Honeycomb vase designer says whisky
campaign "unabashedly exploits" his work


News: a designer who developed a technique for harnessing bees to create physical objects has accused a major brand of exploiting his work.

Dewar's Highlander Honey bottle
Dewar's Highlander Honey bottle

Slovakian designer Tomáš Libertíny contacted Dezeen after seeing a campaign created by New York creative agency Sid Lee for Dewar's Highlander Honey whisky, which features 80,000 bees forming a honeycomb sculpture of a whisky bottle and a bust of Dewar’s "drinking man" symbol.

Vessel #2 by Tomáš Libertíny
Vessel #2 by Tomáš Libertíny, 2011

Libertíny claims the project "unabashedly exploits the poetry" of his own projects, including his 2007 Honeycomb Vase - which is now in the MoMA collection - and 2010's The Unbearable Lightness, both of which were created using a similar process.

The Honeycomb Vase by Tomáš Libertíny
The Honeycomb Vase by Tomáš Libertíny, 2007. Photo: Raoul Kramer

"Studio Libertiny is surprised that Sid Lee and Dewar’s (Bacardi) have launched a commercial campaign that unabashedly exploits the poetry of the work of Tomáš Libertíny and his team of artists and designers," Libertíny wrote in a statement to Dezeen.

Dewar's Highlander Honey bust
Beeswax bust of Dewar's "drinking man" symbol from the Highlander Honey campaign

A short documentary about the Dewar's project, produced by The Ebeling Group and titled "The 3-B Printing Project", features Californian bee-keeper Robin Theron and Los Angeles sculptor and engineer James Peterson explaining how they collaborated to create the honeycomb objects.

Detail of The Unbearable Lightness by Tomáš Libertíny
Detail of The Unbearable Lightness by Tomáš Libertíny, 2010

To do this, they covered the forms of the bottle and the bust with sheets of beeswax printed with tessellated hexagonal patterns, and enclosed them in transparent cases. The cases were then filled with honey bees, who built a honeycomb structure on top of the forms. "In order for bees to build on the outside of anything, we turned a bee hive inside out," explains Theron. In total, 80,000 bees were used to create the pieces.

Libertíny used a similar process when creating his objects, the first of which was presented in Milan in 2007. "It took 40,000 bees and one week to make a single vase," said Libertíny at the time. "Not meaning it as a euphamism, we called this process "slow prototyping"."

Honeycomb Vase by Tomáš Libertíny, 2007. Photo: Raoul Kramer

In his statement this week, Libertíny said: "The 3B-Printing campaign is clearly not only inspired by but also follows the concept, storytelling, imagery, techniques and vocabulary of the Slow-Prototyping project that Studio Libertiny has been busy with for years."

"Dewar’s as well as Bacardi are, in their own right, proud of their originality and brand identity which stands in contrast with authenticity of the campaign," he added. "Studio Libertiny hopes that the campaign from Dewar’s will not divert the audience from seeing the relevance of nature (in this case honeybees) and the importance of it to humankind’s survival."

Sid Lee admitted that the project was inspired by Libertíny's work but said a "slightly different process" was used in the campaign.

"You are right in calling out that we got inspired by Thomas [sic] Libertiny," said Sid Lee managing partner Lukas Derksen, "as well as earlier artists that inspired Thomas like sculptor Garnett Puett with his project called Apiscaryatid in the late 1980s and young New York-based artists such as Hilary Berseth with her well known work called Programmed Hives in 2008."

He added: "As you can see in our documentary we pursued a slightly different process than these artists did before us, and engineered moulds that would hold the bees in order to sculpt the bottle and the bust in even more precision."

Mark Corran of London intellectual property lawyers Briffa said it would be "very difficult" for Libertíny to protect himself against people wanting to copy his technique. "The question is, would consumers be confused by the advert into thinking it was his work?" said Corran, saying that depended on how well known Libertíny and his work is to the general public. "He hasn't got a monopoly on this process."

The row follows recent accusations of plagiarism including claims that British designer Thomas Heatherwick copied the design for the London 2012 Olympic cauldron, and the discovery of a copy of a Zaha Hadid building in China.

See our recent round-up of stories about copying in design. See more stories about the work of Tomáš Libertíny.

  • David2

    Did he really think he would the first AND last person to do that? Since when have designers been able to control the influence of their work?

  • Discussing copyright in your article, please mention that the photographer of the picture “The Honeycomb Vase by Tomáš Libertíny, 2007” is Raoul Kramer. Thanks, RK

    • dezeen_intense

      Thanks for pointing that our Raoul. We've added the credit.


