Can you steal design?

August 6, 2012 — 28 Comments

Authentic versus Reproduction. This is a topic that I think about more than I should because it relates to some of the things I do. An easy way to introduce the topic is to take a look at Mid-Century Modern Furniture.


Eames molded plastic chair with eiffel base

The chair above is the classic most commonly referred to as the “Eames molded plastic chair with eiffel base” and it is one of my most favorite mid-century modern pieces of furniture. I like it for how it looks but also for what it represents – who made it, how they made it, the design philosophy behind its creation – and if I had a good place to put them I would most certainly endeavor to have a set in my own house. These chairs were designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1950 and licensed through Herman Miller. You can own this iconic piece of furniture for $350 if you wanted one for yourself … but that’s a lot of money for a plastic chair with a wire base (even if it is a cool wire base). You can get it at Herman Miller or DWR or Room and Board or any of a hundred other stores for the exact same price. Everybody that sells the licensed version of this chair has to charge the price that is set by Herman Miller.

But wait a minute … what if it isn’t a licensed version?


Eames Molded Plastic Side Chair with Wire Base knockoff

Say hello to the knockoff version of the Eames molded plastic chair with eiffel base. (hello)

This chair looks an awful lot like the one above … but you can get this version at a shockingly low bargain price of $99. How the hell is that possible? Well, it isn’t by Herman Miller. So what do you do if you really like this chair and want to get some for your dining room and you don’t have $1,400 to spend … unless you want to eat nothing but ramen noodles and ketchup soup for the next 6 months?

and  nobody likes ramen noodle that much except college students who like “beer”.

The “licensed authentic vs. reproduction” argument is super old and the side of the fence that most people position themselves on seems to be directly related to the amount of discretionary income they have available. Many of the manufacturers of these “knockoffs” claim that they follow the original specification when it comes to size, quality, and for the most part – material (nobody is stuffing cushions with horsehair and straw anymore). What this example really boils down to is design aesthetics – they look identical and most people are drawn to these items for their appearance so if the options are to save up $1,400 to get these chairs as licensed by Herman Miller OR spend $400 and get ones that looked exactly the same … well, you can do the math.

But what happens when we broaden this argument to other things – like the houses we design? At the firm where I work, it isn’t that uncommon that people bring in photos of a house they like and we discover that there is a shocking similarity to one of the houses we’ve already designed. The partners understandably get all bent out of shape and rant and rave about how our designs are getting ripped off. Unfortunately, we also seem to learn that the owners of these “knockoff” houses are people who have interviewed our firm but elected not to hire us for one reason or another. As a result, they go hire a builder, show them pictures of the house they liked (that we designed) and tell the builder to copy it. Once we learn about this, we (of course) go on and on about how wrong this is and the design oversight was missing from the process, proportions are wrong and etc. and etc.

So how do you rationalize that it is okay to buy knockoffs of furniture (which I would totally do) but be upset when architectural designs are knocked off? Part of the argument relies on the furniture pieces being identical with the exception being the “licensed by Herman Miller” part, while the architectural designs are at best bear a similarity to the original. There is nuance to this debate (otherwise there would be no debate) and I am quite sure that I have not spent the time outlining the correct outcome. Part of the reason the partners get upset is that we feel there is a certain look to the style of homes that we design (not comparing our work but similar to how you can tell you are looking at a Richard Meier, Renzo Piano or Morphosis project). When someone imitates our style closely enough that someone mistakes it as one of our projects, we don’t consider that  as imitation is the sincerest version of flattery, we see it as a threat to our companies brand and to our livelihood. Imitating is one thing but reproducing an original is something else all together.

Unless it’s a chair ….?


wood ceiling and beams

I’d like to think that if Ray and Charles Eames were still with us and if they were getting a piece of the $350-per-chair pie, I would be less likely to buy a knockoff – it would feel like stealing. I have a few “licensed” pieces in my home but nothing just ridiculously expensive. I have the Eames molded plywood chairs (we have three people in our family and at $650 per chair, we have three chairs), an Eames Dining table (checking in at $1,100 ) and two Poul Henningsen pendants – a PF/5 and a PH 4/3 (together clocking in around $1,325). All of these items with the exception of one of the Eames molded plywood chairs were purchased before we had a child and our discretionary income allowed us to buy the real thing – so we did.

Now that I no longer have discretionary income, what is a design conscious architect supposed to do? Because I have no idea.





