The Battle Against Design Knock-Offs

The Battle Against Design Knock-Offs
Destroying fakes was part of an event hosted by the Authentic Design Alliance in Australia. “We will not put up with our designs being copied anywhere,” David Trubridge said. “It harms us and it harms the families my work feeds.”

Last summer, as part of a design event, David Trubridge decided to stomp on knock-offs of his unmistakable Floral and Kina lamps. Because consumers covet them, they are prime targets for knock-off companies. Yet, while Trubridge was bemoaning lax laws around fakes in Australia, Europe and other countries have begun to take copyright laws much more seriously.

Earlier this year, Norway and Switzerland destroyed shipments of Wegner and Le Corbusier fakes, respectively. Falling into line with many E.U. countries, the U.K. recently revised its Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to make it illegal to import, fabricate and ultimately sell the most ubiquitous knock-offs, from the Eames “Eiffel” chair to Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona.

The huge market for cheap versions suggests that for the average consumer, replicas don’t present an ethical crisis. For many people, there is no distinction – except, of course, in cost – between real and fake. The Guardian even conflated the two, announcing the new U.K. law, which extends protection to 70 years (from 25 years) after a designer’s death, by saying: “Mid-century design classics, such as Charles Eames chairs, Eileen Gray tables and Arco lamps are set to rocket in price.” In fact, the licensed products aren’t rocketing in price; the fakes are simply being pulled out of circulation. The paper then let readers know they had six months to “snap up” replicas.

Oliver Wainwright, the newspaper’s design critic, espouses this design-for-the-masses vibe. He engaged in a Twitter dust-up earlier this year in defense of the cheaper versions. “‘We wanted to make the best for the most for the least,’” he quotes the Eameses as having said. “So isn’t this exactly what Charles Eames would have wanted?”

Well, not exactly. The “best” precedes “least” for a good reason. The Eameses might have a few questions about the 54 factories making Eames furniture in China alone, especially about quality and labour standards. Plus, such companies as Herman Miller and Vitra that make licensed reproductions have not only nurtured decades-long relationships with the foundations of these dead pioneers but also invest in sustainable materials and technologies to faithfully manufacture their designs to today’s standards.

Leaving aside, for a moment, the issue of classics, Trubridge’s actions reflect the sentiment of many designers trying to make a living. They might devote up to two years, from concept to market launch, to developing a product, only to see it quickly and brazenly copied. “Some people say it’s kind of a compliment,” says Dutch design star Marcel Wanders, “but it’s only wicked thievery.” Michael Anastassiades, who creates minimal, almost celestial lighting under his own brand and for Flos, also finds the practice deeply offensive. “You feel somehow violated. Something you’ve created with so much excitement, energy and passion – all of a sudden someone takes it, and puts their copy out there.”

It’s even worse when they add a detail or distort proportion to elude the law. “You think, ‘Did I design this? This is really ugly, horrible.’” Parasitizing someone’s creativity is one thing, but taking a potential sale is another. As Theo Richardson, co-founder of New York lighting studio Rich Brilliant Willing, describes it, “We have a team that depends on this company functioning. Every time you steal, you’re stealing the livelihood of the people on this team.”

Tom Dixon is probably one of the most flagrantly copied designers in the world, so much so that the knock-off phenomenon has motivated the Briton to constantly reinvent his design process and seek out new technologies or making processes that add a unique, customized, and therefore inviolable, touch to each product. But is this the solution? Who is to say that copy-makers won’t eventually get their hands on the same technologies? Some knock-off producers have already perfected indiscernible copies.

Such producers operate in a number of ways. Big box retailers or importer-distributors might head to design fairs to spot, photograph and reverse engineer, with extraordinary efficiency, new products. These companies could also easily steal from a manufacturer’s online catalogue, which often includes CAD files.

Knock-offs are illegal, but to sue is to engage in a years-long struggle. “The last thing you want to do is pay money for something that takes you in a negative direction, financially and emotionally,” says Gregg Buchbinder, chairman of Emeco. His company’s famed Navy Chair has been the subject of more than one trademark lawsuit. Wanders says his company fights back against 10 to 20 cases a year, but only when the copies have made their way to a geographic region where Moooi can fight them, and not at the factory in, say, China. Because it might take years to settle a suit, a company can just move to a new factory and churn out additional fakes under another name.

It may seem a rarefied feud between designers and copyists, but consumers play a central, if silent, role. We are the market – the demand – after all. Every time we favour the bargain price, we ignore all that goes into a good design, from the innovation of ideas, materials and techniques, to the support of skilled, adequately compensated labour. It hits at the heart of what good design is and why it is important.

“There’s a difference between inspiration and stealing,” says Wanders, referring to the ways in which designers can influence each other – which is natural, considering the rapid proliferation of digital images. “It’s important to make that distinction.” The distinction is that knock-off companies don’t employ designers. They do not innovate, they only imitate, and cut every corner in order to boost their profits. Nancy Bendtsen, of Canadian manufacturer Bensen, which has fought copies in the legal system, explains, “It is so sad when people don’t understand how much it takes to actually produce a piece, and they steal the final outcome of all that energy.”

Take Emeco as an example. Says Buchbinder, “Emeco has an aluminum factory. We bring in raw materials; we cut, bend, weld, grind, anneal, heat treat, sanoflex and anodize – all under one roof. In all these things we’re experts.” The anodizing process that gives Emeco chairs their silvery sheen is more than a surface effect: it makes the chairs non-corrodible. Fake versions are coated in silver paint – making the aesthetic concession while skipping steps that keep Emeco chairs sturdy for 150 years.

As someone who helped rescue the Navy Chair from obscurity (when he purchased the factory from his father in 1998), Buchbinder is passionate about the value of a truly enduring product. “In our culture, there’s this thing that’s sad, this society that is consume and throw away. People don’t buy things to keep. Our desire to buy more crap will diminish, I hope.” And this is perhaps the best argument against the knock-off industry: it’s hell on the environment and taxing on our already diminishing natural resources.

While the problem of fakes has seemed only to increase, stricter laws and awareness-raising efforts by non-profits like BeOriginal Americas have begun to net wins. BeOriginal Americas, based in New York, has also recently launched a fellowship to better educate students on how an authentic design process plays out.

Says Sam Grawe, president of BeOriginal Americas’ board and global brand director at Herman Miller, “They really get the nose-to-tail experience in what it takes to make a product.” Students visit Herman Miller, Emeco, Bernhardt and dozens of other companies. For the average consumer, education is also key. Even China is getting over its taste for knock-offs – and it’s thanks to fairs like Design Shanghai, and a growing middle class more keen on buying the real thing. The copy-makers might keep on copying, but the consumer has the final choice. Says Wanders, “It’s really all about ethics.”

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