Samuel West, who has been living in Sweden for more than 20 years, was declared bankrupt last Wednesday after his former business partners reported him to Sweden's debt enforcement agency for failing to pay their legal fees of 450,000 kronor ($50,000).
“I could put myself and my story into the Museum of Failure,” he said. “I'm up shit creek now, but I can't help laughing that it's so absurd, that this is my idea and someone with an aggressive lawyer can come in and fuck up my life in this way.”
The exhibit, which displays 100 of the the weirdest flop products in business history, has generated viral coverage since it was first announced in April 2017, with articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among others.
The original Helsingborg museum has been followed by spin-off exhibitions in Toronto, Canada, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and soon Munich.
West's second idea for an exhibit, the Museum of Disgusting Food, has also been a success, with its run in Malmö now extended for another six months.
The media attention, however, led West into a dispute with his former business partners, the designer couple Niklas and Jenny Madsen, who have claimed the right to 49 percent of the idea and all profits derived from it, and who successfully had West declared bankrupt last week.
“If you go bankrupt in Sweden as an individual, it's like feudal, it's really, really intense,” West complained.
“I don't actually even understand all the consequences, but I don't have a bank account. I don't have BankID [an electronic identification system widely used in Sweden]. I can't get a job, because if I get a job the bankruptcy will take all my wages, and I'm forbidden to run a company.”
Niklas Madsen declined to comment, instead referring The Local to his lawyer Lina Bergqvist, who argued that West had dealt with her clients in an underhand way, moving the museum out of their shared company Superlab.
“The idea is owned by the company that my clients had together with Samuel West,” she said. “That’s why they started the company together, and that’s what they agreed upon. And what happened is that he transferred the idea to his own company without them knowing, and that is not in accordance with Swedish law.”
The plaintiffs argued in the lawsuit: “The idea for the Museum of Failure originated during various different project group meetings between Niklas Madsen, Jenny Madsen and Samuel West, among others, during the summer of 2016.”
“Samuel West presented himself as the founder of the project, which was not correct. The fact is that the idea for the project as well as the right of ownership, rested the whole time with Superlab.”
West said he had lost that lawsuit by default (in Swedish a 'tredskodom'), after being forced to abandon the case due to “escalating legal fees”. He claimed that beyond designing the logo and the interiors, the Madsens had had little interest in the museum until it began to get viral coverage.
“That it wasn't my idea from beginning. Jesus Christ man! I just finished a PhD in innovation research. I just spent six years of my life researching how companies fail,” he told The Local.
“They weren't involved in the museum during the opening, or in operating it in the summer. They weren't involved in the press, they weren't involved in the curating. The only thing they did was the logo and the furnishing.”
West said that he had offered to sell Madsen his 51 percent stake or to buy out their 49 percent.
“But the Museum of Failure is dead without me, so they opted instead to start this process.”
A second lawsuit, in which the Madsens have demanded 6 million kronor in lost earnings is still ongoing, with West defending himself.
“They're having a really hard time proving that I've made any money,” West says.
Bergqvist, however, argued that would not be necessary.
“Based on the lectures, travelling museums and pop-ups that Samuel West has done according to himself we have made a calculation,” she said. “According to Swedish law we can make a calculation of the hypothetical scenario — what would have been the assets in the company if they had stuck to the party’s agreement — and according to our calculations that is 6.3m SEK.”
West said that his research into innovation should have warned him to be more careful over how he legally structured the company.
“It's one of the more common reasons companies go to hell or fail,” he said. “As soon as there's some money or something involved, there's conflict, and then the lawyers take all the money.”