words Marcus Fairs and Elaine Knutt
The furniture on sale at the White store in TriBeCa, New York, looks familiar. In the cavernous showroom, and on the shelves that line the walls, stand pieces that rank among the icons of 20th century design.
But pick up a chair and look beneath the seat and you are likely to find a small red and white sticker saying “Made in China”. The price tag, too, may come as a surprise: these items cost a fraction of similar ones in the fashionable stores a few hundred metres away in SoHo. No wonder the company slogan is “Bringing design to the masses”.
Yet a glance at the names of the products on sale reveals that they are not what you might have thought. What looks like George Nelson’s Coconut chair (£2,180 at one UK retailer) goes by the name of Coco chair and costs just $900 (£470). The Meso chair, which looks a lot like Paul Kjaerholm’s PK22, costs $750 (£390) compared to the licensed manufacturer’s price of £1,497.
And the Aluminium chair – a dead ringer for Emeco’s Navy chair, which sells in the UK for £355 – is a snip at just $75. The chair, of course, is a copy – or a knock-off, as they say in America.
A statement on the White store’s website (www.whiteonwhite.com) makes it all clear: “White Furniture’s products are not manufactured by, sponsored by, affiliated with or associated with Herman Miller, Charles or Ray Eames, Knoll, Fritz Hansen, Vitra or other companies.”
White’s owner, Karazona Cinar, wasn’t very willing to discuss his trade when icon called. “Thank you, but I don’t want any of this,” he said, politely, before putting the phone down.
He was chattier when he spoke to website www.ryanbros.com two years ago. “The industry was kidnapped by art galleries and museums,” he said. “They think this is only for a furniture elite. We want to bring this design to the public at the lowest price possible.” The website dubbed him “the downtown Robin Hood of vintage furniture”.
“It’s like the game with the rodents that pop up,” says Gregg Buchbinder, chairman and CEO of Emeco, who spends a lot of his time pursuing manufacturers and retailers of knock-offs. He’s preparing a big case against another US company and says: “If I don’t win, I’ll shoot myself.”
Faking designer furniture has become a huge global industry: Knoll produces 1,400 authorised editions of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair each year, but the company estimates 10,000 rip-offs are churned out in the same period. Danish manufacturer Fritz Hansen, which produces the official version of the much-copied Arne Jacobsen Egg chair, says it pursues around 100 legal cases a year.
“I patent, I trademark, I use lawyers, but I can’t control what other people do,” adds Buchbinder, saying that designer furniture is now suffering from the same epidemic of faking that the fashion industry has experienced for years. “I was just in Venice, and all the guys were in front of Prada and Gucci selling fake goods. They can’t stop it either.”
Faking is a worldwide industry. According to figures from the European Commission, 7-10 per cent of total worldwide commerce consists of fakes, copies and plagiarisms. More worryingly, the trade causes worldwide economic losses of $200 to $300 billion as well as the loss of 200,000 jobs each year. In the UK, Anti-Copying in Design reports that the unauthorised exploitation of creative design rights resulted in an estimated £10bn loss to the national economy in 2004, a 15 per cent increase on 2003.
But the tide may be turning against the furniture fakers. In a landmark case two years ago, Herman Miller won the backing of the US Patent and Trademark Office in its battle against imitations of the Noguchi coffee table and the Eames lounge chair and ottoman, to which it holds the American manufacturing rights.
Last October, Knoll won US protection for Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair. And this year, Vitra won a 15-year legal battle against manufacturer ICF over the rights to manufacture and sell the Eames Lounge Chair – to which it holds the European and Middle Eastern rights – in the key Italian market. ICF is to appeal against the ruling.
This flurry of legal rulings highlights the idiosyncracies of copyright laws in different countries. In much of continental Europe, furniture designs are classed as works of art, which means copyright lasts for 75 years after the author’s death. Hence at last year’s Orgatec office furniture fair in Cologne, Vitra was able to force the removal of a Malaysian producer’s version of the Eames’ Aluminium Group chair.
However, in Italy and the UK they are merely classified as commercial designs and are only protected for 15 years. The situation is similar in the US. Hence the baffling array of retailers in these countries offering designer “originals” at wildly differing prices and qualities.
“If I’m confused about the situation, consumers must be too,” says John Ash, managing director of two-store UK chain Espacio. “There must be about 15 companies in Italy making the Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair and the quality varies enormously.
We’re in the middle ground – the ones we source for customers are of very good quality, they fall between the authorised Knoll version and the cheaper manufacturers.”
