“From the viewpoint of the designer, which is the only viewpoint I can assume with any degree of propriety, the Herman Miller Furniture Company is a rather remarkable institution.”
George Nelson, Director of Design for the Herman Miller Furniture Company, opened the company’s 1948 design catalogue with the introduction above. The company was in the midst of one of the most successful periods of its history. Nelson’s appointment ushered in an unprecedented wave of talent; an all star team of interior designers, inventors and architects. Before his arrival, the company was known for its traditional wooden furniture design. During his 30 year stint as Creative Director, he introduced America to designers like Harry Bertoia, Isamu Noguchi, and Charles and Ray Eames, the cream of the Modernist crop.
George Nelson became a designer almost by accident. As a Yale student in 1928 he stumbled into the Architecture Department to escape inclement weather, and after seeing the work going on there, decided to pursue an architecture degree. His hiring as creative designer for Herman Miller was equally fortuitous as he had not at that point designed any furniture. It was while at the company that Nelson began to define himself in the field. He founded George Nelson Associates Inc. with money he’d made as creative director, creating iconic designs such as the Marshmallow sofa, the “Action Office” (aka the office cubicle) and most famously the Nelson Bubble lamp, a staple of Herman Miller’s interior lighting roster.
His vision for Herman Miller is perfectly encapsulated in his introduction to the 1948 catalogue. “There is a hint of the craftsman as opposed to the industrialist; there is a suggestion of the “better mousetrap” theory in another form” In Nelson’s view, raw innovation would drive the business, with every new piece conceived on frontier of interior design. His designers were pioneers, space age Renaissance artists armed with tape measures and plywood molds. Pushing the boundaries of what furniture should look like, what it is made of, what it meant to people, is what made Herman Miller we know today. Elsewhere in the introduction though, Nelson gives a bit of insight into one of the driving forces of originality in design; imitation.
“The product must be honest,” Nelson states in the catalogue. “Herman Miller discontinued production of period reproductions almost twelve years ago because its designer, Gilbert Rohde, had convinced the management that imitation of traditional designs was insincere aesthetically” This was the turning point for the brand; as Nelson stated above, they were previously imitators. In their pursuit of cutting edge of design, the company left behind the idea of imitation, and the constraints (and proven success) of ‘traditional’, in favor of originality. And the honesty paid off. Nearly 60 years after this publication, Herman Miller sits at the top of the furniture and design food chain for. The Eames brand alone sold over $377 million of furniture from 1961 to 1998.
This problem, of imitating other designs, has never left Herman Miller; it has just switched sides, as the brand that before Nelson made their trade in selling reproductions of other well known designs now faces being knocked off.With their ascension to the height of the design, the brand is now the target of counterfeiters the world over, and has taken every step to the extent that the law allows to protect itself. Since 2002, the firm has initiated at least 9 lawsuits against unlawful reproductions or infringements into their copyright, trademark and patent holdings- one of them coming from the Nelson Foundation for an infringement against its Bubble Lamp. It’s not an easy problem to remedy; in fact, it’s hard enough just to define. The best way to start is through example; and the best example, of an icon of modern furniture being knocked off, is the Eames Shell Chair.
A Renaissance couple of their time, Charles and Ray Eames designed everything imaginable: eleven buildings, over twenty chairs, sixteen films, toys, a speaker, a card game–the list goes on. Charles, an architect (who never received his license), met Ray, a painter, at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, just outside of Detroit. The two began a budding romance, despite Charles status as a married man, and were married in 1941.
Charles’ first and best known project was a molded plywood chair that he submitted along with fellow architect Eero Saarinen, to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1940 “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition. Initially conceived of as made entirely from wood, issues with molding the plywood forced them to upholster the chair–a choice they’d wished to avoid, in order to ensure the product’s ability to be mass manufactured. The chair took first prize in the competition, and the Eames Lounge Wood chair was born. It is made of five pieces of gently curving wood, two U shaped legs, held together by one upward curving beam, which is itself attached to the seat and the backrest. The signature shock absorbers attached to the backrest are connected to the middle beam by a polished chrome bar, and give the back the ability to flex to fit any body shape. It is a wonder in terms of simplicity, and comfort. Efforts to mass produce the chair were cut short because of the difficulty in finding both supplies and manufacturing methods after the start of the Second World War.
