For some, the name of filmmaker and New German Cinema pioneer Werner Herzog is inseparable from the sensation that is “Sad Beige Werner Herzog” — the viral creation of writer, comedian, and public librarian Hayley DeRoche. Since December 2021, DeRoche has garnered hundreds of thousands of followers and worldwide news headlines by using satire to highlight the trend of #AestheticMoms who fill their children’s playrooms and wardrobes with a limited range of gray and brown shades.
Last week, DeRoche’s project garnered attention from a major museum — but not in the way she hoped. As of Wednesday, August 23, the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam was selling taupe-toned onesies and t-shirts emblazoned with variations of the phrase “Sad Beige,” launched in conjunction with an exhibition on Herzog on view at the institution through October 1. DeRoche, however, had no knowledge that the museum was creating and selling “Sad Beige” merchandise based on her work.
“They are clearly using me and what I’ve created to sell things to profit and they clearly know that it’s a person and not a generic meme,” DeRoche said in a TikTok video asking her followers to help her spread the word and demand an answer from the Eye Filmmuseum.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, DeRoche said that the museum published an article in July about Sad Beige to kick off its Herzog exhibition and cited her TikTok account, but did not ask for her input. She was only made aware of the “Sad Beige” merchandise when her followers sent her direct messages with images of the shirts and onesies hanging in the museum gift shop. DeRoche first contacted the institution on August 5 through an official complaint form on the Dutch Museum Gift Shop website, which sells items from a number of Dutch museums and hosts the online EYE gift shop, also attaching an invoice with her “standard consulting fee, along with some additional add-ons” for using her work without permission. After not hearing back for several weeks, she contacted the museum directly on August 22 via email, again including the invoice in her message. This time, she also noted that the museum was using screenshot collages as a part of the gallery of images accompanying the online listing for the merchandise. (Those collages were created by the author of this article for a Hyperallergic story in April 2022.)
The museum wrote back the next day, stating that the term “Sad Beige” is not registered as a trademark and that it can thus be used for commercial purposes. Their email did not address the payment DeRoche requested.
“Our museum shop developed an original design of t-shirts and onesies (in a very limited edition of 30 T-shirts and 45 onesies) with the term ‘Sad Beige’ printed on them,” the Filmmuseum wrote DeRoche.
“In the accompanying informative text next to the items in the shop, we mentioned your Instagram account,” the museum continued. “It was not our intention to profit from your popularity, but to inform our visitors about the existence of your page, and as a side effect, perhaps create some extra traffic to it. As we didn’t use the reference to your account for commercial purposes, it didn’t occur to us to inform you about it.”
But DeRoche said she found this explanation confusing. “What is the point of merchandise if not to profit?” she asked in her video. She also noted the incongruity between the museum’s comment that “Sad Beige” is a “widely known and used term” and the placement of a plaque with her social media handle next to the product in the museum gift shop, signifying an intent to draw attention to a specific account.
In response to Hyperallregic’s request for comment, Eye Filmmuseum Press Manager Rachel Voorbij said that “as a non-profit organization our museum shop is primarily geared towards the support of our film programs and exhibitions, and not designed to generate profits but at best to break even.” As of Friday, August 25, the listings disappeared from the website. It is unclear whether the t-shirts and onesies are still being sold in the physical gift shop at the museum. Hyperallergic reached out to the museum for additional comment but has yet to receive a response.
“I don’t have [Sad Beige] trademarked at the moment,” DeRoche told Hyperallergic. “But I felt as though something unethical has taken place here.”
“I am under no illusion that I’m the first person that this has happened to,” she added. “Museums have [long] stolen things from their rightful owners. In the grand scheme of things, this is unimportant in comparison to the much bigger thefts that have taken place.” DeRoche noted that the incident is “emblematic” of that legacy of theft nonetheless.