Ray Azoulay claims the chain Restoration Hardware has taken vintage designs… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
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?
Document: Obsolete vs. Restoration Hardware
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."