In late 2006, the Anthropologie clothing store in downtown Seattle had this great installation. 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 last week: "Everybody gets their unique twist. Nobody had a wall like us."
But back 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 photographic documentation is damning. In May 2005 at a nonprofit arts space in Portland, Maine, called 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 Seattle Anthropologie. The artists heard about it through a Seattle-based friend in October 2006 and contacted prominent copyright attorney John Koegel (Jeff Koons's lawyer), Kavanaugh explained last week in an interview at Suyama Space in Seattle, where he currently has a solo show. Koegel, Kavanaugh said, made no headway with Anthropologie, and the artists, unfortunately, have no further recourse.
"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 price tag 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.
This week, the manager at Anthropologie 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 e-mail that avoided specifics even though I'd asked about the wall in downtown Seattle. "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?