weekly feature | Mar 13, 2024 |
How a credit dispute at Architectural Digest kicked off an industry conversation about ethics

The March issue of Architectural Digest has a charming cover story with the actor Sofía Vergara, who discusses redesigning her Los Angeles mansion alongside designer Ohara Davies-Gaetano. Vergara delivers funny quips (“I really don’t like pastels—they remind me of The Golden Girls”), and the rooms, all serene neutrals, are gorgeous. It’s exactly the kind of article you’d expect to anchor a spring issue of AD. But if you visit the magazine’s website today and scroll to the end of the digital version of that same story, you’ll find something that can’t be found in print. It’s language that doesn’t often appear in the magazine, or indeed in most design publications. It’s a correction:

An earlier version of this story did not report that Timothy Corrigan worked for several years on the architectural design and interiors. The story has been updated to include this information.

Those 31 words are the result of a conversation—about who gets credit for what on a design project—that normally happens behind closed doors. Now, it’s spilling out into public view.

The backstory, in brief: Timothy Corrigan was initially hired to work on Vergara’s home, a mansion in one of L.A.’s most expensive gated communities, Beverly Park. The house needed a full design scheme and some architectural TLC (in the article, Vergara referred to it as feeling like “a castle in Transylvania”). The L.A.– and Paris-based designer and his team got to work.

It wasn’t meant to be. Two years later—last year—Vergara let his firm go, then hired Davies-Gaetano to finish the project. Corrigan moved on to other work. But when the March issue of AD hit newsstands, the story, which did not mention Corrigan, caught him by surprise. “It was not appropriate, considering how much of the work was still ours,” he tells Business of Home. “They had not changed any of the architecture, which was a huge part of what we did, and a huge percentage of the interiors were still the furniture [we had specified].”

After Corrigan had his lawyer draft a complaint to Architectural Digest, the publication issued the correction and added a line about his involvement to the digital version of the article. But the story kept going. After highlighting the incident on Instagram on Sunday, Corrigan’s post (and his DMs) were flooded with designers—including A-listers like Mary McDonald and Robert Couturier, who reported having similar experiences. Soon the topic migrated to designer Facebook groups and text threads, quickly becoming the industry story du jour.

“What’s shocking is the number of architects, designers and photographers who contacted me and said, ‘You know, I experienced the same thing,’” says Corrigan. “I’ve had examples of people who said it’s the client who takes credit for the work. I’ve heard from people where other designers took credit. It’s a much bigger issue than I ever even thought.”

Designers miss out on credit for their work every day. Mostly, it happens at cocktail parties, in passing conversation, and in group chats and DMs—clients forgetting (or “forgetting”) to tell their friends and colleagues exactly who made their home so lovely. But when it happens in the media, the slight is out in public, the stakes are higher, and the cut is deeper.

In the mid-1990s, Rebecca Vizard, at the time a designer, experienced this firsthand. After designing a friend’s homes in Connecticut and New York, the friend’s romantic partner moved in. Shortly after, Vizard received a glossy design magazine in the mail that featured one of the homes—with the design work credited to the partner. “When the guy moved in, he added one chair and he did flowers everywhere. That was the only thing I saw different from how I had left it,” she recalls. Vizard has transitioned out of interior design and now runs B. Viz Design, a studio that makes pillows from antique textiles, but the experience stuck with her: “It really was a punch to the gut.”

What’s going on behind the scenes when something like that happens? It can be tempting to look at every example of misplaced credit in a magazine as a kind of conspiracy—powerful editors and famous designers colluding to steal the work of lesser-known talents. But insiders say it’s more commonly the byproduct of a media machine that is built to efficiently publish beautiful interiors, not investigate who did what on a job site.

First, it’s important to understand how exactly credits work in a magazine. When a publication agrees to feature a project, editors typically rely on two main sources of information: a questionnaire filled out by the designer (and sometimes the homeowner as well), explaining the project and identifying key product sources and collaborators; and an interview, sometimes involving the clients, sometimes not.

