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.
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?
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 ….?
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.