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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ruffles and Ripoffs

posted by on September 18 at 15:29 PM

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:

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How is this protected intellectual property?

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 18, 2008 3:37 PM

so if it was non-profit, what exactly is being taken from the artists? I just saw a Nova special on an early french aviator who, in a fit of intellectual generosity, refused to patent his airplane designs. Thus other people took his good ideas and ran with them.

I can see that it would be decent of Anthropologie to cite the artists as inspiration, but really, what do these people expect to get out of a lawsuit in the first place without making some formal claim to the intellectual property?

Posted by rococo | September 18, 2008 3:43 PM

Why am I not surprised to find, at the end of an otherwise engaging article, that both walls are utterly hideous?

Posted by whatevernevermind | September 18, 2008 3:55 PM

@3, thats because it is so obvious.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 18, 2008 3:57 PM

@2 copyright doesn't require commercial exploitation. I could write a book, publish it myself, give copies away, and still sue a publisher who reprinted it and sold copies.

This sort of rip-off happens all the time between artists and designers (and goes both ways--though the artist is more likely to honestly steal than surreptitiously borrow). But it would be really hard to successfully sue over.

Posted by Eric F | September 18, 2008 4:05 PM

I'm not totally sure the non-profit issue matters much here. I think the artists were ripped off, but the law concerning design is pretty sketchy. Just check the t-shirt section of their sister company, Urban Outfitters. It's replete with legally-off-the-hook-by-making-very-slight-alterations to other artists' works, and selling it as their own.

Also, HOLY GREAT WHITE CONCERT PEOPLE! I'd be nervous as hell to be in that room.

Posted by Dougsf | September 18, 2008 4:06 PM

This sounds like something for the blog You thought we wouldn't notice...

Posted by UNPAID BLOGGER | September 18, 2008 4:11 PM


i'm pretty sure i've seen similar things done elsewhere. i don't think these guys invented, "lets put brown paper on the wall in a scrunchy design".

art is about expression and all artists and designers take inspiration from other artists and designers. This is a pretty blatant copy, but so fucking what? It's a decoration in a store. Anthropolgie isn't selling it nor are they claiming they are displaying a Kavannaugh/Nguyen original.

Posted by michael strangeways | September 18, 2008 4:16 PM

Anthropologie does this all the time. I've seen stacked straws a la Tara Donovan, and finely cut paper like Kirsten Hassenfeld's. It's more than a passing resemblance. I was talking to a Brooklyn artist once and said that I would love to be the Anthropologie craft person, and she shut that down, saying that artists hate Anthropologie because it is notorious for ripping off their designs. Once she said it, I started looking closer, and sure 'knuf....

Posted by kit | September 18, 2008 4:46 PM

Hmmm... maybe that's why the retailbots at Anthropologie told my friend and I we couldn't photograph their wall when we were shopping there in '06. They were afraid of getting caught!

Posted by sorryroger | September 18, 2008 4:49 PM

Anthropolgie isn't selling it nor are they claiming they are displaying a Kavannaugh/Nguyen original.

but anthropologie does benefit from these designs: those who do not know the art is "stolen" associate the concept (the art) with anthropologie. this is a capital of sorts, taken from the art community and used to promote a corporation.

i find it rather similar to when a song is used by a politician at rallies, even though the artist doesn't support the politician.

Posted by infrequent | September 18, 2008 5:10 PM

i'd like to see corporations start charging people royalties for using their materials in art projects.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 18, 2008 5:14 PM

ba - your comment isn't that witty.

first off, you write as if corps don't already do such things, when there are many corps that do. for instance, try shooting a music video with a well-known logo in it.

secondly, if you buy something, you have limited rights to do certain things with it (unless there is a contract specifying otherwise). but anthropology didn't buy anything... they "stole" it (as much as ripping a music track is RIAA stealing). if they paid to use it, then they should be able to display it... i don't think anyone's is arguing against that.

Posted by infrequent | September 18, 2008 5:19 PM

Man I hate the name of that store.

Posted by crazycatguy | September 18, 2008 5:24 PM

@12 @13 my first sentence doesn't sound very nice. i didn't mean it to be insulting, though there's really no other way to read it. sorry about that.

Posted by infrequent | September 18, 2008 5:27 PM

Actually, these photos don't really do the concept justice... I remember being in the downtown Anthro that year and then talking about how incredible that wall was. In fact, I still occasionally mention it two years later, because it really enthralled me.

Verrrry interesting to discover that it had already been done elsewhere and may have been a ripoff. Heh. Paper. Ripoff.

Posted by leek | September 18, 2008 5:38 PM

I was just excited to discover that Anthropologie sells $8,000 plant pots the last time I was there.

Posted by Fnarf | September 18, 2008 5:52 PM

It looks flamable. If I were the outraged artist I think I could find a way to...negate the problem.

Posted by yucca flower | September 18, 2008 5:54 PM

Kraft paper on walls. Wasn't this shit done in the 1990's? Gross.

Posted by Catman | September 18, 2008 10:53 PM

infrequent, if people insist that violating laws they disagree (DRM, etc) with isn't wrong i don't see how they can claim that what anthropology is doing is wrong.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 18, 2008 10:55 PM

@20 Huh? What the hell are you talking about?

Posted by Michael | September 19, 2008 12:55 AM

Thud: "Like Anthropologie is in the grip of a force of nature."

The rest, fine, even "and I believe them" and "damning."

And here's to Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen Nguyen.

Posted by dvnms | September 19, 2008 2:40 AM

Gosh, I don't know- I did that to represent mountains on a toy train layout 13 years ago. Does that make me an artist? Should I have charged admission to someone to see the toy trains?

God knows I was hardly the first.

Posted by serial catowner | September 19, 2008 7:30 AM

bellevue ave-

well, despite the fact that breaking one law does not justify breaking another law, and despite the fact that some laws are just while others or unjust, and despite the fact that breaking some laws is more of a hardship on people than others.... despite all that...

breaking a DRM is illegal, and corps DO go after people for them. so what is your point? you seem to imply that corps don't... heard of the RIAA?

aside from that, you seem to be making the case that what anthropology did was wrong because breaking DRMs etc... are already wrong.

Posted by infrequent | September 19, 2008 10:52 AM

I've made "art" similar to this by crumpling up brown paper to keep fragile goods safe during shipping. I expect to be contacted by the artist's lawyers soon. I'm not sorry.

Posted by Miss A | September 19, 2008 10:52 AM

yeah, okay, we get... your kid could paint that or whatever.

Posted by infrequent | September 19, 2008 11:08 AM

Copyright law exists to protect creator's incomes. It does NOT exist so creators can boss other people around to protect the supposed uniqueness of their work. If they are not losing any money because of this, the artists have not been wronged in any way and throwing a hissy fit over this is juvenile and abusive of Anthropologie's right to decorate its own space as it sees fit.

Posted by east coaster | September 19, 2008 6:42 PM

east coaster... you are wrong in the way you word that. you say, "if they are not losing any money..." as if they are not losing money. but they are losing the money that should have been paid to them from the store. the store is clearly getting advertisement value out of the work -- like using a song in a tv commercial. according to you, using a song in a commercial doesn't cause the artist to lose any money...

Posted by infrequent | September 21, 2008 3:07 PM

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