The drawing Simple Living by the Danish artist Nadia Plesner was the very first beginning of what has now grown to become The Simple Living Committee.
Plesner's drawing was the result of a series of unfortunate events. She moved to the Netherlands in 2006 to study Fine Arts at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, but within half a year she was living in a caravan and recovering from a severe traffic accident. Unable to move for several months, she was overwhelmed with self-pity until something snapped her out of her distress. She was reading a Dutch newspaper which had a small four line update on the genocide in the Darfur region in Sudan. On the opposite page it featured a full page story about the Hollywood celebrity Paris Hilton going to prison for too many parking tickets.
Plesner was outraged by this contrast and decided to make an art work to denounce the way the Western media was prioritising between entertainment and genocide. The outcome was the drawing Simple Living, which depicted a Darfurian child holding a large designer bag and a chihuahua dressed in a pink outfit. Plesner explained:
"Since doing nothing but wearing designer bags and small ugly dogs apparently is enough to get you on a magazine cover, maybe it is worth a try for people who actually deserve and need attention. If you can't beat them, join them! This is why I chose to mix the cruel reality with showbiz elements in my drawing 'Simple Living'." The piece was an experiment and was created as a media work meant to reach the audience on the internet rather than in galleries. Plesner also had the drawing printed on t-shirts and posters to raise money for Save Darfur Coalition's "Divest for Darfur" campaign.
The work was put online in October 2007 and started spreading immediately. The debate took place on Plesner's website to begin with and then was taken up by various media and blogs. In February 2008 she received a cease and desist letter from the fashion company Louis Vuitton. They wrote how they appreciated her initiative for Darfur but felt the bag on the drawing was too similar to their Audra Bag: "As you may know, the Louis Vuitton Monogram Multicolore Trademark results from a collaboration between Marc Jacobs, the Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton, and Takashi Murakami, a well-known contemporary Japanese artist. As an artist yourself, we hope that you recognize the need to respect other artists' rights and Louis Vuitton's Intellectual Property Rights which include Louis Vuitton Monogram Multicolore Trademark." The company stated that the drawing violated their Intellectual Property rights and asked Plesner to stop selling the t-shirts and posters immediately.
Plesner replied in a letter, that the bag on her drawing did not include any logos or brands and was merely making a reference to status symbols in general. She explained in her reply to Louis Vuitton: "Sometimes recognisable objects are needed to express deaper meanings, and in their new form they become more than the objects themselves - they become art. You will find a similar case, where the Polish artist Zbigniew Libera was inpired by Lego sets for another art piece. I thereby stand by my freedom of expression - artistic and/or otherwise - and will continue my Simple Living campaign in order to raise money for the victims in Darfur."
Plesner chose to share both letters on her website and continued selling the t-shirts and posters until in April she received a new letter. Louis Vuitton had gone to court in Paris without informing her and the letter consisted of an ex-parte verdict. Ex-parte is an extremely fast legal model, which is usually used if a company has an urgent need to stop a large quantity of copy products. Louis Vuitton had plead in the French court for a ban of the Simple Living products as they found them both infringing Louis Vuitton's Community design right as well as causing the brand damage by linking them to the genocide in Darfur. On March 25, 2008 the President of the Tribunal du Grande Instance of Paris sided with Louis Vuitton and prohibited Plesner from presenting or selling the Simple Living products. The verdict included a penalty of €15.000 for each day she continued to sell the products and present the case on her website.
She was provisionally ordered to pay an amount of one Euro by way of symbolic damages.
The conflict between Plesner and Louis Vuitton received massive media attention world wide and sparked debate about Darfur as well as about the freedom of artistic expression. Louis Vuitton was unhappy with the media exposure and inivited Plesner for a meeting in Paris to see if they could find "common grounds." At the meeting it became clear that the two parties could not agree on the matter. Unable to afford attorney fees or the penalty fines, Plesner took advice from her lawyer, who mentioned that if she would have made "a more classical art work like oil on canvas", she would have been free to paint whatever she wanted. He explained that the artistic freedom of expression apllied more to traditional media, especially since the t-shirts could be considered being a commercial product.
Plesner spent the following year and a half painting a new version of Picasso's famous piece Guernica in the same size as the original work: 350 x 776 cm. The painting, titled Darfurnica, depicts rich and famous people such as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Victoria Beckham along side victims of genocide. Guernica was based on black and white newspaper photos from it's own time and Darfurnica was made to resemble the mass media of modern times, thus mixing situations from Darfur with entertainment stories which received a substantial media attention during the genocide in Darfur. Plesner included the Simple Living child with the bag in the center of the painting.
