Visual Art Ruffles and Ripoffs
posted by September 18 at 15:29 PMon
In late 2006, the Anthropologie store in downtown Seattle had this great wall design. The soaring, two-story wall at the back of the store was covered in layers—layers upon layers upon layers—of brown paper, folded and crumpled like the elaborately draped fabrics of the store’s expensive dresses. When you looked at the wall, you thought: Looks like earth. Like the sedimentary layers of a geological cross-section. Like Anthropologie is in the grip of a force of nature.
The design wasn’t in any of Anthropologie’s other stores, the manager told me in a phone interview yesterday: “Everybody gets their unique twist. Nobody had a wall like us.”
But in 2005, two East Coast artists named Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen Nguyen did have a wall like that. They created it.
They say Anthropologie stole it.
The visual documentation is damning. In May 2005 at the Portland, Maine nonprofit art space The Map Room, Kavanaugh and Nguyen covered the walls with brown paper and called their installation Striped Canary on the Subterranean Horizon. The Map Room is embedded in a hillside, and the artists wanted to “reveal” the earth behind the walls.
“Armed with nothing but brown Kraft paper and staples, Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen transformed the [gallery] into a space both familiar and foreign,” Sculpture magazine touted in its April 2006 issue. The magazine featured two full-color photographs with the story.
Months later, that very design appeared in the clothing retail store. When the artists heard about it, in October 2006, they contacted a prominent copyright attorney, John Koegel (Jeff Koons’s lawyer), who made no headway with Anthropologie and had to tell the artists that, unfortunately, they had no further recourse, artist Kavanaugh said yesterday in an interview at Suyama Space in Seattle, where he currently has a solo show.
“We had no rights because the piece that we did was in a nonprofit context,” he said—but if Striped Canary on the Subterranean Horizon had worn a pricetag and shown in a commercial gallery (or if the artists had applied formally through the copyright office for their nonprofit temporary installation), the artists could sue for copyright infringement.
The manager at Anthropologie this week told me I’d have to talk to corporate (the “visual merchandising team” at “our home office”) in order to find out more. In response to my query, public relations director Sarah Goodstein sent me an email that avoided specifics even though I’d asked about the wall in downtown Seattle in 2006. “Although [our designers] look to the outside world for inspiration, including other artists, their display installations are original,” Goodstein wrote. “If an artist approached Anthropologie, however, regarding perceived use of their work we would be sensitive to their concerns.”
So, Anthropologie: Where’s your sensitivity now?
Here are the images, first Striped Canary on the Subterranean Horizon and then the wall in Anthropologie:
Here’s an interview with artist Wade Kavanaugh about the issue: