Tom House: Tom of Finland in Los Angeles
Edited by Michael Reynolds
Rizzoli. 256 pages, $55.
IF THE NAME Touko Laaksonen doesn’t mean much to you, “Tom of Finland” probably does. It was under that name that Laaksonen (1920-1991) produced the thousands of homoerotic drawings, paintings, and other works that have made him famous. He created an iconography that celebrated gay male sexuality with hitherto unseen candor. It was a universe that had the phallus—exaggerated, glorified—at its center. Though Tom’s work was initially seen only in early semi-pornographic publications like Physique Pictorial (where his first published drawing appeared in 1957), it has since been the subject of several retrospective exhibits and was included in the 1991 Whitney Biennial.
Tom’s importance as an artist was given its fullest testament with the publication of Taschen Books’ massive 668-page, fifteen-pound volume, Tom of Finland XXL, in 2009. The book is the most comprehensive treatment of his work between two covers. In addition to the works themselves, it features essays by critics such as Edward Lucie-Smith and Camille Paglia, as well as more personal appreciations by Todd Oldham, Armistead Maupin, and John Waters, among others. Other notable books about Tom include F. Valentine Hooven’s 1993 biography, Tom of Finland: His Life and Times, and Micha Ramakers’ Dirty Pictures (2000), which provides an entertaining reflection on Tom’s place in gay culture and in popular culture in general.
Tom House: Tom of Finland in Los Angeles is a relatively compact book with only eight pages of text. The rest of it is devoted to gorgeous color photographs of the 1912 Craftsman home in the Echo Park section of L.A., where Tom lived during his last decade. Known officially as “Tom House,” the building is the headquarters of the Tom of Finland Foundation, which manages an extensive archive. In his introduction, Mayer Rus describes the house as “equal parts frat pad, utopian collective, art historical archive, sepulcher, community center, and den of iniquity.” This is a home that has hosted curators, librarians, and sex party participants.
Rus provides a brief account of how current foundation president Durk Dehner (who co-established the foundation in 1984) met Tom and became devoted to the artist and his legacy. In addition to preserving and promoting Tom’s art, Dehner also protected Tom from those who trafficked in, and tried to profit from, unauthorized Tom of Finland reproductions and products. Today Tom’s images do a brisk (and legitimate) business; they can be found not only on greeting cards and posters but also on clothing, bedroom linens, and coffee mugs.
But Tom of Finland is more than a business. As Mayer Rus notes, today’s Tom House (which he calls a “polygamous household”) is the locus of a vibrant community. Several men live there, some of whom have even changed their surnames to Dehner, forming what’s known as the Dehner Brotherhood. There’s an active dungeon in the basement to accommodate the aforementioned sex parties. Once, Rus relates, a Maytag repairman visited the house to fix the washing machine and ran away in terror when he saw the slings and other sex toys set up near the appliance.
The photos in this book (most of them by Martyn Thompson) comprise a veritable walking tour of the home. The rooms are filled not only with Tom’s drawings and paintings (and those of other artists), but also with sculptures, dildos, leather apparel, fetish gear, packed bookshelves, and a wide array of salacious curios. Mixed in with the photos are reproductions of Tom’s sketches and rough studies, plus pages from his scrapbooks and finished works. Many spots in the home are displayed as if the artist himself has just been there; art supplies fill much of the space. One gets a clear sense of the artist at work.
During the peak of the AIDS crisis, the foundation archives began to take in and preserve the work of other gay artists, works that it continues to safeguard for posterity. In this very palpable sense, Tom House is meeting a vital historical need. The property is currently being considered for status as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. It’s fair to say that the home is also a gay monument, and this book is a colorful record of the many treasures preserved under its roof.
Jim Nawrocki, a writer based in San Francisco, is a longtime and frequent contributor to these pages.