Darfurnica was exhibited in the Odd Fellow Palace in Copenhagen in January 2011. During the exhibition visitors asked for the original Simple Living t-shirts and Plesner's gallerist sold five. As Plesner returned to the Netherlands she found a new letter waiting for her. Louis Vuitton in preliminary relief proceedings requested the Court of The Hague for a new ex-parte order against Plesner and the gallery that organized the exhibition. Like in 2008, Louis Vuitton relied on it's Community design rights: "As Louis Vuitton has not permitted the respondents to use the infringing pattern or to offer or to put on the market any products bearing the infringing pattern, or to perform any other act reserved by Louis Vuitton in respect of the pattern, the rights with regard to the Design are being infringed, as envisaged in Article 19 (1) of the Community Designs Regulation."
In the ex-parte decision dated January 28, 2011 the court prohibited Plesner and the galley to infringe the Community design rights of Louis Vuitton. Plesner was ordered to pay new penalty fines of €5.000 for each day she continued to exhibit Darfurnica in galleries or online, or offered the painting for sale. An incasso company was given permission to confiscate any product Plesner might have with symbols resembling Louis Vuitton's trademark pattern.
Unwilling to stop showing her work Plesner decided to countersue Louis Vuitton to win back the right to exhibit both Simple Living and Darfurnica: "Plesner claims - in summary - that in a judgment, to the extent possible provisionally enforceable, the Court in preliminary relief proceedings will review the decision of 27 January 2011 (...) in the sense that the order imposed in this decision will be annulled, at any rate lifted (...)."
As in 2008 the dispute received remarkable media attention. The Danish Heart Museum helped Plesner by exhibiting and protecting Darfurnica during the court case. A group of cartoonists and artists decided to support Plesner by making drawings which included the bag. The court hearing took place on April 20, 2011 and Plesner and Louis Vuitton presented their opposite views. At this point Plesner was facing penalty fines at a total of €485.000.
"In this framework both parties rely on their fundamental right as set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and the accompanying Protocols. Plesner has argued that she is entitled to perform the acts that Louis Vuitton holds against her on the basis of Article 10 of the ECHR, which relates to the freedom of expression. Louis Vuitton has invoked Article 1 of the first protocol of the ECHR, that relates to the protection of property, including it's design rights. Since the case concerns fundamental rights that are on equal footing but conflicting, according to established case law of the European Court of Human Rights, a fair balance should be sought between the general interest and the interest of the parties involved."
On May 4, 2011 the Court announced the judge's verdict: "The order imposed in the decision of January 28, 2011 will therefore be quashed in it's entirety." Plesner won back the right to exhibit both Simple Living and Darfurnica. She no longer had to pay penalties of €485.000 and Louis Vuitton was ordered to pay €15.000 to cover a part of Plesner's legal costs.
The judge based his ruling on the following cirsumstances: "Opposite Louis Vuitton's fundamental right to peaceful enjoyment of it's exclusive rights to the use of their design, there is, according to established case law of the European Court of Human Rights, the fundamental right of Plesner that is high in a democratic society's priority list to express her opinion through her art. In this respect it applies that artists enjoy a considerable protection with regard to their artistic freedom, in which, in principle art may "offend, shock or disturb". In this respect it is furthermore important that the use by Plesner is to be regarded for the time being as functional and proportional and that it does not serve a mere commercial purpose.
Under preliminary judgment it is plausible that Plesner's intention with "Simple Living" is not (or was not) to free ride with Louis Vuitton's reputation in a commercial sense. She rather uses Louis Vuitton's reputation to pass on her society-critical message (...) and, moreover, besides the bag she also depicts another luxury/show business picture in the form of a chihuahua dressed in pink."
The judge also didn't find any evidence proving that Plesner's Simple Living drawing suggested Louis Vuitton's involvement in the situation in Darfur, and thereby conflicted damage on the brand.
Louis Vuitton decided not to appeal and the final verdict has set a presedent for similar cases.
Plesner's Simple Living drawing was chosen by United Nations to illustrate a report on art and censorship in 2013.
Plesner was also invited to speak about her case at United Nations in Geneva in 2013 and 2015.
Darfurnica exhibited at Heart Museum in Denmark.
1:1 print of Darfurnica as evidence in the court room in The Hague.
Simple Living at UNs website.
Support drawing by Angus.
Support drawing by Ruben Oppenheimer.
Support drawing by Vokum.