Food

A DC Artist Alleges the Line Hotel Stole His Work to Brand a New Restaurant

The trendy hotel insists it's original art.

"The hug" illustration by Cristian Zuniga. Photograph by Cristian Zuniga

Artist Cristian Zuniga was walking his dog last Friday morning, scrolling through Instagram, when a familiar image stopped him in his tracks. It was his, the designer thought: an illustration of two arms wrapped in an embrace that he created and began sharing in September of last year. But the design wasn’t on the socks or t-shirts Zuniga sells through his creative consulting and graphic design company, Object Trouve Studio. Or on his Instagram, where it’s featured prominently. Or on city walls around Union Market, where Zuniga has graffitied what he’s dubbed “the hug.” Instead, the similar print was emblazoned on a takeout bag for No Goodbyes, a new restaurant at the Line Hotel DC in Adams Morgan that opened Friday. The Instagram post, for which all comments have since been deleted and turned off, announced the eatery’s arrival with the branding: “Come say Good Morning to No Goodbyes, DC—We’re Open!” 

What’s unfolded since is a hot debate—largely played out on social media—over artistic ownership and censoring social media comments. Zuniga maintains that the illustration is his. Stefan Merriweather, the Senior Director of Content & Social Media Strategy for the Line Hotel, alleges the illustration is an original—a work he commissioned for No Goodbyes from Los Angeles-based creative studio, Us. 

“We liked the illustration because it captured the sentiment of a hug,” says Merriweather, who’s based in California. “We wanted people to feel an embrace walking into the restaurant. If you were to google ‘hug hands’, there’re 50,000 illustrations of a similar thing. We didn’t think we were doing something proprietary.”

Zuniga acknowledges that hugs are, of course, universal—and the illustrations aren’t identical. His drawing features a face and slightly different positioning of the hands. “As a designer you take references and copy from artists and other designers. You twist it enough to make it your own and tell your own story—that’s the hardest trick as a designer,” he says. Still, “there are too many coincidences when you look at the back end of the story.”

Zuniga is the former Creative Director of Foreign National, Maketto chef Erik Bruner-Yang’s hospitality company that opened two restaurants with the Line Hotel in 2017. Brothers and Sisters and Spoken English both closed after Bruner-Yang parted ways with the Line in January, and Zuniga is now with Maydan/Compass Rose. But the artist spent two-plus years working closely with the hotel concepts—including running a whimsical Instagram platform for Spoken English, which was even featured in Bon Appetit (“We’re Obsessed With This Restaurant’s Weird and Wonderful Instagram Account”). Us, the studio that created the hug design for No Goodbyes, has also worked with Bruner-Yang in the past year, contributing “brand identity,” collage, and signs for his new Roost food hall restaurant, Yoko & Kota.

Us executive director Brandon Dismuke says he and creative director Eliana Dominguez, who produced the design for No Goodbyes, did their “due diligence” in researching line drawings for hugs (of which they found many). Still, as soon as Dismuke saw the conversations happening on social media, he immediately reached out to Bruner-Yang, who put him in touch with Zuniga.

“We were very apologetic in the sense that we hate when these accidents happen, and especially given what he [Zuniga] was doing with the project and where he was going with it,” says Dismuke. “Our immediate thing, we know we can rectify it right away. Do you want us to lose the arms? We’re happy to from an artistic integrity perspective. One our end, if that’s something Cristian requested or felt strongly about, we don’t want to be a part of taking something he believes is his. It’s up the Line.”

Bruner-Yang, who declined to comment directly for the article, blasted the hotel in a story for his 12,000-odd Instagram followers of the weekend, stating: “@thelinehotel this isn’t a total coincidence. @cris.zng was my creative director til spring 2021. You guys should know his work from @dcspokenenglish and @brothersandsisters_dc. I hope you compensate him.” Bruner-Yang shared comments as they were being rapidly deleted, including those by other big names in the hospitality industry like Chopped star Adam Greenberg, who posted “stealing ppl’s work and advertising as your own?! Then, deleting comments in your IG to cover it up?!” followed by a vomiting emoji.

Merriweather acknowledges he deleted and turned off comments. “People weren’t asking questions, they were just attacking us,” says Merriweather. “People ask, why are you deleting comments? I think social media and mental health are a real thing. I’m a real person on the other end of it. Instagram has these tools to allow you to protect yourself from harassment and being attacked. I’m trying to protect my own mental health being attacked by people…At the same time, we’re trying to open the restaurant. I did make that decision to turn off the comments to silence the noise.”

Merriweather says that he only learned that Zuniga was Foreign National’s creative director after he discovered he was on past group emails with him, and that he didn’t know Zuniga “as an artist.”

“We didn’t know about Cristian’s work until he commented on the post. We’re all about inclusivity and discovery. We want to discover new artists,” says Merriweather, who says his next social media post may call out to ‘tag artists in your community.’ “I’m grateful it happened—it gave us an opportunity to discover Cris’s art. This conversation is great—it’s good for him, creating more awareness for him.”

Zuniga was hesitant to speak out, describing himself as a guy who’s “really low profile in life and in general.” And the Line is not exactly a low-profile place. There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the splashy boutique property since its December 2017 debut,  starting with criticism of the developer for receiving a $46-million tax break from the DC government without hiring the number of city residents it had promised. Last year, City Paper exposed allegations of racial discrimination and a toxic work environment at restaurateur Spike Gjerde’s swanky Line restaurant, A Rake’s Progress. No Goodbyes head chef  Patrick “Opie” Crooks, who was the executive chef at Rake’s before it closed in June last year, expressed regret in a story by Eater DC, stating: “After a ton of self-reflection and a ton of thinking about how that restaurant worked and the things that happened, I just don’t think that I personally did enough to influence the culture of the restaurant.” The new restaurant incorporated diversity and inclusion training. Just recently, the hotel property, previously operated by Sydell Group, was acquired by Membership Collect Group (MCG), which also runs the luxe Soho House chain.

Photograph courtesy of Cristian Zuniga

Zuniga, who is a Chilean immigrant, says he ultimately decided to speak up because he still knew people at the hotel, and was being strongly supported by friends in the hospitality industry. He originally created “the hug” in September 2020, after he was involved in creating an art show at H Street spot Shopkeepers with all the creative hospitality industry folks at Foreign National—photographers, painters, and designers. “We wanted to boost the morale of all the employees,” says Zuniga. He originally drew the hug with a marker on a piece of cardboard, which he keeps at his house.

“It’s all about how a hug, it’s more than just an expression. It releases hormones, helps improve your mood. Me and my girlfriend are from Chile. We have no family in the States. When you lack family support, especially during the pandemic, it gets harder. When you look at the design, it evokes warmth and happiness. It’s almost an exercise of self health and helps you figure out ways of being better.”

Zuniga and Merriweather initially spoke on Friday, where Merriweather alleged the similar illustration was a coincidence and expressed interest in working with Zuniga in the future. Zuniga says his latest outreach to Merriweather and the Line has has gone unanswered. In a Monday text note to Merriweather, the artist asked that the graphic not be used in the restaurant’s branding. 

“I’m not coming to pick a fight. I’m not telling them I want X amount of money. All I’m saying is you should learn, as a big company, and be more respectful,” Zuniga tells Washingtonian. “At the same time, you need to open a window for people to be able to express themselves,” he says, referring to the hotel’s social media, which he implored Merriweather to keep open for discussion. “If you’re not allowing that, there are deeper issues.”

*This article has been updated with additional information from Us creative design studio.

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Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.