Fakers often exploit the confusion over who owns the right to sell which projects in which parts of the world – Herman Miller, for instance, has exclusivity for Isamu Noguchi’s designs in the Americas and Australasia, while Vitra makes the same products for Europe and the Middle East.
“It’s a minefield,” agrees Daniel Aram of London retailer Aram, which owns the worldwide rights to Eileen Gray’s furniture designs. “The laws are different around Europe. The Vitra case is significant because it’s in Italy – they were already protected in Germany, the Benelux and so on. If a retailer puts an unauthorised product on show in these countries, they can be prosecuted. Now the Italian law seems to have come into line too.”
Not so the UK, however: even though Aram owns the copyright to the Eileen Gray name, the company can do nothing to prevent people selling fake versions of her classic designs. “They can’t say it’s ‘The Bibendum chair by Eileen Gray’ but they can say it’s the Bibendum chair, as designed by Elieen Gray,” says Aram.
Hence online retailer thisisfurniture.com offers an “Eileen Gray adjustable side table” for £175, while the starting price for Aram’s official E1027 table is £363. And the London Furniture Company offers a Barcelona lookalike called “van de Rohe [sic] by Target”, and a version of Eileen Gray’s Bibendum chair under the name “Eileen Gray by Target”.
“The problem is that consumers are duped,” adds Aram. “Certain retailers don’t inform consumers they’re not buying the original. Sometimes consumers come back to us and complain about poor quality. Consumer understanding in the UK is not very good.” “[Fakes] are bad for us, bad for the designer, and bad for the individual who bought some rubbish,” agrees Justin Manager, UK manager for Knoll Studio.
Not everyone agrees, however. “Retailers and manufacturers always fear that copying makes the market smaller. Actually the market gets bigger,” says Martin Raymond, co-founder of trend forecaster The Future Laboratory, who believes that most retailers are over-defensive on fakes. He quotes Coco Chanel, who apparently sent her couture gowns to be copied in New York the day after they’d been shown on the Paris catwalk, in the belief that the more people who buy the copy, the more aspire to buy the original. “It’s the same with downloading DVDs from the internet, it increases our desire to watch them.”
There are other examples of fake goods feeding brand hunger. The music industry has learned to accommodate downloading after discovering that consumers who roamed the internet developed more adventurous musical tastes, and were then prepared to pay for them. In the clothing sector, affordable “fast fashion” has created more confident consumers who can mix Top Shop and Prada and increase sales at both ends of the market.
Architect Rem Koolhaas referred to this phenomenon when asked to do some consultancy work for Prada: instead of fighting against the fakers, he urged them to celebrate them. Koolhaas devised an advertising campaign featuring knock-off handbags displayed for sale on a pavement. Fake and real adverts, or fake or real products, Koolhaas is saying that both serve the same purpose of boosting the status of the brand.
Prada, not surprisingly, rejected the concept. But the “fake” advert has now seen the light of day in Koolhaas’ latest book “Content”, where it became part of his celebration of the flux, energy and dynamism of contemporary culture.
“There are two points of view,” concedes Buchbinder of Emeco. “On one hand, if you make something that people appreciate so much that people want to imitate it, it’s flattering. But on the other hand, I have a factory to run and a reputation to uphold. Fashion is different: clothes wear out, they go out of fashion.
“In furniture, people are driven by quality; things that last a long time. The Navy chair is designed to last 150 years. We use zero temper aluminium. We weld, we grind and we anneal, then we heat-treat. Then we anodise it. [The fakers] have skipped all that. They spray paint to hide it and put brush marks on it.”
Yet the phenomenon of fake mid-century modern furniture contains a grain of good news for the design industry: it means that there is an increasing appetite for design classics. Viewpoint, the bi-annual trend study published by the Future Laboratory, quotes figures from retail tracker Keynote showing that sales of 20th-century classics have gone up 400 per cent. Justin Pratt from Knoll Studio notes that the company barely sold any Saarinen Tulip tables ten years ago. Last year, sales reached 4,000.
“If a consumer can’t afford the real thing and knowingly buys a copy, somehow it’s not so bad,” concedes Aram. “But probably the quality is poor, it’s normally not faithful to the original designs, and royalties are not paid to the estate of the designer, so it undermines design.”
“It takes me two years of my life and $1m to launch a chair,” agrees Buchbinder. “I feel like I own that and I should be able to keep that. People, and the courts, should support us, because otherwise why should we bother?”