My newest research project engages theories of professional and amateur making to interpret the role of craft in producing the environments and objects that have supported the radical cultures of sex in the gay leather scene since the 1950s. This is a major departure from my previous work on Russian design: a place where concealing homosexuality has become ever more tiresome since I started to wear a wedding ring. Shifting one's research profile is a daunting task, however: how does one gain the pre-knowledge possible to make a successful funding application in a new area? The DHS Research Travel Grant has given me the resources and confidence to undertake a pre-study that will form the basis of several research applications.
The grant brought me to Los Angeles (LA), the home of the ONE archives, which is the largest LGBT archival repository. My initial aim was to understand the relationship between amateur and professional forms of making in the gay biker organisations that emerged in LA during the 1950s. The archives contain a wealth of material on fetish and making, from the pink chaps and waistcoats by one of LA's best known leather makers, the flags designed by an enthusiast of German imperial heraldry (from the Blue Max bike club), to quaintly obscene quilts and accompanying pulp fiction from the 'gay mormon quilters club'. While these encounters with instances of craft and making were interesting, I was struggling to find cohesive ways of linking them together.
The turning point came after I picked up the phone and organised an appointment to visit the Tom of Finland foundation, located in the American Craftsman style house in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles where the Finnish erotic artist Tuoko Laaksonnen (1920-1991) spent the last decade of his life. Tom of Finland produced pencil drawings that depicted swaggering male sexuality, which have been attributed a central role in the sexual liberation of gay men and the popularisation of gay fetish lifestyles. Greeted at the door by Mark, looking splendid in his leather jeans, I was invited to explore the house and to come back for pizza the next day - when I met Durk Dehner, a key figure in the LA leather history and a frequent subject of Tom's artwork.
The house is stuffed with erotic art collected by the foundation, which was established in 1984 to collect, promote and sell erotic artwork. The house contains a library, archives and accommodation for artists in residence, as well as many art and design objects inspired by his drawings that include fashion lines, furniture and products that range from coffee to sex toys. During my visits to the house and conversations with Durk, it became clear that Tom of Finland would make a great subject for a design historical study because his images have inspired making that has historically zig-zagged between underground radical sex cultures, tattooing and body modification, set-design, fashion and more recently branded products. By locating Tom's significance in the field of design, it may be possible to grasp the social relevance of gay erotic artwork by tracing their creation in both amateur and professional contexts. A design history of Tom of Finland can help us to understand the social relevance of his images in their full social dimension.
Tom Cubbin Senior Lecturer, HDK - Academy of Design and Crafts