Lever House meets Sanrio.

Today, I manage to hit architecture, Japanese pop culture, intellectual property, and branding all in one (fairly) short post.

My favorite building in New York is SOM’s Lever House. Built in the International Style in 1952, its form of blue-green glass is perfectly proportioned. The building also been known to house some eclectic art by the likes of Damien Hirst and Keith Haring. Recently, Tom Sachs put an instillation of Sanrio characters without their permission. Sanrio seems to be cool with it, where as they are generally very protective of the brand against counterfeit merchandise.

I love the telling comment from David Marchi, the Sanrio brand manager: “You know, there was Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol, and then Michael Jackson and Jeff Koons. When you’re an icon, that’s what happens… [Sachs] even put Hello Kitty’s bow on the correct side of her head. And that’s something we pay attention to.”

In “Buying In,” Rob Walker talks about how the silent Sanrio characters allow us to project meaning onto them, which is part of the reason behind their decades long popularity. Here, Sachs’ sculptures recontextualize something familiar, but using a foreign scale and material. That is only one part of the equation at play here. The other part is the authorized use versus unauthorized use of Sanrio’s intellectual property. We have these deep relationships with brands, as Walker noted, and we use them to express ourselves and formulate our identities, which I have been thinking about a lot lately. It isn’t surprising that people would want to use these brands as the source material for other kinds of expression. Unfortunately, this repurposing is often illegal, and companies are very protective of the trandmarks and copyrights of their brands. However, at the end of the day, how different is fan fiction from Sach’s work?

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