  • beatrice

    Scumbag advertising people. Since the dawn of time, artists create, advertising zombies copy and then head to the toilet for another line and a back slap.

    This slightly ominous line as well: “In total, 80,000 bees were used to create the pieces” Nice. Do you count them once they’re “still”? Scumbags.

    • Kate

      Sadly, it’s not just advertising agents who blatantly steal other designers’ work… anyone know if Heatherwick is still in business?

      • Juan Galicia

        Please, even the ones that did the other design later retracted. And considering there haven’t been another instance in his work where there appears to be a copy I´ll just say it was unfortunately similar.

        Such things can happen, and in that case it wasn’t established that the design was stolen.

    • michael

      And unfortunately they then have the economic means and channels to push their work harder to the mainstream than the artist. Kinda like the Puff Daddies of design.

      • Damian

        What’s P Diddy got to do with it?

  • yes

    Libertiny was also not the first to do this with bees…

  • Airborne

    Artists and designers cannot claim a monopoly on a production process, which is merely a tool. The intellectual property is that what they create with the tool and what they want to communicate with it. If someone is the first to use a new technique and fails to create something which is more than just a demonstration of that technique, his name will be lost in oblivion.

    • Patrick

      The artist does not claim monopoly on the process. He claims the ad company capitalizes on his “poetry”. And that is the actual intellectual value that an artist creates (as opposed to a designer).

      Seeing the honeycomb sculptures one wonders if people have not been doing that for ages. But comparing the honeycomb objects placed in a vitrine like in the two top photos… hmm, the artist could have a point.

      • Airborne

        Well… I believe poetic language is a bit overstated. The idea which is communicated is that bees created something by their own design. When the production process is explained, how the bees were forced to shape something in a mould, it is a lot less poetic.

        It is not an industrial design of course, because the product is useless. And it is poor art because it is deceiving in a way and the end result doesn’t have a meaning other than a demonstration. This leaves no lasting impression, at most a smile on people’s faces.

        It is understandable that it receives exposure in media which is hungry for products that are re-invented and always evolving. And the reason why we haven’t seen this many times before is easily explained by the cumbersome process and superficial end result. I think as design it is perfect for advertising but as art it fails to make a statement.

  • LukaszDzenik

    Of course, no designer has monopoly on the technique. No artist claims the right to use a particular colour (with the exception of IKB). Certainly, the concept of similarity in the situation may be explained as an interesting and ridiculous theory such as morphic resonance (good luck rocket scientists).

    Question and challenge in the dispute does not lie in technology. It seems to me that the problem is far deeper. It is not about who copied what (it is clear that the work of Studio Libertiny is older), the problem is the nature of this whole debate.

    Here it seems hypocritical to hold on to the view of intellectual property concept. What is it? Something that has patent marking XYZ recognised by the United Nations or the United Federation of Planet and special Mister Spock, or just an idea in non-american heads? Is this an original art product which is presented here as a work that is valued (with applause) more than others? Libertíny has no monopoly on the technology, but his defense of intellectual property is not oriented in this direction.

    The overall concept seems to resemble Libertiny`s work. There are more similarities than just technical. The idea that in today’s globalised village someone on the opposite side of the planet comes with the same idea, poetry and never heard of similar motifs (for example, the work in MoMA, or Art Basil) is difficult to sustain. I repeat, the problem is not with the technology. The problem is in believing that the vox populi is vox dei.

    I believe that the reaction of Studio Libertiny is not intended to criticise the fact that someone will use for example the same red colour. The critical point is appropriation of originality of something that is long overdue. This is a critical point of contention. That someone is working with bees is great (do it!) Let everyone work with bees (more bees, more honey). However, it is ridiculous to imagine the world with something that was already there and pretend that it had only been discovered.

    In conclusion, I would like to see an alternative world in which this situation is be reversed. How would you serve justice or just professional ethics? In any case, now I understand the meaning of rhetorical figure “Yes we can!”

  • franky

    Actually Libertiny copied this idea from my grandmother, who used to make objects such as heart-shaped candles out of honeycomb beeswax sheets which you can buy in your local craft shop!

  • Lenka

    When I saw the Dewar’s Highlander Honey bottle, I thought it was Studio Libertiny’s work – except for one difference: Libertiny allows the bees to build his forms naturally, which makes each piece totally unique, and Sid Lee might as well have had the bottle 3D-printed. It’s nothing more than a badly copied empty object. Forcing the bees through tubes into a very narrow glass contained space to do their work? Shame on them.

  • Jessica

    Surely it’s the bees intellectual property!