The newly married Eames turned their efforts to the war. They created leg splints for the US army, using the same methods they had used to make the chair. Manufacturing over 150,000 splints from their small studio in Los Angeles, they did what they did best: they found a problem, and applied their knowledge of design and mass production to solve it. In 1942, they invented the “Kazam! Machine, which solved the plywood problem that had confounded Eames in his first experiments with the material. The machine it looks a lot like an extended radiator, attached to a bicycle pump, held up diagonally by two wooden pallets. The machine gave them freedom to create with molded plywood, now their material of choice.
Following the war, the Eames’ experimented with other materials. In 1946, the studio began work on a fiberglass reinforced plastic shell chair. Fiberglass had only been in use for around 10 years; its properties as a reinforcement for plastic was first discovered in 1936 by Du Pont Labs. The entered the Eames Fiberglass Armchair in MoMA’s 1948 International Competition of Low-Cost Furniture Design, and took first place. The chair met every goal of Eames dream design. It was cheap, and easy to mass produce; easier to create than the wooden furniture, due to the plastic’s malleable nature; comfortable; and above all, beautiful.
In 1949, Herman Miller bought the rights to “trademarks, trade names, trade secrets, and processes used in connection with Eames-designed furniture” from the Evans Product Company, a wood manufacturer that Eames had designed for. The fact that Eames did not own all of his own intellectual property is not a rare case; think of it as a contract, that he was an employee, and not a fully fledged designer at the time.This license to produce the Eames’ intellectual property for its furniture designs is what gives Herman Miller exclusive rights to the Eames name and product design. The company reaffirmed their licensing agreement in 1990 with the Eames family heirs (both Charles and Ray Eames died in 1978 and 1988 respectively).
It’s probably best at this point to define the laws that govern intellectual property for furniture. It begins with copyright. US copyright law makes it difficult to acquire a copyright for a furniture design because it falls under the definition of a ‘Useful Article’; ‘those (designs) that have some function beyond their style or appearance’. Literally, furniture is functional, rather than a work of “Art.” While it is possible to attain copyrights for artistic designs with furniture-which can include artwork, or decoration on the furniture-the essential nature of furniture, according to the law, is as a functional item.
Therefore, copyright affords little for furniture designers. So how does an artistically inclined furniture designer look for intellectual property protection? “Trade Dress” is the branch of intellectual property law that protects the visual aspects of a design, whether that is its color, shape or size. The claim is that consumers identify designs with the brands known for a certain look or feel. Iconic designs, from the Coca Cola bottle to the iPhone, have used Trade Dress claims against competitors and knock off products. With furniture, especially furniture as iconic as Eames furniture, Trade Dress is used against imitators, the argument being that consumers will confuse an imitator and the original at the ‘point of sale’ where they purchase the furniture. Herman Miller has won at least one case, Herman Miller vs. Palazzetti in which the company used customer testimony to prove that consumers associated Palazzetti’s Eames Lounge Chair knock off with their brand. What’s more, Herman Miller claimed that in using the Eames name in its advertising for the chair, the defendant had deliberately tried to confuse the public.
Which isn’t to say that the Trade Dress argument guarantees victory. In the case of Wal Mart Stores Inc. vs. Samara Bros. Inc. (2000),the supermarket’s designers had copied flowered dresses designed by a Philippines based clothing company. While the Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiff that the designs were similar, it ultimately sided with Wal Mart. It argued that in this case protecting Samara Brothers would harm consumers. “Consumers should not be deprived of the benefits of competition with regard to the utilitarian and esthetic purposes that product design ordinarily serves by a rule of law,” wrote Justice Scalia. He concluded that the so-called ‘inherent-distinctiveness principle’–the very part of Trade Dress that Herman Miller had invoked to win the case-was “more harmful to other consumer interests.” By siding with the interests of consumers, by deciding in favor of the knock off product, the precedent seems set directly against designers.
