For the 13 years Ray Azoulay has owned the Venice antiques and curiosities business Obsolete, he has built a reputation for having an unconventional eye and a signature look, a neo-Victorian mix of early industrial artifacts, vintage laboratory equipment, steampunk style, taxidermy and other natural oddities.
Now the trendsetter is taking on another role: pot stirrer.
In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court earlier this month, Obsolete accused Restoration Hardware of intentional misrepresentation, false advertising and unfair competition, among other legal claims, all stemming from what Azoulay said were the chain store's reproductions of vintage furnishings that he had collected and sold at Obsolete. His challenge in court has been complemented by the April 22 launch of http://www.restoration-reproduces.com. There, Azoulay shows photos of vintage Obsolete lighting — pieces that cost tens of thousands of dollars to procure in France and Italy, according to his lawsuit — alongside new Restoration Hardware reproductions. To connect the dots, Exhibits 1 and 2 of his lawsuit are store receipts for the Obsolete lights, purchased by a shopper who had the pieces shipped to a Corte Madera, Calif., address that, Azoulay's suit said, turned out to be the corporate offices for Restoration Hardware.
Restoration Hardware responded by filing a cross-complaint Monday in Los Angeles that included claims of defamation and trade libel. The company also issued a statement to The Times on Wednesday that said "the claims filed by Mr. Azoulay and Obsolete are entirely meritless, and we are pleased that as a result of the litigation response made by Restoration Hardware, he and his company have agreed that, regardless of how they feel about our business, they will not continue to make inflammatory and disparaging allegations about what we do."
But come Thursday, Azoulay's anti-Restoration site was still live, declaring on its main page: "This is NOT an issue of 'copying' or 'trademarking' designs. … This is an issue of Corporate Ethics by the Design staff of Restoration Hardware."
Azoulay continued to raise the questions: If an independent merchant stakes his reputation to his ability to find rare and compelling pieces of design around the world, and he invests significant time and money to do, is it fair for a larger company to cherry-pick the best discoveries, manufacture lookalike reproductions and undercut the little guy on price? Is that an ethical line breached or merely savvy business practice?
The back story
The key component of success for Obsolete, Azoulay said, is uniqueness.
"Obsolete is all about finding one-of-a-kind pieces," he said. It's more than a store. It's a place of inspiration, he said.
He had no idea how true that was until he received Restoration Hardware's Spring 2011 Source Book, a nearly inch-thick, 382-page catalog that lists not only the in-stock pieces consumers see in stores but also made-to-order pieces that interior designers or others in the trade can buy for clients. There, pictured in one of the opening spreads and detailed in the pages dedicated to lighting, Azoulay saw three fixtures that looked very familiar, he said.
A 1940s wall-mounted lamp from an architect's office in France and two expanding scissor-arm fixtures from Italy appeared to be replicas of vintage lamps that Azoulay had sold in March 2010, according to his lawsuit. In an interview, Azoulay said he followed the paper and Google trail and found out that the buyer worked in product development for Restoration Hardware. A Restoration Hardware spokesman confirmed for The Times that the buyer formerly worked as a contractor for the store, and store receipts filed with the lawsuit show that last spring she spent $19,625.75 at Obsolete for seven light fixtures and express shipping.
Azoulay has a policy of not selling to other retailers, and he makes this policy known to prospective buyers, according to his suit. His claim said that Restoration's buyer did not identify her employer, and court documents show that she used a Gmail email address as contact information.
Jump ahead one year. The "1940s architectural boom sconce," a newly manufactured reproduction of a vintage design, is listed for $450 on Page 332 of Restoration Hardware's Source Book. Azoulay's lawsuit says it looks nearly identical to the "wall mounted industrial light from an architect's office in France circa 1940" that court documents show had fetched $7,500 in Azoulay's store. The Restoration Hardware catalog page does not specify that the piece is a reproduction, but the description on the company's website says: "Our grandly-scaled sconce replicates an original that once illuminated a French architect's studio in the 1940s."
Azoulay was offended that a competitor was "buying things, copying them and claiming that they found them in Europe," he said to The Times in an interview. "There's a difference between Venice, California, and Venice, Italy."
He sent a letter dated March 22 to Gary Friedman, chairman and co-chief executive of Restoration Hardware, citing the Obsolete pieces from France and Italy. The letter said Azoulay had paid for "the exclusive rights in the United States to sell these styles from the Italian atelier," and he had "spent precious time and resources locating and bringing to the United States" the pieces in question.
