Making Queer

Making as a gay man is a political statement that I will not be relegated to the periphery of society, seen as inconsequential, or be without the power to shape my own world and the worlds of others.

by Neal Ulrich on August 11th, 2015

With sawdust in my hair and machine grease underneath my nails, I’m rarely the image of the groomed and polished gay man popular culture has come to expect. Rather, I’m almost always on my feet working with my hands, cutting, sanding, gluing and welding; building things, be they out of wood, metal or plastic. I’m a furniture designer and maker, and as a student in Stanford University’s Product Design program, much of my life is consumed with learning how to design and build the stuff of tomorrow.

An asymmetrical  wooden pill box with a bronze lid, a few pills scattered near it.

The Inspirator redefines the pill bottle as an item of luxury rather than an item of shame.

Furniture design and the maker movement are largely about creating objects of quality in a world where so much is cheap, poorly made, and ugly. From traffic signs to tableware, we encounter billions of designed things everyday. Design not only makes our lives more beautiful, it makes them easier, more practical, and more fun. But most importantly, design sends messages. A stoplight tells us what to do at an intersection. A dining room table tells us how to gather for a meal.  Designers encode objects with information; it is therefore their job to craft a particular message and communicate that effectively. The thing is, there’s a lot of liberty in choosing exactly what that message will be, as long as you can see beyond normative ways of thinking and doing.

A great example of this is the recent controversy over Lego’s male-dominated toys. Lego men get to put out fires, explore space, and fight supervillains, while Lego women take care of animals, lounge by the pool, and operate beauty shops. Without any words, these toys send implicit messages to children and their parents about what boys can do and what girls can do—and more importantly, what they can’t. This segregation in toys leads to manufactured beliefs in boys and girls about their abilities and how they will later operate in the world as men and women.

Especially as a gay man, I see these implicit messages as a powerful opportunity to redesign the world in my image—to shed heteronormative and masculinist modes of thinking and doing that are deeply ingrained in society. How might toys empower girls to be scientists and engineers, or give boys permission to be sensitive and express their feelings? There’s great potential for queer designers and makers to offer new ways of navigating and thinking about the world… if only there were any.

In my experience and research, very few makers are gay or queer, and if they are, they don’t see the queer perspective as being relevant to their design practice. In my time at both Stanford and a for-profit workshop in Pittsburgh, I’ve been one of the only openly gay men among the hundred-plus makers working alongside me.

A chair with thin, clean, wiry legs and no back rest or padding.

With the gestalt of a chair, but decidedly without its function, Priss is a stool with status fit for a queen.

My own design practice is heavily informed by my queerness and my unique perspective as an “other.” I like to highlight the assumptions we have of the way things should be by designing furniture that rejects these standards. My most recent project was the stool above, which features high extensions meant to define vertical space around the sitter and inspire them to an elevated status. The extensions provide the potential support to stretch a back between them, but I intentionally left this out, much to the confusion–and sometimes anger–of my peers. I actually had someone tell me my stool made them mad… because I messed with their expectations and the way stools and chairs “should” be designed.

When people hear how few queer product designers and makers are in my program, they’re often surprised. Most assume these are disciplines that would attract gay men, who are otherwise rather overrepresented in creative fields. Interior and fashion design are industries flooded with gay men. And while products and furniture may be more technically demanding than rooms and clothing, they are still richly creative pursuits.

Furniture designers don’t necessarily advertise their sexuality on the web or in interviews, but even so, in my research I came up with a list of just four openly queer, prominent furniture designers. This is in stark contrast to the number of gay interior designers, who seem to be almost every male in the industry.

So why then might gay men be more attracted to interior design over furniture design, and so what if they are? In his book The Culture of Queers, Richard Dyer writes that professions like interior and fashion design—professions concerned with style above all else—have “been a way of declaiming that queens [gay men] have something distinctive to offer society.” Living for so long as outcasts on the margins, gay men have taken up these style professions as a way to make themselves culturally relevant, socially acceptable, and legitimate members of society. Dyer writes, however, that this offers “A certain legitimacy only. The very luxuriousness and ‘uselessness’ of these professions have also tended to reinforce the image of gay men as decadent, marginal, [and] frivolous.”