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  • Remy

    Why on earth do people continue to buy these horrible replica’s – be original support local and emerging designers. It is killing the industry off all together, a large portion of furniture manufacture within Australia particularly is now done off shore due to low cost. The more this occurs, the more expensive local manufacture will become !! It is because a lot of people are un-educated when it comes to design, they see these iconic chairs time and time again on TV in magazines and they are just buying it because they ‘think’ it’s a nice design. We have the designers, we have the resources, use them!

  • Pingback: The Product. Stealing, imitating and copying. What are the wider implications? | thecreativeeconomyblog()

  • derek

    lol i think copying designs is the last thing some no-name architect needs to worry about

    • glad to see that you understand the bigger picture of what this post was really about.

  • Alison

    I regularly think about this, being a poor uni student and not likely to be able for afford anything nice any time soon.

    The only answer I can come up with is: BUY NEW DESIGN. Support young and inspired designers of your own time. Support manufacturers who produce good quality, environmentally sustainable, modern, crafted items.

    As much as we covet famous designs, it’s the same with cars or fashion, the massive mark-up on cost represents luxury/status/fame. If you focus on the value of quality and design, you can find a lot of great stuff around for any budget. Save the luxury item purchases for that special purchase – whether it’s art, furniture, cars or handbags.

  • It began with nothing: a blank canvas; a single terrace house without a skerrick of furniture, bar two IKEA deck
    chairs. I needed to furnish my house. I have a passion for architecture and
    design that led me to study architecture, mature-age. I liked my humble canvas
    chairs. I had internalized from IKEA, Marcel Breuer’s Bauhaus designed Wassily chair. The book, Furniture by Architects powerfully
    resonated with me, especially designs by a Fab Four of C20th architects: Mies,
    Aalto, Corbusier, Charles & Ray Eames. I started buying books about chairs.
    I started looking, really looking, slowly over time. I browsed at Twentieth
    Century ‘Antique’ shops, Geoff Hatty Applied
    Arts, Shapiro and International auction
    house catalogues, the NGV and Powerhouse collections. Slow furniture. From Georgian to Marc Newson, (skipping
    Victorian). I could never afford New-In-Box, so second-hand was almost
    inevitably the road travelled. I wanted classic modernist design from the
    licensee of the original designer.

    Then I bought my first ‘real’ chair. A well-reputed
    20th Century dealer of High Street, Armadale was selling his
    stock-in- trade. There was an Eames Lounge Chair, the renowned Billy Wilder
    chair of Frasier fame looking
    suitably deshabillé, vintage, nobly
    distressed and catalogued as ‘1956’, the year of its design.

    I got it.
    I was smitten. These chairs did not come up. It was the early 1990’s,
    pre-internet, pre-China ‘knock-off’.
    It had patina, but it soon moulted. It was missing its label. Well it
    was old. I canvassed Herman Miller, the manufacturer in Michigan as to
    recovering the leather. They were surprised at the decline of the product. I
    was put right. It was junk. It was a copy. I was devastated. My chair was wrong. It no longer held meaning. It was
    inauthentic. I had been duped. I offloaded it in a weekly household effects’
    sale. I lost my love. I lost money.
    Copies borrow and subtract from the original design, but never pay back the
    painstaking detail and longevity of the authentic version.

    Later, I would buy from France its experimental
    precursor, the Eames la Chaise, 1948.
    The European licensee, Vitra only produced this from 1990. It is rare. I
    had only seen one example at the Prince
    Hotel, St Kilda (Melbourne) Australia which was audaciously stolen (now replaced).

    It is a bold, thrilling, organic design. Its
    copies are laughable. The scale and integrity of its copied design is wrong.
    They are compressed, skinny and plastic. Yet I have seen them in specialist, top-end
    design shops that should know better. I am proud to have one of the authentic
    chairs, but none too pleased to see the knock-offs frequently lurking in
    interior design magazines. They devalue the design and currency of cultivated
    intellectual property.

    As a student, I confess I lusted after a plywood
    chair at the then ridiculous price of $2500: a lot of money. It passed it by- Poul Kjaerholm’s PK0
    chair, an experimental chair designed in 1952, but never commercially produced.
    It became available by the estimable producer, Fritz Hansen, as homage to the
    designer in 1997, a limited edition of 600 worldwide. Ten years later I would
    buy it at nearly three times the original price and weep at its sinewy lines,
    its audacious new technology, its utter scrupulous beauty. This is one of the
    great chairs.