The final methods of protection for designers and manufacturers come in the form of trademarks, and patents. Herman Miller holds the trademarks for all Eames products, dating back to the 1949 licensing agreement. The trademark is on the Eames name– and the names of the individual pieces produced for Herman Miller by Eames (the 1956 Eames Lounge Chair, and the 1950 Fiberglass Shell Armchair, being the most famous). The unique designs of each chair are also registered with the US Trademark and Patent Office. Any use of the Eames name on a product that was not produced by Herman Miller would violate the trademark. In addition, any product that looked too similar to the trademark design, and would allow the owner of the trademark to bring that defense to court. As for patents, designers can apply for patents for both the product, or the process used to create a product–the technique, machinery, even the materials used. Herman Miller currently have over 180 active patents for their entire catalogue. Patents are expensive however; between legal fees, the actual filing fee, and submitting the drawings, it can cost up to $20,000, depending on the perceived market value of the product. This is enough to put off a good number of smaller designers, while giving top tier manufacturers the full benefit of their protection. And with an average life of six to nine years, patents do not last long; trademarks, however, last forever.
With so many moving parts in intellectual property protection, furniture copyright and trademark law has become a bit of a grey area. The uncertain nature of the courts makes litigation a risky endeavor on both sides. Compensation from damages can reach 6 or 7 figure sums. In Herman Miller Inc. v Alphaville, where the company sued a Chinese manufacturer for producing and then distributing knock off Eames chairs, Herman Miller’s legal team asked for “the maximum enhanced statutory damages” for two trademark infringements. “At $2,000,000 per counterfeit trademark, the tab comes to $4,000,000” And that’s just for trademark violations. But again, the fees involved with litigation may discourage smaller scale design firms from protecting their creations.
The question is; are the current laws doing their job? It is undeniably true that there is a problem with imitation in the furniture market; from both domestic copycats and foreign counterfeiters, furniture designers face more pressure than ever to protect themselves. Furniture patent lawsuits doubled between 1994 and 2010, and doubled again from 2010 to 2013. But there’s more to the problem than just protecting already well established, and protected designs. With all this litigation, amongst seven figure payouts and multi-year court battles: what effect is the law having on creativity in the industry?
Last September, Great Britain repealed the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988. The law had previously given the owner of a design legal protection for 25 years after the item’s creation; the new law extended the period of protection to 70 years after the artist’s death. In addition, it back dates the protection for many designs that had fallen out of the term of their patent. But perhaps most importantly, this repeal expressly sets out how the law should be applied to designs in order for them to gain protection. It states that designs must “combine craftsmanship and artistic quality”, and that they must be a piece of art. It also states that “craftsmanship presupposes skill, knowledge and training”– meaning that it inherently values the way that products are made– and that it’s artistic quality “can be assessed based on how its artistic expression is unconstrained by function”. This part in particular is a familiar argument, of form vs. function, and is a rewording of the “Useful Article” clause in the US law (that it can’t just be useful, but also has to be artistic). In effect, it extends the protection afforded to other works of art like painting and sculpture to artistically exceptional furniture, while also extending the length of protections like trademark to the same amount of time as US law allows.
The change protects designers by lengthening their trademarks. But while the language for the repeal reinforces the protections, the definition of what kind of items the law protects is still too vague for some. Margaret Briffa IS a UK solicitor specializing in Intellectual Property Law, with clients who want to protect their designs from counterfeiters. In a post on her firm’s website following the repeal, Briffa outlined the new law’s boundaries and remarked, “It is not difficult to see that in defending claims there is much scope for debate as to whether or not an item is a work of artistic craftsmanship.” Briffa is saying that this might actually be a step back for some designers; that by requiring proof of artistry, which is a pretty arbitrary decision for a court to make, some designers may have a harder time securing protection than they did before.
As for legal recommendations, Briffa suggests that designers document the design history of a product, including “all drawings and sketches evidencing creation of the design.” Her argument is that such documentation will help ensure that the design is indeed theirs. She also suggests, following the intricacies of the new law, to prepare a statement of “what may have been in the mind of the designer when he created the design… for future use by a designer or his business in the fight against copyist”– to create a kind of mental context, showing the math of how a designer comes up with a design, as a secondary protection against infringers. Certainly then, the new law is not perfect. In fact, it shows just how difficult it is to tackle the problem of copying legally– and might suggest that any movement on the law here could be similarly problematic.
When it comes to Eames work though, finding artistic value in furniture shouldn’t be a problem. It begins with the place of its birth; a mid century brick building on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, California. It’s the sort of building you might not notice if you weren’t looking for it–a gate fitted with a security camera and a mailbox leads to a parking lot and the building’s entrance, and a sign declaring that the building is private property would be enough to warn off any pilgrims to Eames’ famed studio. Abbot Kinney itself is artistic enough nowadays. Flush with independent boutiques, every type of coffee shop and cold pressed juicery, its reputation as a hub creativity is flourishing. The only marker of interest in the building is a large metal structure on top of an entrance on the side of the building; an entrance that is visible in many archive photographs of the building when it was occupied by the Eames team.
