Replica, reproduction or rip off? It’s likely what you call a fake piece of designer furniture depends on if you would have one in your house or not. Over the last few years designer fakes have been seen as big issue in the Australian interior design industry. For example Authentic Design Alli ance was set up a couple of years ago to petition government for change and educate both the design industry and consumers.
The topic of fakes or copies came up last week I attended the launch of Penny Craswell’s The Design Writer blog at Stylecraft. The panel consisted of 3 Australian furniture designers – Keith Melbourne, Helen Kontouris and Greg Natale. The issue of copying was raised by Penny as part of the panel discussion and certainly dominated the audience comments at the end of the night. Whilst none of the designers present had yet had the (dubious) honour of having their pieces copied, all are aware of how prevalent cheap (and even not so cheap) reproductions are – and that they seem to be are comprising a growing segment of the furniture market in Australia.
Speaking afterwards with Helen and Greg, they were discussing how designers today may deliberately design details that are hard to manufacture and therefore hard to copy in order to reduce the chances of being copied. Whilst I am not disagreeing with this tactic, I would guess it creates additional costs both in time to market or in manufacture and whilst it certainly does not detract from, it does not necessarily benefit the design.
So what’s the attraction of fakes? And why are they so prevalent in Australia these days? Cost is the obvious answer but not the full picture. Availability and ease of purchase is certainly part of the issue. Reproduction pieces have been ever more widely available in Australia in recent years, particularly when compared to European countries. The internet is certainly part of the rise of fakes, it is much easier than ever before for either designers or individual shoppers to quickly source furniture by keywords and images. No longer do you need to know which suppliers or stores to go to, you can find what you want on the internet within minutes – often just by using Google images. Frequently we all specify or select furniture based purely from the image. There just isn’t time to visit every showroom or collect samples of every item in many fitouts (I blogged just recently on lack of time) I wouldn’t be surprised if some junior designers specify reproductions by accident – perhaps not realising that an original exists or that the supplier they have selected is selling a reproduction. (Even during the course of writing this blog I have discovered a lamp shade in my house is in fact a designer knock off – now do I get rid of it?)
Designers are also being pressured more and more to meet project budgets. Clients and project managers push to bring the costs of projects down – and loose furniture is almost always the first part of the project to be attacked by ‘value management’. Is it really ‘value’ to replace a designer piece with a reproduction? Are we reducing the value of our own interior design by doing so? Do our clients understand that there is lasting resale value in the original but not in the fake? If they don’t, perhaps we need to educate them in this regard. I can buy 2 replica Eames plastic chairs for $136 but I probably won’t get $10 back for them. Sadly though- today I can’t prove this point – all I could find for sale on Gumtree was replicas! I guess that suggests that people want to keep the real thing?
I would also suggest that the increase in the sales of fakes – perhaps somewhat strangely – is because Australians are more exposed to design than ever before – but without necessarily having the understanding or appreciation of quality that exists in many European countries. Think about the standard of design in your local cafe or average workspace – I would say that over the last 20 years the level of design that goes into these spaces has markedly increased. In the media, I have frequently seen Australia referred to as being a hot spot for interior design or ‘punching above its weight’. The 2 Eames plastic chairs I mentioned above I saw advertised on prime time TV (to buy on the internet though!) so clearly the market for designer furniture is now pretty broad. In my area of Sydney every second house for sale has an Eames lounge and a few Eames plastic chairs that seem to come standard as part of the stylists package. Are Australians now coming to appreciate design in the spaces they inhabit, but devaluing design itself by filling the space full of cheaper reproduction furniture? If you can’t afford an Eames, shouldn’t you just accept that? As Helen Kontouris pointed out – if you can’t afford a BMW you don’t drive a fake BMW (although I did find this replica speedster image on flicker – where there were more replica cars than replica furniture images! Perhaps that just reflects the bias of flickr’s users to cars rather than furniture).
The point is here in Australia, the replica furniture is widely available so people don’t have to accept they can’t afford it. The same as a ‘Gucci’ bag in Thailand. If you can buy it, some people always will.
In 2011 Herman Miller took legal action against Matt Blatt for infringing its trademark by use of the word Eames chair to describe their replica products. It wasn’t actually even the copying that was at dispute here – but the use of the name Eames. Australian Design Review reported on the case. The protection for design in Australia is fairly limited, and from what I understand this is one big difference between Australia and Europe. Its not that no Europeans would buy designer rip offs, they just don’t have the chance. The case between Herman Miller and Matt Blatt was settled with what seem to be fairly minor changes to the Matt Blatt marketing and they continue to sell replicas today- and the market for replicas has even probably grown in the intervening time.
The comments at the bottom of the Australian Design Review article raise an interesting point though, and one which was raised at The Design Writer event last week – its one thing for sales of fakes to be taking sales away from a giant like Herman Miller, but do you feel differently about the situation if cheap Aisan manufactured furniture pieces are taking away from sales and manufacturing of Australian furniture? With the flow on of limiting over time the market and opportunities for new Australian designer furniture to even be developed? Or is it as a couple of those commenting say, and that to debate the issue of replicas is only about protecting corporations making money from long dead designers?
Given the concerns of local designers – Keith Melbourne, Helen Kontouris and Greg Natale – the answer is no, they see fakes as having the potential to take food off their tables to quote Keith. Is it that current legislation in Australia is not supporting or protecting live designers too? A design registration only lasts 10 years, it doesn’t actually take long before replicas are legally permitted (assuming a piece could take 3-4 years to get from registration to market) – and that doesn’t even take into account the minor design changes that could allow a replica product to be sold (although not as a ‘replica’) sooner.
The question in my mind is – does it matter? Would the people buying fake Eames chairs actually buy pieces by Australian designers anyway? This is where it comes down to the recommendations and specifications of interior designers. People who are buying replicas on their own, for their own houses are likely not going to change their decisions unless the law changes. Even then would they be buying Australian Designers – well that probably depends on media coverage. However where we as interior designers have some influence over clients its a little different. If they can’t afford an Eames chair, maybe they can afford a new piece by an up and coming Australian designer – and that is the story you sell to them – that they are supporting Australian design (and highlighting therefore what good taste they have, not just copying everyone else etc etc).
As interior designers we want to be paid fairly for our projects, so we should respect that the designers for furniture want to get paid fairly too. Think about it – by supporting rip off furniture, we assist in undermining the value of all kinds of design – including our own – don’t we?
by Some Guy Photo