This image exists within a society that distinguishes ‘utilitarian’ pursuits as masculine and ‘aesthetic’ pursuits as feminine. While I would love to see more gay men in furniture design and as makers, I want to be clear that I am not holding furniture design above more stylistic fields, nor do I believe that just because something is more ‘utilitarian’/‘masculine,’ it is a nobler pursuit than something that is more ‘aesthetic’/‘feminine.’ Both the gendering and prioritizing of these domains is antiquated, misogynistic, and heteronormative; aesthetics and style bring vibrancy, entertainment, and soul to the world and are an important, critical foundation to culture.

Perhaps with so many prominent gay interior designers, and so few furniture designers, creatively-inclined men tend towards what they already see in the world. No role models really exist for the nascent gay furniture designer. Furthermore, the rugged masculinity we associate with workshops and makerspaces may make it difficult for some to imagine themselves integrating into these spaces. It is a certain type of man we expect to be working with their hands, and it isn’t uncommon that I restrain my more effeminate tendencies to better align myself with that image.

Art historian G.C. Argan writes, “Anyone who doesn’t design, accepts to be designed.” Perhaps as gay men, we have accepted to be designed–to live in a straight man’s world rather than craft one of our own. Perhaps we lack a cultural self-confidence in our ability and rightful place as gay men to create things entirely our own. The maker movement is all about finding the self-efficacy to realize what was previously just an idea; by bringing something new into the world, the maker is leaving their mark on the world and contributing to our two million-year-long history of things. In our material world, things are totems of identity and influence; making is a powerful and meaningful act we may not feel comfortable performing.

A beautiful chandelier with a shapely black center and rich, gold curves waterfalling from it.

Realness mashes Baroque styling with modern materials to construct a distinct and queer identity for the home. 

In my own furniture, I’m developing a distinctly queer style for the modern queer home, reworking traditional forms, using materials in new contexts, and juxtaposing ‘masculine’ design elements with theatricality and glamor. For so long, the home has been a site of anxiety, secrecy, and contention for queer people. Just as drag allows queer people to perform larger-than-life diva personas, I want to create furniture that clothes queer homes in sophistication, elegance, and style and helps their owners reclaim the home as a place to be their fabulous, authentic self.

My desire to design and make comes from a desire for a more inclusive, more sensitive, queerer world. I think it’s important for all queer people to realize their potential to (literally) make a difference, and to feel empowered to look past stereotypical understandings of what we’re good at and what’s better left to straight people. We have valuable, unique perspectives to offer that can profoundly change how objects are designed and the consequent messages these objects communicate. Heteronormativity, gender segregation, and sexism abound in everything from toys to power tools to cosmetics. We need more sensitive makers to make a more sensitive world.

Making as a gay man is a political statement that I will not be relegated to the periphery of society, seen as inconsequential, or be without the power to shape my own world and the worlds of others. It is a way to leave my stamp, but more importantly, it is a way to create the world I would like to see. To have more gay representation in making, furniture design, and product design would be a chance to bring more diverse, sensitive perspectives to the creation of things that will fill the shelves and homes of tomorrow. It would be a chance to bring voices that have long been silenced into homes around the world, and a chance to design a world that is not predicated on outdated modes of thinking, tired stereotypes, and illogical divides of race, gender, and class.

Objects carry messages, with cultural norms and societal understandings encoded into their design. Designers and makers have the great privilege and enormous responsibility to craft these messages and to disseminate their perspective to the world. The material world has too long been dominated by outdated and prejudiced, heteronormative and misogynistic ways of thinking–a consequence of heterosexual reign over production. It is time we push back with our own messages and offer our own perspectives to the world, stepping out of the margins and into the store aisles. It is time we make with a distinctly queer flair, and in doing so, redesign the world.