Azoulay noted that the Restoration Hardware chairman's opening message in the catalog declares that the chain will "be authentic to our own unique point of view," so Azoulay closed his letter with the line: "I would hope that you will also direct your staff to 'be authentic to your own unique point of view,' not mine."
A response dated April 8 came back from Restoration's Chief Financial Officer Chris Newman. In the letter, which Azoulay provided to The Times, Newman pointed out that Azoulay did not design the lamps: "You simply bought antique pieces created by someone else, and sold them." Newman said his company had reviewed "relevant law in this area" and determined that "copyright does not extend to articles with utilitarian function." The letter closes: "I trust you will recognize that reproduction of antiques is nothing new and that there is nothing wrong with what Restoration Hardware has done."
The Times' requests for additional comment were answered with a spokesman's statement, which said Restoration Hardware has a deep respect for original design and constantly acknowledges the provenance of items it sells.
"Restoration Hardware searches the globe to bring consumers the very best design the world has to offer — finding talented artisans who we can collaborate with, compelling design ideas that we can put into a fresh context, and beautiful antiques that we can reproduce," the company said, adding: "We are passionately committed to sharing with our customers a level of design and quality previously available only to a select few."
The bigger picture
Knockoffs, copycats, lookalikes — whatever you call them — are nothing new. But unlike a furniture designer who may see his trendy new chair copied and mass-produced at a lower price, Azoulay's claim is rooted in vintage work. These are pieces that he did not design but invested heavily to obtain based on their rarity and originality. The question he raises: If he buys a set of rare lamps — unusual in design, no longer in production and very limited in number — is it ethical for someone else to buy one, mass-produce it and sell it for less, potentially making it harder for Azoulay to sell his originals?
In his letter to Restoration's chairman, Azoulay said the practice amounts to "hitchhiking" on his labor.
Clinton Howell, president of the Art and Antique Dealers League of America, the oldest organization of its kind in the country, said the industry has no universal standards of conduct or code of ethics. Dealers, he said, simply have to live with the hitchhikers.
"It's always disappointing when one of your antiques gets reproduced," Howell said from New York, where his group is staging the Spring Show NYC antiques sale. "If someone came into my store and bought a chest of drawers and wanted to reproduce it, they have every right."
Howell said he personally sees little problem because the reproduction never can be the antique. In aged material or in pure history, the antique always will be special, and no reproduction can take that away.
Azoulay said he recognizes the fact that there is no legal reason why a shopper can't replicate functional designs. He said he supports the democratization of design, a movement to provide better furnishings at lower costs — an equation that inevitably includes reproductions. He even said he has been a fan of Restoration Hardware.
"I don't think they are the enemy," he said. "In fact, when people ask me if I have bar stools, I send them to Restoration Hardware for their Toledo stools."
But his lawsuit spells out his ethical grievances, including the accusation that the company's employee "deliberately concealed her connection to the defendants," mass-produced items that are "virtually identical" in appearance and led customers to believe that Restoration Hardware had "acquired the original works themselves from overseas suppliers," when, in fact, Azoulay said, his store did the legwork.
In an era where the back story to a piece of furniture is as important to some shoppers as the way it looks, Azoulay is drawing support. An antiques dealer in New York came forward with a similar story, saying an item in the new Restoration catalog is a replica of something he had sold to a shopper in San Francisco.
"They should call it Replication Hardware," said Tod Donobedian, owner of TC Donobedian's Paris Flea, adding that Restoration Hardware employees are no longer welcome in his shop. "I think they are vampirish in a way. Antique dealers put forth a real personal vision of how they perceive the world — that is all they have." Maybe it's just business, he said, but "to have a point of view purchased or purloined is really offensive to hardworking small guys."
The website 1stdibs, popular among shoppers of antiques and high-end 20th century design, heard Azoulay's story and canceled a Restoration Hardware banner ad contract worth $200,000, founder Michael Bruno said. Azoulay said the harm isn't just to individual store owners whose livelihoods are rooted in an ability to offer unique pieces of design. He said Restoration Hardware's practices are unfair to his shoppers who purchase expensive pieces of rare, vintage or original design and later see replicas manufactured and sold for a fraction of the price. But there's a bigger philosophical point he is trying to make, he said: "I am sure there are young designers at Restoration Hardware with genius ideas, and I would hope that they get the chance to design things, not just copy them."