Did P. Diddy Rip Off a Famed Graphic Design by Pentagram?

Canadian graphic artist Marian Bantjes says the rap superstar's latest T-shirt, via his company Sean John, is a "straight rip off" of her poster for the Yale Architecture school. And it's not hard to see why.

Puff Daddy has built a career off, erm, creatively borrowing other people’s songs and now, apparently, their artwork, too.

The T-shirt here is available through Diddy’s clothing and accessories company Sean John. The poster (at left) was co-designed by Canadian graphic artist Marian Bantjes for the Yale School of Architecture. See any resemblance?

“It's a straight rip-off,” Bantjes says in an email from Portugal, where she’s attending a graphic-design conference and promoting her new book I Wonder. 'This is copyright infringement.”

Pentagram partner Michael Bierut -- who has done several postersfor Yale’s architecture school over the years -- commissioned Bantjes to design the poster's calligraphy for a lecture series called “Seduction” in 2007. He asked her to create a custom type that was both sexy and “a little bit sick,” she says. “So I created this very sensual, almost writhing type with letterforms nestled into each other, that combines organic curves with architectural straight lines, and those lines thin out to very fine needles which loop back and pierce the type.”

The poster isn’t famous outside of graphic-design circles, but it isn’t completely obscure, either. It has appeared in several books and magazines, and the original is in the permanent collection of the Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum. It was displayed in the museum’s Rococo exhibit a couple years ago. The T-shirt, which says “Sean John,” appears to have been released in 2009.

Obviously, designers sample from each other all the time -- it’s inextricable from the creative process. But Bantjes reckons Sean John crossed the line. “[C]ustom lettering is not a font,” she says. “[Y]ou can't buy it and type words into a computer and have them come out in a style. It's a drawing, and the t-shirt is an exact replica of the original, although some of the letters have been moved around and repeated to say ‘Sean John’ instead of ‘Seduction.’ If it were simply wriggly type with some extensions coming from it, but not exactly the same forms, then we could say it was ‘riffing’ or ‘inspired by,’ but the artwork has been lifted exactly, so it is a rip off.”

Repeated calls to Puff Daddy’s corporate office were either not returned or unanswered.

Is the kerfuffle headed to court? Bierut says probably not. "In every fashion design studio I've ever visited, there are overpopulated pin-up boards just overflowing with 'inspiration' from all kinds of sources," he writes in an email. "I understand that 'borrowing' — even as blatant and literal as this — is hard to bring legal action against beyond cease-and-desist agreements, which which appears to have happened already. No matter what, it's amazing that a poster for an esoteric academic conference at an Ivy League school somehow gets turned into a t-shirt endorsed by P-Diddy. What a world."

The T-shirt must not have been much of a hit, anyway. Originally priced at $28, it was reduced to $13.98 -- then reduced again to$9.79.

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