The process gives writers and editors a document that outlines the facts of a project (the form) and a source of color to bring the story to life (the interview). The problem is that it relies entirely on the designer and the homeowner to supply accurate and complete information. If a detail is left out, editors often simply never find out about it.

A lot can get lost in that gap. Honest mistakes get made. Subcontractors get left off of forms by accident. Nondisclosure agreements can make things tricky. In some cases, the client who had a bad experience with a prior designer (or contractor, or architect) might not want them mentioned.

Underlying all of that is a subtle but potent dynamic of the shelter publishing world. Designers are generally eager to get their work in print, but it’s the homeowner’s signature on a release form that is required for the publication process to roll along—and not all homeowners are enthusiastic about opening their doors to a magazine. As a result, editors are conscious of the fact that the relationship with the homeowner is delicate.

Of course, magazines want to publish accurate information and give credit where it’s due (every writer’s worst nightmare is getting something wrong in print). But the dynamic between writer and subject in design media is not an adversarial one in the way you might expect in a field like political journalism—ruthlessly interrogating a homeowner about who exactly did the millwork is not standard practice. “[The client is] opening their home to you and your readers,” says Michael Boodro, the former editor in chief of Elle Decor and current host of The Chairish Podcast. “You assume that they’re telling you the truth and acting in good faith. It’s not a hostile relationship.”

That dynamic is only exaggerated when the client is famous. Celebrities, of course, benefit from having their homes published in shelter books in a way that the average homeowner might not. But in a time when media is struggling to do more with less, the boost in traffic and newsstand sales that a celebrity cover can deliver is very real, as is the implicit pressure to not overly scrutinize the celebrity’s version of how a project unfolded.

In the case of the Architectural Digest feature, the exact play-by-play of how and why Corrigan’s name didn’t make the story remains a little murky. When reached for comment, a rep for Vergara pushed back on the premise of Corrigan’s complaint: “The fact that he may have recommended certain items does not dispute the fact that he was replaced by another designer, Ohara Davies-Gaetano, who worked with Sofía to do the ultimate design.” A spokesperson for AD and the author of the original article did not respond to a request for comment, and Davies-Gaetano declined to speak for this story.

BOH spoke with three former shelter magazine editors in chief for this article. Their stories about contested credits had less to do with navigating relationships with celebrities and more to do with information simply getting lost in the shuffle. For example, a client might purchase a home, keep a few elements of a past designer’s work, and not tell their new designer (or a magazine editor). Cue awkward emails once the room shows up in print.

Situations like that are examples of misplaced credit that, while frustrating for designers and a source of anxiety for editors, reflect the reality that shelter magazines do not have the budget or time to send a team of fact-checkers out to confirm the origin of every pillow. Nor do magazines have the resources (or desire) to referee disputes over credit—after all, for every designer who claims they were robbed of a shoutout, there’s usually another who feels differently. Figuring out who’s right can be complicated and time-intensive.

“Design editors are not journalists working on 60 Minutes,” says Boodro. “The magazines are caught in the middle. They believe the homeowners and the designers. But often, as we know, there are litigious clients and difficult clients, and not every creative collaboration ends well. … Most of the time you just don’t know.”

There are other realities of magazine publishing. One is that, as publications continue to shrink since the fat-spined heyday of the 1990s, there’s less room in the body copy of an article to get into the weeds of who did what on a project—especially if the work itself was negligible. “Context is key, and if the scope of a previous designer’s work isn’t significant, it will likely not merit a mention in a relatively short article,” says Margaret Russell, the former editor in chief of Architectural Digest and Elle Decor and current chief editorial officer of RH Media. “Editors won’t want to take three lines to explain it.”

Credit can be slippery. For every example of a designer contributing significantly to a project and not making the article, there’s another more nuanced situation. Getting into the weeds can sometimes run contrary to the goals of shelter magazine writers, who are hired to write a fun, compelling story for a general audience—not to meticulously credit everyone who worked on a design project, identify every thread of fabric, and shout out every decorative vase. (Brands, too, are often upset when their contributions aren’t named.) Trimming details that, to editors, feel extraneous to the essence of the project is part of crafting a sharp narrative. Some of those details end up being related to design credit.

