The Iowan

A Perfect Platform

Designing and displaying have become the hallmarks of collector Kathy Bubenheim’s days.

By Stephanie Finnegan

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In Field of Dreams, actor Kevin Costner hears a disembodied voice urging him to construct a baseball diamond. “If you build it, he will come,” the Costner character is told. Not knowing the fate of this direction—folly or victory—he follows the order, and achieves a happy ending.

For Department 56® collector Kathy Bubenheim, her desire to design often happens the same way. She could be watching a movie, browsing at a garage sale, or taking a stroll in the park—and boom! She gets a sudden inspiration for a clever new display trick. “Some ideas come in dreams. I can see myself walking around this beautiful little village. If I can see it in my mind, I can build it,” the handy enthusiast declares. “I love to experiment with different kinds of media to see what will work the best. I love doing this so much.”

In Bubenheim’s home, which she shares with Charlie, her devoted husband of 40 years (“He is my biggest critic and inspector!”), arts and crafts certainly reign supreme. Kathy keeps busy with her platform-building business, which evolved from the challenge of collecting and displaying her large number of Halloween, North Pole, Seasons Bay, and New England Village buildings. 

“Charlie bought me my first Halloween building over 12 years ago. It was ‘Grimsly Manor.’ It was the perfect gift because my birthday is on Halloween. I began to add new pieces as they came out. I was hooked,” she admits. “My village grew and grew. I ran out of shelf space really fast. Soon I started to experiment with Styrofoam™. Styrofoam is perfect to paint, sculpt, and stick things into. I found out that it kept the trees and the lampposts from falling over.”

Well aware that the collecting bug can outpace the available space, Kathy is pained when she sees buildings neglected and jumbled in other collectors’ homes. “You should set your village up where you will enjoy it the most,” she suggests. “You don’t need to crowd too many things together. Keep it simple, and stop stacking them on books!”

Able to carve, paint, and see possibilities in everyday, ordinary items, Kathy is able to blend her buildings with realistic-looking backdrops and settings. “Looking at the villages after they are up and running, I have the feeling that I am there. It is always amazing seeing them come to life.”

Living in a small community, Kathy hasn’t encountered any opportunities to show off her villages all set up. However, she “designed and donated two large platforms to our little church,” Bubenheim reveals. “One is for the Department 56 ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’ and the other one is for Department 56’s ‘Holy Land, Easter.’ The congregation loves both of them and really enjoys them.” Kathy was touched by their appreciation and was happy that she was able to share her God-given gifts with them.

“My family and my friends have encouraged me over the years. They’ve urged me to follow my heart. I was told that if you did something you loved, you would be more likely to be successful and happy,” the collector affirms.

Following that decree, Bubenheim hung up a cyberspace shingle, so to speak. She set up shop on the Internet as Department 56 Displays by Kathy, offering up her services as a platform builder and designer (

“For myself and for my customers, I hand sculpt block walls, flagstones, and cobblestones. The water effects look real and have depth to them. I use real rocks, oak twigs, moss, and the best groundcover that is used by model-train enthusiasts. I always try to use colors that set the scene on fire and would reflect the true nature of the village. I believe that the natural things I use add realism and depth to the scenes.” As a matter of fact, when Kathy finishes one of her constructions, “I can see myself walking along the sidewalk or sailing on the dark blue ocean.” 

Supported by her husband who cheerleads, critiques, and assists in cutting, Kathy also gets a helping hand with her inspiration from friend Priscilla Mester. “She is a Department 56 rep, and has a barn filled with buildings and accessories. She has been a seller and a collector for many years, too. If I need to see the scale of something I don’t have, I just go over to the barn. It’s like going to a wonderland. It’s a perfect way for me to see and measure all the different buildings.”

Working as a designer for herself and for others, Kathy often loses track of time when she is building and envisioning. Her work takes hours and hours, but she finds that invigorating and exhilarating. “I have made more than 600 display platforms by now. I do put a lot of time into each one—hours and hours—but that’s because I love the details. I keep designing new ones as Department 56 keeps coming out with new items.”

One of her newest designs is also one of her most relaxing and nature-based. “It is ‘Crystal Falls’ and it is a camping scene. I hope that when people see my work, they come into the different villages and are able to see them through my eyes,” the artist explains. “Taking care of my disabled mother for seven years kept me pretty homebound. I couldn’t go to the Department 56 Gatherings, shows, and competitions that were put on, which was a disappointment. However, being close to home gave me the time to hone my skills, design my displays, custom-make my platforms, and then set up a business. I learned that the details are everything.”

And Kathy Bubenheim also learned that following one’s dreams does lead to satisfaction and contentment. She has built it, and customers have come. Kevin Costner would be proud. 





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