterodactyl or two!

Before we begin, I’d like to gratefully acknowledge the help of Bridget Bradshaw, who gave me the kit, and Graham Head, who suggested the steampunk customisation.

For reference, this is a photo of how the manufacturer thinks the finished kit should look:

An open metal box. In the lid there's a painting of a stone bridge over the Seine, overlaid by: a ticket saying "Ticket to Happiness", an open envelope with a sticker saying "France" peeking out, a polaroid picture of the Eiffel Tower, titled "Travel" and a piece of paper with the following text in the middle: "Two kittens wander in Paris, along the broad Champs-Elysees, along the smoke-filled banks of the Seine, slowly into the tenderness and romance of the ancient city. These have become the part of them." In the box itself there's a miniature of a Paris street. Below the road is some grey wood paneling with a sign saying "Travel together - Roaming in Paris". The two buildings on the left side are the "Motel de la Madine" and a patisserie. The side road leads towards the Eiffel Tower which is printed on the background. On the right is the "Café de Paris", with a sign saying "Welcome" over the entrance. Two cute white kittens are standing in the foreground, one with a blue shirt, the other one in a pink dress.

I love the moment of unboxing! Here’s the box:

A cardboard box with images of three different box models on it. Title "Box Theatre", followed by two lines of Chinese text, subtitled "Travel trilogy".

And here’s what’s in the box:

An open cardboard box showing the contents: A metal box in a clear plastic bag. The box lid has a white-green-blue-gray diagonal checkerboard pattern on it, with a stylised picture of the Eiffel Tower in the middle. Around the box are several more clear plastic bags with materials.

Pay attention to these paper cutouts. I’m going to be playing around with them . . .

A page of paper cutouts for different parts of the model: the facades of the buildings, the pavement and various smaller pieces.
More paper cutouts: the insides of the building and some signs.

. . . as you can see! A little work with GIMP and the patisserie becomes a computer shop selling “machines differentiales” (difference engines, apparently), the boring Café de Paris—strangely with a sign saying “Welcome”—becomes an exciting Café de Robida (the sign now a much more appropriate “Bienvenue”), and the Hotel de la Madine becomes, of course, the Hotel de la Machine. Finally, the Rue Shakespeare becomes, in a homage to William Gibson as well as a certain French author, the Rue Jules Verne.

A page of customized paper cutouts: The "Cafe de Paris" becomes "Cafe Robida", the "Welcome" sign now says "Bienvenue", the "Hotel de la Machine", a poster of "Le voyage dans la lune". The title of the model is now "Paris 1899. A Steampunk Utopia". The patisserie is now called "ordinateurs grandville" and sells "machines differentiales".

Here’s more of my customisation work. It’ll be hard to see in the finished version, but I’m replacing the pictures on the walls of the houses with tiny reproductions of nineteenth-century anthropomorphic animal prints by Grandville. Also, note the little section for “Dinosaurs and Zeppelins”. Yes, I know they’re pterodactyls and ichthyosaurs, not dinosaurs, but I needed to call the section something.

Modified posters for the walls as described in text.

Here I’ve glued the background into the box, though I haven’t done anything fun with it yet.

Empty metal box, with the unmodified background picture glued into the upper part of the box.

And here I’ve added some pterodactyls and zeppelins! Look at them flying around the Eiffel Tower.

Empty metal box with background glued in and added Zeppelin and pterodactyls around Eiffel Tower. The poster inside the café ist also modified.

Modified version of the lid insert as described.
Adding some monsters and tech to the top paper cutout. (The submarine on the left is the Nautilus from Disney’s adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the ichthyosaur is from Crystal Palace Park.)
Further modification of the lid insert, replacing the poem in the centre with a red and green poster titled "Le vingtième siècle".
Replacing the Singlish poem with an engraving by Robida.
Page of paper cutouts of the insides of the houses with the posters replaced by the modified versions.
Putting the new pictures on the wall.

Here, for reference, are the pictures I’m using, blown up for visibility. (Yes, the Glasgow 2024 logo is indeed the circular one.)

Blown-up view of the modified pictures, including the Glasgow in 2024 logo.

Here are some shots of me assembling the little street of shops. You can just see the new pictures on the wall.

Assembly of the leftmost building, now the "Hotel de la Machine". The top floor is still open, the modified posters on the back wall visible.
Assembly picture of the cafe. The sides, the empty door frame and the floor for the top floor are getting glued together.
Backs of the side walls, showing how tiny pieces of lace are glued behind the windows to serve as curtains.

This is the computer shop sign drying.

Shop sign "machines differentiales" in yellow lettering on orange background, held together with three binder clips.

Here’s some tiny furniture!

pieces for making tiny furniture, considerably smaller than the penny piece shown for scale.
Adding paper doors to the wardrobe.
A tiny bed, slightly smaller than a penny piece, held in a pair of tweezers while the red plaid cover dries.
The bed drying, the cover held on by tweezers.
More tiny bedroom furniture - a bed, couches, armchair, all considerably smaller than a penny piece.
Bedroom furniture
Underside of the green armchair, getting gold-coloured beads as legs.
Adding legs to the armchair.

The computer shop needs some steampunky computer gear in the window. I’ve made this using leftover cardboard and beads from other kits, plus some LED bulbs (I have way too many spare LED bulbs).

slightly blurry image of the computer shop window held in front of the work table.

Putting the lighting rig in the box and testing it. The lighting rig is a fairly simple one, but two of the bulbs have to be carefully placed so they give the impression of lights in the hotel and shops.

The box with the covering for the bottom partly installed and lots of cables coming out of the hole.

Finalising the shops and putting in furniture.

Finished view of the front of the computer shop. The railing in front of the top floor windows is installed, the marquee added. The street sign on the lower left says "Ave Jules Verne".
The box with the two left-most buildings installed: The Hotel de la Machine and the computer shop.
Installation picture of the cafe on the right. Pink flower vines are added all over.

The finished box!

Overview of the finished box with the lights turned on. The little envelope in the lid has the Glasgow in 2024 logo in it.
The inside of the café with the lights on. A figure in pink is visible on the ground floor, and two figures are sitting on the top floor.
Close up of the lit-up computer shop.

Let’s go for a small tour!

If you’d like to see more photos and videos of me making tiny things, usually customised and with an SFF design, follow me on Instagram: @dr_fiona_moore.

Fiona Moore (she/her) is an anthropologist who wandered into a business school twenty years ago, and stays balanced by writing SFF fiction and criticism, and making tiny things. Find her blog at

The 82nd Worldcon will take place in Glasgow, August 8–12, 2024. We can’t wait to welcome you to Glasgow and the SEC/Armadillo for a Worldcon for Our Futures.