While the media system that doesn’t always deliver proper credit is complicated, the reason that designers almost never say anything about it in public is simple: They have very little to gain by doing so (at best, a correction that will be noticed by few) and a lot to lose (their relationship with a magazine, and potentially a client).

Corrigan is intimately familiar with the dynamic. “Early in my career, I was working with another celebrity, and [a publication] said her brother did the design,” he says. “I was at a point in my career where I thought, ‘I’m not going to rock the boat. I’m not going to say anything—I’m just going to suck it up.’”

It’s a sentiment familiar to many. Palm Beach designer David Phoenix says that he once spent several years on the architectural elements and finishes of a project. Then, after another designer furnished the project, it was featured in several publications—without any credit for his firm. “[The other designer] took credit for all the backgrounds,” recalls Phoenix. “I didn’t do anything about it at the time. I didn’t want to create any trouble. But then when I saw [Timothy’s post], I was like, Whoa.”

The irony is that, while designers often have a legitimate reason for not raising a fuss every time a credit dispute comes up, the silence perpetuates a kind of self-reinforcing system. Magazines are not set up to police their credits aggressively. But because designers have very little incentive to rock the boat, they don’t complain. In turn, magazines don’t change, and the wheel keeps spinning.

It’s a cycle Corrigan is hopeful can be broken by a broader industry conversation. “That fear that people have had of ‘Gee, I can’t say that, because I’m going to alienate the magazine’ has kept people in silence,” he says. “This needs to become an issue.”

Is there a way for designers to make sure they get credit for their work? The bad news first: Intellectual property law is not particularly kind to interior designers. In fact, federal law goes out of its way to point out that an interior design scheme is not copyrightable. (The exact language, from the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices: Copyright does not “protect interior design, such as the selection and placement of furniture, lighting, paint or similar items.”)

That detail of the law leads to some weird ironies. When a photographer takes a picture of a room, he or she legally owns the image and can sue if someone copies it without permission. But the composition of the room itself—the arrangement of the furniture, the paint color, the fabrics, and the lighting—is unprotected. Likewise, designers can copyright sketches, renderings and drawings they make as part of a design project. But the underlying arrangement of furniture and decor doesn’t enjoy the same automatic protection that a song, a poem or a novel does.

The good news: There are ways for designers to protect themselves legally—largely through a buttoned-up contract. “No matter what [copyright laws say], the law between you and your client is your contract,” says Wendy Estela, a lawyer who frequently works with designers. “[In your contract] you can say: ‘I own everything I create; it’s proprietary information.’ From there, you’re telling your clients, ‘Only I can use it.’ I like to take it as far as: ‘Not only am I the only designer that can use it, but if you fire me, you don’t have any permission to have somebody else complete my creative process, because it’s mine.’” Recently, Estela has been advising clients to include specific language around who gets credit for a project in the event that it’s published.

Of course, there are limits to even the most meticulous contract. You can put in any provision you want, but it will only hold up as far as you’re willing to sue to back it up. Contract disputes over who gets credit for an interior design project rarely end up in court, for the simple reason that designers are wary of suing their clients over it.

“I encourage designers to use the contract to lay the framework for working together versus using it to litigate,” says Estela. “It’s a chance to sit and talk to the client and explain [the agreement]. Educating the client in this industry is so important, because they don’t understand it.”

A solid contract is always a good idea. However, no one who spoke with BOH for this article—including several lawyers—thought that the legal system was the best vehicle for delivering credit to designers for their work. The general agreement: This is an issue of professional ethics, not a question for the courts.

There is no fix-all, but several sources had ideas, ranging from an industry-wide code of ethics championed by an organization like ASID or DLN to more simple measures, like shelter magazines being more voluminous with credit. (“Caption credits are a good compromise—they’re informative, factual and an easy way to give credit without detracting from the designer who pitched the story,” says Russell.)

In some ways, the first step—bringing the conversation out into the open—has already been taken. As one commenter put it on Corrigan’s post: “You’ve used your position and outstanding reputation to shed light on something that needed it. I wish more would because we can’t fix something when we don’t talk about it.”

Additional reporting by Aidan Taylor

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