    Best furniture designer-
    Poul Kjaerholm or Hans Wegner? or Charles & Ray Eames? This is the big
    ontological questions of a Melbourne chair enthusiast. But authenticity is a
    finals’ campaign and without it you are not in the game. Copies are worthless.
    The real thing has residual value and is sometimes valuably collectible. Among other
    pieces, over time, a Corbusier sofa; an Eileen Gray rug; an Aalto, and a Piet
    Hein barstool; and an Arne Jacobsen Swan chair, and its companion pieces became
    part of the (increasingly crowded) furnishings. All real. All authorised. All
    still travelling well.

    Later, a Sori Yanagi stool came up on eBay.
    Never seen one in the flesh. Legendary. Beautiful. It only existed in books,
    the MOMA collection and locally, in an exhibition catalogue of the architect,
    Ernest Fooks’ own house in Caulfield. I had to have it. Alas, I was a victim of
    knock-offs, replicas. I never thought some obscure, beautiful, Japanese modernist
    butterfly stool could exist falsely. Devastated, I righted the objection with a
    magnificent piece from the original Japanese producer. Too late. Now, I have
    two stools, one a sculptural beauty, and one fake- now just an expensive folly
    of a footstool/ladder. Authenticity matters. The fake, although reasonably
    faithful lacks delicacy, purity, essence. Side by side it is easy to spot the
    replica. Buyers beware.

    Good chairs are Minimalist Art; objects in
    space, domestic sculpture that can be sat on. In the hands of a good designer,
    a chair is proto-typed to a millimetre of its life. The technical and aesthetic
    questions are painstakingly tested and resolved. Quality, provenance and
    integrity are essential to the creative process. I respect and buy into that
    process. A well-designed piece can
    demand aesthetic separation and contemplation, yet invite you to engage in
    corporeal, intimate sensibility-your bum
    on it. It is a design world of the
    minimal essence allied with a functional role. It is the tantalising talisman
    of designers. I have learnt my lesson: only buy the genuine article. A good
    chair = good design. It is at once a grandiloquent statement and at the same time
    a banal efficient piece of engineering. It captivates. It intrigues.

    Shame it takes up so much space.

    But I reckon I could always find a place for a Hans Wegner CH07 Shell chair, or a Poul
    Kjaerholm PK 91 folding stool or…

    As long as they
    are the real thing.

    • Copies borrow and subtract from the original design, but never pay back the
      painstaking detail and longevity of the authentic version.” EXACTLY! I always bought original products and my friends would question me WHY? and i never used to have any answers! But what you said makes perfect senses! Thank you!

  • Dudekorator

    How are intellectual/manufacturing rights dealt with in the pharmaceutical world? Seems they have a good model where the originator of a drug is rewarded with exclusive rights for a set amount of time (ostensibly to cover R&D and profit but we all know more goes to profit- I digress) and then the game is over and competition opens up. Everybody knows the difference between the original brand name and the generic and most people without a billion dollar trust fund, or a deep skepticism of placebos, will go with the generic drug. Why can’t this work for mass produced furniture?

    Now as far as trademarking/copyrighting one-off “designed” structures….maybe the music industry has a model that could be followed. Seems that whenever an artist lifts too much of another artists song they can claim publishing rights and put their case to a judge and jury. A few riffs seem to be okay but verbatim reproduction is legally protected.

    Obviously I am not an attorney but I play one on-line….no just kidding. I bet Andrea Palladio wishes he had copyrighted the arched topped window.

  • AndrewM

    One thing nobody has talked about yet is the question: “Why is the Herman Miller version of the Eames plywood/leather chair and ottoman $4,000 when the identical copy is $2,000?” The short answer is that the HM version has $2,000 worth of real value and a further $2,000 worth of “we can charge a premium because we’re a brand.” I am happy to pay a premium for good design, but double the price? That’s ridiculous.

