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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Hughes

When Imitation is Annoying, Not Flattering, New York Times Real Estate Section

Updated: Feb 12, 2019

When Imitation Is Annoying, Not Flattering


IMITATION may be the highest form of flattery. But do you really want someone to copy your entire house?

Many people who suffer through a remodeling project find that friends and neighbors love the end result -- so much so that they want to copy it exactly. After all, searching for every last tile, paint color, doorknob and light fixture is extremely time consuming and difficult. If you visit a house you love, why not just copy it?

That, at least, seemed to be the reasoning of several of our recent guests. After living in a run- down 1950's ranch-style house in Rolling Hills, Calif., for almost 12 years and searching in vain for another house, we finally worked up the courage to hire an architect. Then, with the help of our contractor and designer, we gutted the entire structure and added 1,000 square feet.

"Farmhouse with an edge" was the request we gave to our architect, George Sweeney, who is from Palos Verdes Estates, and our interior designer, Tim Clarke of Santa Monica. I had collected pictures from design magazines for more than a decade, organizing them into notebooks with titles like Fireplaces, Bookcases and Lighting. After countless design meetings and one and a half years of dusty construction, we're now very happy with our home.

"I really love this," said a fellow mother at my children's school. "This is exactly what I want!" She was surveying the open kitchen family room, which has a 24-foot ridge beam skylight, wide plank heart pine floors and a stone fireplace inspired by a picture of a 16th-century wall. I had invited her over after recommending my design team for her building project. But she soon ruled out my architect and contractor, partly because of scheduling and cost. Hiring my designer seemed to be out of the question. "Would you mind if I come back to go over what you did?" the mother asked. "It's the exact style I love. I love the soapstone and the bead board."

Having paid our designer a huge fee -- and having traipsed all over the city searching for the perfect materials -- this idea left me completely cold. Memories of hitting every stoneyard in the city in search of just the right kitchen counter, making endless samples of stain for the pine floor -- all came flooding back. So did the weeks of indecision, inviting friends over to help with paint samples. Not to mention the years of collecting pictures. It just seemed unfair.

So when she called, I didn't call her back. She now seems to be glaring at me in the schoolyard. Am I wrong not to help her? Once you build a house, are you obligated to provide others with your ideas and sources?

To be fair, I depended on other people's homes for inspiration. But I quickly learned the hard way that when people have hired a decorator and have paid a design fee of $20,000 to $50,000, plus 35 percent of furniture costs, they aren't too eager to hand over much more than the decorator's name and phone number. When I had asked a neighbor if I could see her newly built home, a rambling farmhouse with a much bigger budget, she replied that her decorator would be happy to take me through it.

I wasn't trying to avoid hiring a designer. Being extremely indecisive, I knew I needed the help of someone. I was lucky to get Mr. Clarke, whose other clients, including the actors Matthew Perry and James Spader, all seemed to be famous. But even with his help, I usually felt compelled to see all other possibilities before reaching a decision. I debated every faucet in the city and spent hours taking pictures of stone pilasters.

It turned out I wasn't alone in my resistance to being copied. "Most people refuse to let people copy," said my contractor, Bill Howe. "They'll say: 'I'm sorry. I'm flattered. I spent a lot of time and it cost me a lot of money.' " He recently had a client in Palos Verdes Estates design a custom color of stucco, a one-of-a kind taupe. When a neighbor asked for the name of the color, the client refused to divulge the formula. "We just said: 'Sorry. It's custom,' " he said.

Indeed, those who don't find imitation the highest form of flattery may sue. After Fred Sands, a real estate magnate from Los Angeles, embarked on the design of a $20 million Bel Air home, two of his architects spotted a remarkably similar Tuscan villa under construction nearby.

His architect, William Hablinski, filed suit against the owners of the "copycat house" in a federal court in 2003, alleging copyright infringement. Last April, a jury awarded Mr. Hablinski $5.9 million after finding that one of his former employees had conspired with the defendants to copy the plans. A judge, though, recently granted a retrial on the amount of damages. The suit was based on the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act of 1990, which gives copyright protection to buildings.

But what about the hundreds of smaller decorating decisions, things like doorknob choices? Roger Behle Jr., one of Mr. Hablinski's lawyers, says that while design plans can be protected by copyright laws, people rarely file suit over their countertop and paint choices. "If you have yellow drapes and then your neighbor comes over and buys yellow drapes, that's not copyright infringement." he said.

Still, it can be irritating. It took Michelle Dewey, the mother of one of my daughter's water polo teammates, more than two years to build a 6,300-square-foot "Old World French-style" home in La Canada Flint-ridge, Calif. "I'm a perfectionist," she said. "If I'm looking for doorknobs, I want the best doorknobs in the country."

She raced all over the area, visiting some stoneyards up to 10 times trying to find the perfect slab of marble. Then, recently, she said, a friend who was about to remodel came over and said, "I

want those and those and those." The friend, who is using the same contractor, explained that she isn't very picky and would just tell the contractor to "give me whatever Michelle has," Ms. Dewey recalled.

This was upsetting. "I labored over my decision-making," Ms. Dewey said. "Everyone wants to know where everything comes from, like it's my job to tell them." Now, she says, her contractor knows not to send people over to see the house.

But imitators don't necessarily need to gain access to the inside. Consider Ms. Dewey's front door. She spotted a picture she loved in a magazine and worked with a designer to create a mahogany door on the bottom topped with ironwork, antique glass and a fleur-de-lis design in the middle. Since then, she says, her contractor has received many calls about the door, and similar ones have been "springing up all over the place."

"I hope you're not mad at me," said one acquaintance who had managed to come up with a near duplicate. "I just love the door."

Of course, someone trying to imitate something doesn't always wind up with exactly the same result. Since I liked our contractor, I encouraged him to bring prospective clients through during the building process. One couple came through over and over again. I could spot the repeat visits since we were staying in the house across the street while the neighbors were away.

"I just love what you did," the wife explained, when I discovered her wandering around inside the construction project. One year later, I spotted a truck driver in front of her house unloading what appeared to be my exact style of interior door -- a two-panel Shaker-style door without any decorative molding. When I stopped in to visit, as she had suggested, I noticed a lot of similarities, but it was a very different house.

"The houses are similar," said Mr. Howe, my contractor. But he questions whether all my design choices are really so exclusive. "There's nothing new in the world. Everything has been copied."

Still, all the arduous decisions make the end result feel like very personal property. So I was surprised, once again, while out on a morning run, to find another construction project within two miles of my house with a wall matching our stonework, almost exactly, covering the front of the house. There was the same Lompoc stone with wide mortar, designed to look like the 16th-century wall I had spotted in a design magazine many years ago. I talked to the people working on the house and learned that they were using the same architect and mason.

George Sweeney, my architect, does not think I need to worry about the similar stone design. "Your family fireplace is unique," he said. Indeed, he said, "it's wonderful you have a house people want to imitate."

Not everyone does. Madson Buchbinder, a friend, spent more than a year creating a "restored, 70's, modern, minimal" home in Long Beach -- in keeping with her husband's enthusiasm for modern design. "My house looks like a jail cell," she said. "No one is going to come copy it. My contractor calls it the iceberg."

The floors are white marble. The kitchen counter is white marble. Even the dining room table is white marble. Ms. Buchbinder said, "I can't imagine what it would feel like to have a home that someone wanted to copy."

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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