Cheap, generally poorly made versions of furniture, lights and accessories are sucking up the lion’s share of discretionary purchasing in the interior sector. How can the genuine articles continue without money to support R&D?
Australia has a unique set of laws governing intellectual property. Because of the very open-ended drafting of laws to aid the car spare-parts industry back in the 70’s we are now stuck with virtually no protection against people who wish to take designs and reproduce them without license. While this is upsetting for products by designers long dead (and R&D paid off many years ago) it is totally unacceptable for replicas of new products by designers who rely on the royalties to continue their practice. This is a post that shows how close companies are prepared to go without paying a cent for the design component of a product that makes them plenty of money. It also shows examples where certain retail companies exhibit a total disregard for the original intentions of the designers – creating objects that exploit a popular style in a way that the designer NEVER intended.
Lets start with the horror stories – the ones where the companies who peddle copies are so out of the loop stylistically that they don’t even know when something looks appalling. Dead designers the world over must be rolling in their graves at the thought of their highly regarded designs being bastardized in this way but for an unsuspecting public these are often mistaken for original concepts. Classic chairs are turned into barstools and rockers, floor lamps into table lamps. They add wheels, change materials and generally take extraordinary liberties to produce a cheaper item.
Take Charles and Ray Eames’ 'House Bird' for example. Only ever used as a beautiful prop for photo shoots for Herman Miller and as a objet d'art in the Eames own house, it was released by Vitra – the European distributor of Eames products since 1950 - as a an interior accessory in mid 2000 and took the world by storm. Sadly it has been incorporated into a number of other products including a strange lamp sold through Beacon Lighting called the ‘Twitter Bird’ lamp. What was once whimsical is now just awkward and badly executed. Another example from more recent times is the 'Horse Lamp' by avant-garde Swedish designers, Front. Originally conceived as a life sized piece, it has now been replicated (badly) as a pathetic table lamp. Gone is the scale and the finesse, it’s now just a little polyester horse light.
There are plenty of examples where designs that were originally only released in one form have been turned into something completely different. While a chair into a barstool may not seem like a big leap it might be well to remember that designers take several years to finalise a specific design. It seems that replica companies are quite prepared to convert one thing into another with no permission, no understanding of proportion or eye for construction methods. They extrapolate a design into something else on the basis of "can I sell it?".
Now let's look at the real elephant in the room. Living designers are being ripped off every day. As soon as a design is successful it becomes a likely candidate for the copyists. Just when years of study and hard graft are about to pay some dividends, well received products start to appear as cheap unlicensed copies with no funds going to the designer and no return on investment by the original manufacturer. A case-in-point is the ‘Caravaggio’ pendant light by Danish designer, Cecile Manz. The design was fundamental to kick-starting her career yet now the copies outsell the original many, many times over. What would have been a steady royalty stream has reduced to a trickle.
Another example is the ‘Ribbon’ lamp by British designer Claire Norcross for Habitat. A replica is sold by Beacon Lighting in Australia under the name ‘Axle’, it is virtually identical to the original. The only question is WHY would you buy a replica when the original at £40 is so cheap to start with? What was a startlingly original piece of design is now replicated with no royalty payments going to Norcross yet the Australian consumer pays $89.95 - slightly more than for the original.
Probably the example that shocked me the most was when I ventured into Bunnings looking for fluorescent tubes one day, not only to discover they sold virtually the entire Tom Dixon lighting collection but also poor interpretations of lights from Czech lead crystal lighting company, Lasvit. The ‘Neverending Collection’ from Lasvit was only released in 2013 , yet here we around a year later seeing rough versions sold at a hardware store! The designers, Jan Plechac and Henry Wielgus, are young Czech designers who need royalties to allow their studio to continue and Lasvit who spend enormous amounts on installations to promote their brand, need to see a return on their investment.
While Living Edge represents the real thing in Australia, no doubt a large number of sales will go to Bunnings because of the price differential. A large price difference is hardly surprising as one is mouth blown lead crystal from the Czech Republic and the other machine made glass from China. While many purchasers of the Bunnings versions will be totally ignorant of the designs opera inspired origins or its Bohemian glass origins, there will be interior designers that opt to save the money and go for the effect without worrying too much about the quality or the fact they are harming their own industry.
Replica companies are so blatant at times that they are even prepared to use photography lifted from the original manufacturers website - as is the case with Corinna Warm’s ‘Circus’ lights for Innermost. The replica copies of the 'Circus' light are often featured on websites with the original Innermost publicity photos of a clown doing a somersault. The replica companies don’t even have to pay for the creative to go with the lighting design they have replicated without payment! I am flabbergasted by their audacity. Most of the words about replica products are also lifted entirely from the original manufacturers website. They seem too lazy to even write their own description.
Of course the list goes on with replica versions of just about every successful product you care to name being flogged somewhere: Kartell’s ‘Bourgie’ table lamp, Flos’ ‘Arco’ lamp, Herman Miller’s ‘Eames Lounge chair and Moooi’s ‘Random’ light being some of the more obvious ones but there are hundreds more and many of these are now contemporary designs from the last few years such as David Trubridge's 'Koura' and 'Coral' lamps. Sometimes in a totally farcical turn around, the replica even ends up more expensive than the real thing – as is the case with Sokol’s replica of the Blu Dot ‘Lily Pad’ table. $549 in Australia from Blu Dot - $699 from the replica retailer. Go figure.
Ultimately Australia needs to wise up that this type of intellectual property abuse is totally unethical and must not be tolerated. The American government is starting to put the heavy word on Australia in regards to illegal downloading of music, film and television and our government appears to be slowly responding. Why is product design any different? The laws protecting the copyright of products needs to be strengthened so that there is some likelihood for designers or original manufacturers to win a court case against replica sellers. Otherwise we will end up being a country full of third-rate copies without any credibility in the design world at large.
The design to the left is the original 'Tractor' stool by Bassam Fellows. Note the thickness of the Bassam Fellows solid walnut seat and the lack of cross-bracing. The one to the right is a so-called 'replica'. The stool has had the materials reduced to save money - to the point where large amounts of additional bracing is required to achieve the required strength. The original's uncomplicated expression is lost in the process.
If for no other reason, the laws need to be changed so as to protect the basic right for designers to earn a living from their creative endeavors and years of hard work. Replica's are wrecking careers. We all need to do our bit and insist on the original.