    • Jwkathol

      Most of this debate seems to orbit around designers and reproductions of classic pieces as defined by the MOMA Design Collection, Vitra Museum, etc. I’m not saying those are the be-all end-all taste makers, but anyone can see an overwhelming number of oft-copied pieces reside in those collections. Using that as a contextual baseline, the objects in those collections – in their initial debut – are often physical manifestations of a set of concepts, processes, and details that have been painstakingly obsessed over for months and years until the end result is not merely a chair, a lamp, or a bottle opener, but a concrete representation of abstract theories on ergonomics, manufacturing techniques, contemporary aesthetics, even social commentary. In every sense, the original objects are STATE OF THE ART. I’m guessing the Eames Lounge probably only costs about $600 to make. Of course there are other costs added to that – marketing, distribution, commissions, etc.
      But lets get real, what goes along with licensed products – in addition to authentic construction – is exclusivity, pedigree, and provenance. Who knows…the real deal could be just as junky ast the reproduction. Companies like Herman Miller know this and they price their products accordingly. I don’t like the pricing, but if they want to sell less chairs at a higher price to keep the Eames Brand more exclusive it’s their right to do so.

  • Jwkathol

    Great designs will always be copied, referenced, or reinterpreted by others at some point in time. The most often copied designs usually possess a kind of elegance, sensibility, and universal appeal that almost anyone can relate to on some level. Assuming knockoffs and rip-offs will always exist, whether or not one chooses to buy the reproductions or licensed originals depends entirely on ones perspective. If you value what the object represents beyond its physical manifestation, and respect the process and details behind its existence, then it would be wise to save up and buy the original or scour antique stores and e-bay to buy vintage. If however, you simply want the object because it looks interesting, compliments its surroundings, or maybe you need twelve of them, perhaps a reproduction is the way to go.
    One exception to this is the Eames Lounge…. if you want one of those, Charles and Ray deserve your respect by stepping-up for the real deal, even if you do want to put twelve of them in you living room.

    • well put.

      I have been saving up for an Eames lounge for 22 years but everytime I make some progress, something else always steps up to the plate to reset my savings back to $0.00

      one day I will get it and hopefully the conclusion to the wait will be sweet

      • Jwkathol

        I’m a purist – and a pauper (with kids and a mortgage), which is why my collection consists of only a couple beat-up original Eames DCW chairs and two original Bertoias. If I were going to buy a replica, I would not buy a knockoff of anything less than 20 years old. It just doesn’t feel right buying a copy of something relatively young in terms of when it was designed. Anything older than that, I believe the designers have had their moments of glory, the R&D has likely been paid for long ago, and its up to the manufacturers to stay ahead of the game by bringing newer, more innovative designers and products to the table. Conversely, the knockoff companies may be making money hand-over-fist, but their products (no matter how accurate) will never carry the same cache and respect as the licensed originals.

  • Bob, what an interesting question. I suppose, on some level, people who buy knock off chairs (or anything else) expect something less in terms of quality. They simply accept that trade off for a better price. But now I can’t stop thinking if some of our clients don’t sometimes feel the same way; meaning they know they are getting less if they chose to hire someone else, but they are willing to accept that fact to save some money. It’s still almost impossible to compare the value of a product vs. the value of a service, but a very interesting discussion none the less.

    Well I just checked my Rolix watch and it’s time to get back to work!

    • I would tend to agree – an added consideration to that is whether or not the consumer realize if and to what extent the trade-off extends. When it comes to architectural services (or any professional service) more times than not the consumer hasn’t any practical knowledge of the service and doesn’t have a frame of reference with which to compare.

      I am definitely not trying to advocate that more expensive equals better but rather how to draw the distinction between original, imitation or reproduction.

      I suppose intent figures into the equation and as a result, the consumer bears full responsibility (better or worse) for their decision.

  • Brenda

    Excellent post Bob! I personally take the hard line on this. If I can’t afford the original, then I don’t buy the knock off – period. That goes for furniture and architecture. Part of this is due to the fact that a knock off probably isn’t the same quality, but mostly it’s because someone has it licensed and it is someone’s intellectual property. In my mind, there is no wiggle room. Sometimes we need to put what we want to the side and do what is right.

    • Thanks Brenda – doing what’s right is a sliding scale for most. I probably wouldn’t want to lower my expectations of the end product so making a substitution in order to acquire something isn’t really in my make-up.