It was there that the Shell Chair was conceived. Before moving production to Herman Miller’s facility, the Eames studio produced the earliest iterations of the chair. Originally released only in white, the Shell chair is as pristine as a Greek marble. It’s almost basin like in shape, in one solid piece, with a short backrest. The original came with armrests, but was soon adapted as a simpler armless chair. It is one of the most customizable designs in the Eames catalogue, offering many options for legs, from the ‘Eiffel Tower’ metal structure, four wooden legs, a ‘rocking chair’ variant, or the simple ‘X’ office- style base. The Herman Miller company based in Michigan began mass producing it in 1950. It has become an institution, represented at MoMA, the Met and LACMA. A plastic chair cannot be created without comparison to the Eames Shell Chair.
Eames meant for the Shell Chair to be mass produced– and it has been– but the true iteration of the chair is not being stamped out on a production line. It begins with a liquid polymer; a different mixture from the original mixture that the Shell Chair began with, thanks to a consideration for environmentally harmful byproducts of traditional fiberglass manufacture. The polymer is poured onto a fiberglass covered ‘preform’, which makes up the shape of the chair. This is then placed into a press, which in true Eames fashion, it is heated and put under extreme pressure to solidify it. After some inspection, sanding and smoothing out, it’s finished off with whatever added features it might require; the upholstery, the base. The basic model is $429 with the most expensive ringing in at $810 (including $20 worth of felt pads for the chair legs). This is not a cheap chair; but it is a work of art.
There certainly are ways to get a cheaper shell chair. On Design Within Reach, a designer furniture outlet retailer acquired by Herman Miller in 2016, you can grab a variant for a reduced $349; but it is listed as being plastic, rather than the authentic fiberglass. A quick trip to Target can get you a set of 2 ‘Mid Century Modern’ plastic shell chairs for $249– a hefty reduction, but the Eames name is not attached (probably owing to a Herman Miller lawsuit from a few years ago). In fact there are replica shell chairs, in the familiar shape, with identical fittings to the real thing from most major big box stores for a fraction of the price. In a way, Eames’ design was a victim of its own success. By making a utilitarian chair for everybody, he made a product, a facsimile of which would appear on the shelves of every furniture store stocking mid century style furniture.
The real product must be a true Eames chair produced by Herman Miller, who own the trademark to the Eames name and the original design patent. Any other chair is nothing more than an imitation; if it is ‘Eames influenced’, or any other ‘Mid Century Shell chair’ variant, it can be dismissed as a cheap copy. Well, with one exception.
Half hour drive on the I-10 from the Abbot Kinney studio (LA traffic permitting), in the shade of the La Brea Tar Pits, the LACMA and the Hollywood sign, you can find the Modernica showroom. The building itself is much like the Eames studio, but even more unassuming; in a row of storefronts that mostly consists of galleries, the only thing that really stands out is the artsy font written above the door, immediately reminiscent of an older Los Angeles. The first thing you’ll notice going inside is a monumental stack of what are unmistakably Shell chairs. In every color, and with every base available in the Herman Miller catalogue, the chairs are also immediately recognizable as fiberglass– their seats almost looking cracked with the uneven fibers underneath the smooth lacquer. There are rocking chairs, the wooden legged chairs, wire frame chairs; upholstered, orange, turquoise, white, five different shades of green; there are even specialty prints, with a cowboy pattern. For a special collaboration, they had a limited run of Anti Social Social Club shell chairs, a well known streetwear brand, and for which the factory (a short drive East) was painted in the brands associated light pink and black insignia.
Modernica is one of the producers sued by Herman Miller for copyright infringement. Seeing the chairs with no outside information, you’d assume that they were absolutely right to- they’re identical to the original. But according to Jay Novak, owner and founder of Modernica, it’s not that simple at all. “Herman Miller abandoned the product in 1980. They saw it as outdated, and just stopped producing it”. Modernica purchased the machine and presses necessary to create the chair in an estate sale in 1999, and began producing it themselves.
