A Mecca of Leather Culture at a House in Echo Park

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TOM House. Photographs by Martyn Thompson. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Robert Mapplethorpe has gone mainstream, with shows of his work now at LACMA and the Getty. But what about the other artist who celebrated hot men in leather? DnA visited TOM House, the “butch, hippy” community of “leathermen” and admirers of the homoerotic illustrations of Tom of Finland, now the subject of a new book from Rizzoli Press.

From outside it’s a regular four-story Craftsman-style house on a quiet street in Echo Park. But its tall hedge conceals an unusual interior: the house is a foundation for Tom of Finland, the Finnish illustrator who made homoerotic illustrations of men, mostly having fun with each other while wearing elaborate leather outfits.

Tom of Finland himself lived in the house and now it is seeking cultural landmark status. It was founded by Durk Dehner in 1984, a former model and Tom of Finland fan who convinced Tom to come to LA.

The living room of TOM House. Photograph by Martyn Thompson
The living room of TOM House. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“The very first Tom of Finland drawing I ever saw was actually a drawing of Durk,” said Marc Ransdell Bellenger, curator and head of community development for the Tom of Finland Foundation. “And it’s kind of when I realized I was not the only person on earth attracted to this stuff. There was at least one other person. At that point in time I was an eleven year old kid living in Kentucky. And now I’m here living in the house. That drawing hangs twenty feet away from my bedroom.”

“You know I grew up in a very rural environment. I felt like an outcast. There was no one else around like me,” added Ransdell Bellenger. “Now I pretty much live like this twenty four seven. There are leather men out there in square landlocked states that would kill to experience my life for ten minutes. I’m absolutely blessed.”

The house has been home to a community of gay men who enjoy wearing leather and appreciate Tom of Finland’s illustrations.

“Our history is very important we want to ensure that it is here for the next generation. We’re not just a house. We are an institution. We are referred to us as the world’s largest homoerotic archive next to the Vatican.”

Tom died in his native Finland in 1991. But the community that grew around his work inspired many, including Michael Reynolds, creative director and U.S. Editor of Wallpaper Magazine, and Mayer Rus, West Coast Editor of Architectural Digest. Together with photographer Martyn Thompson, they have published a new book, “TOM House: Tom of Finland in Los Angeles.”

An illustration by Tom of Finland.
An illustration by Tom of Finland. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It’s a celebration of the art, and of the household, which Mayer Rus describes as a “butch, hippy community.” DnA sat in Tom’s former bedroom-come-studio, on a coverlet adorned with Tom’s imagery, and talked about what the house signifies.

Mayer Rus: This is  one of the most interesting pieces of gay cultural history that still sort of exists in a way that evokes its 1970s, 1980s heritage.

Michael Reynolds: This house as it lives today is really the legacy of Tom. And it was the message of his work. It was about flying your freak flag. No judgment. Being playful with your sexuality, whatever that might be. You know, be it gay, lesbian, straight, trans, bisexual, all of the above. It really was about liberating the individual I think sexually, through this imagery is something that he really promoted. And if you really study his imagery it’s always very warm, it’s very loving, it’s very playful, it’s very fun.

You know Tom for me was a real shaman, he was a medicine man. He was a healer in a lot of ways. The work that he was doing in the 40s, the 50s, the 60s, it really was a very dark repressed time with LGBT culture and he really was this beacon of light in the lives of a lot of gay men who were getting this material underground. I think it was a very healing, powerful thing that he was doing, at the time when homosexuality was illegal.

A collection of paintings on display at TOM House.
A collection of paintings on display at TOM House. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Rus: I think it should be required reading, required visiting for young gays to come to this house and understand what life was like before gay marriage and before Pier Imports and when this imagery was incredibly radical.

You know there are a lot of gay men who like to separate their professional lives from their personal lives. And you know, it can be very chintz by day and chaps by night. The message of TOM House is to wear your leather proudly 24/7. It’s, you know, weddings in the New York Times and party planners and white Yohji Yamamoto suits on the beach barefoot. This house is a nice tonic to that. Back when it was more underground, more raunchy and he felt like you were in something together with a group of people.

Reynolds: First there’s simply the technical excellence. I mean his facility with the brush and the pencil is incredible. It is not far fetched to say that there’s an old masterly technique at work in his drawings. But you have to place his work, if you’re looking to place it in the spectrum of twentieth century art history, you have to place it more in a lineage that extends back to Daumier and Goya and people who looked around at their world and made these drawings that had real political power.

And the audience is growing incredibly, I think. There are two Mapplethorpe shows at LACMA and Getty, and they borrowed a few pieces from the house for the Mapplethorpe shows. You know Tom and Robert knew one another and there was definitely cross-pollination there. And a lot of this is all coming up now. I mean it’s the zeitgeist of the moment right now.

See more images from the book here. And if leather men are your thing, it so happens this is Los Angeles Leather Pride week. More details here.