    • bd

      But do you take the same hardline with fashion? or technology? If you follow this to the logical conclusion, it could be a very expensive lifestyle

  • Vic Hubbard (@Tumblewood)

    As a woodworker, I have two basic parameters. I’m fine with a total design rip off of a still living artist, if and only if, the piece is for myself and will not be sold. I did a piece a while back that had another designer’s piece as the starting point. Although the piece I designed had almost no similarity, I still contacted the original designer for permission and then credited him for the “inspiration” for my piece. If the original designer is deceased, a reproduction is still out of the question, but a piece “in the style of” is fine with me. Again, as long as there is full disclosure and credit given..
    While I may do this, it is unfortunately, common practice to blatantly steal. It seems integrity is not highly valued in our society. However, being upset if a design is stolen, without the resources to sue for intellectual theft, is much like the old saying: “Being angry at someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” The best anyone can do is to follow their own ethical standards and understand not everyone values those standards.

    • It’s important to have personal guidelines. It always comes down to intent for me. If you are copying with full knowledge and trying to pass it off as an original, that’s a character flaw in my book.

  • Secret Design Studio

    I don’t think there is an easy answer for this. My rule of thumb is if the designer of the chair (or light or whatever) is still alive then you should buy the original and not the knock-off – am thinking of Philippe Starck, Marcel Wanders etc. When you purchase an original piece from a living designer, you are rewarding that designer for good work. Generally speaking more contemporary pieces are more affordable than the mid-century modern classics as they have been designed with today’s production methods in mind. I would steer a client away from an Eero Saarinen reproduction tulip chair to a Philippe Starck Eros chair with a tulip base, which is about twice the cost. Both are great looking chairs, but I know the swivel on the original Eros is going to be a better long term proposition than the swivel on the reproduction of the Eero Saarinen tulip.

    This is where the trap is with reproductions – they may look the same when new, but from personal experience they don’t age the same – white plastics can yellow with age, swivel seats can loose their swivel etc.

    I have a client with a wonderful, original, aged Barcelona chair, where the beautiful leather has developed a patina and character – it has aged gracefully over twenty or thirty years. I have another client who purchased the cheapest Barcelona chair reproductions. The leather is already looking shabby, with the edge piping splitting and it is starting to look tatty after 6 months of use.

    For the larger mid-century pieces, my clients (and I) can’t afford the prices being asked for the originals. If I can’t find a contemporary, well priced, quality equivalent (not a reproduction) then the next best option is to buy a quality reproduction. Unfortunately not all reproductions are the same quality, and it is very hard to tell from price alone.

    • Thanks for the comment – pretty well articulated position. When it comes to furniture, I think you have made the argument I would follow pretty well. I might try and buy a vintage piece if it was that important to me (but so far it hasn’t been – I like new).

      Assuming that reproductions are legally made, I probably wouldn’t have a problem buying one because I would assume that it would perform appropriately for what I’ve paid. Sadly, that’s the part that bother me

      Why is it okay for one but not the other? Maybe it’s the nuance between similar and identical (or reasonable facsimile thereof)

  • Any creative process stands on the shoulder of giants before them. Most music styles have established chord progressions, architects have vernacular designs, etc. I believe the line is crossed when someone starts with a finished design and alters it “enough” to be a “new” design. I worked (thankfully many years ago) at a firm where it was often stated “it’s not copy-written if you change 15% of the plan”. Yes, really. Beyond the obvious lack of talent, I’m not even certain how one is supposed to quantify design??

  • Try making it yourself! I enjoy wood turning. Easy to copy someone else’s work. Sometimes a newer turner will create a shape or object that is a copy and he/she doesn’t even know it. That thought popped into my mind when I saw the pendant. Looked like some of the light fixtures in the new school I attended in Grade School. Thanks for sharing the happening in the architectural world.

  • Enoch Sears

    Great topic for debate Bob and one that I’m sure isn’t going to end any time soon. We can try to protect our designs or go after those who try to copy them, but in the end what do we gain? Maybe you should remind the partners of the adage that they themselves have probably used on their children (I know I have on mine!): Imitation is the best form of flattery. What a compliment to be copied! 🙂

  • Tough conversation/debate right there. Because, you know, I do look at furniture the same but riled if one of our designs is taken or if there is a remote chance there is. I’m sure you know that it makes you feel used, dirty somehow and ill-compensated. So…good question on the furniture….why is that okay?

    • Rob

      Its scale. People figure that furniture/lights/etc. is small and easy so its not a leap to take the discount version. A house or building is a major thing that has scale to back up the design.

      Most folks do not calculate the design without accounting for size and relative complexity. Besides you can get furniture at an any store, a house is something else, so when its designs are ripped off its a bigger scale of a deal.