Once a company abandons a product, they lose their trade dress protection. It is no longer a product associated with the brand and they cannot claim ownership of the inherent look of it. In fact, if another company picks up the product, as was the case with Modernica, the new manufacturer can then claim the trade dress as their own. The chair is essentially a Herman Miller Shell chair in every way– produced from the original materials, with the original method; Modernica even worked with the Eames’ original fiberglass guru Sol Fingerhut, who innovated the technology involved with the production of the chairs, to train their own factory staff. It is in every way an Eames chair; but you won’t see the name associated with the Modernica Case Study Shell Chair.
Herman Miller sued in 2014, accusing Modernica of improperly using the Eames name and the Herman Miller logo. “They realized that they had dropped a good product, and they hounded us for years”, Novak said. “When you have a 75 year patent, it allows big companies to dominate the market.” The case seemed valid; any association with the original designers would infer that it was an Eames/Herman Miller product. This could be deemed as confusing to customers, who would think that it was an original Eames, and this would violate the product’s’ Trade Dress protection. However, the two parties agreed to settle out of court. “In the end there was no ruling, and no damages.” Novak confirmed. Herman Miller agreed not to pursue Modernica any further; but there is no mention of the brand on Modernica’s website or their product, as the name is still protected by trademark.
The Modernica case raises the question of authenticity. For clear infringements, like the Target chair, it is clearly inauthentic; it is made of printed plastic, rather than molded resin or fiberglass. It could be said that it looks cheap, which essentially lessens the value of the real design if consumers were to confuse the two. “The quality of the materials is important.” Novak said. “If you make the product out of plastic, it’s not authentic, not flattering to the original product. If you have a log cabin, and you make it out of plastic logs… it’s not a log cabin.” The Eames chair itself is a quandary however; it was designed with utility in mind, to reach the mass market– a chair for the people. At its current price, it is out of reach for most people. At $375 for the base model, the Modernica Case Study chair is not much cheaper than the Herman Miller chair. Jay Novak believes that it is the choice of the consumer. “There’s a product for everyone. If you want a chair for $89.99 that lasts a year; that’s out there.”
The price is a sticking point when it comes to designer furniture. While consumers may not bat an eyelid at a $10k purse or a $20k pair of shoes, furniture never really occupies a space in the conversation. It is inherently expensive; but more often than not when buying furniture, you’re getting a lot for what you pay. A full sofa set will be in the thousands of dollars, but when the truck arrives with six or seven huge boxes, your money is at least taking up a lot of space in your living room. An Eames chair, not so much. It’s not a large, clunky piece of furniture your grandmother would have given you, it’s essentially just a very good looking chair. In the argument for quality vs. quantity, it definitely fits in the quality column. But that’s not such a bad thing, is it?
Ruben Hughes is a self described brand purist. He has fifty eight thousand followers on instagram, which would explain his position as a content creator and social media lead at a large tech company. He dresses like a brand purist. Understated, but with the impression that each and every article of clothing was chosen with a very exact purpose– Red Wing boots, as opposed to the more generic Clarks; an unbranded, but high quality waffle long sleeved t shirt. He has a designated winter and warm weather wardrobe. And, he’s an Eames chair owner, but he didn’t start out with the real article.
“I bought two fake Eames chairs,” he admitted sullenly, to fill his apartment when he first moved in. “But when I could, for peace of mind, I threw them out, and replaced them with the Herman Miller product.” This wasn’t a cheap transition; even from Herman Miller’s recently purchased designer outlet, Design Within Reach, the two set him back around $1,100. But peace of mind and ‘the importance of licensing’ was clearly reason enough for him to turn to the straight and narrow, as he has since sworn off fakes for good. “I decided then that I would never buy fake again.”
Supplementing the pair with a mix of US made products and classic Scandinavian style designs, Ruben’s apartment is a testament to the power of design. He’s a big fan of Swiss made USM furniture, a modular media console taking pride of place in his living room. A set of Tolix bar stools sit in his kitchen. Another iconic design that many wouldn’t attribute to any particular designer, the plain metal square topped stools could have been from any number of imitators; these were of course, the licensed original from Design Within Reach. He shared that he had recently purchased a rather expensive trash can from Norm Architects, a Scandinavian design house, which measures only 9.3” by 13.4”. If Steve Jobs had designed a trash can, it would probably have looked something like this. Ruben had actually purchased it out of the box; “Someone had returned it, because they realized how expensive it was.” And it is expensive. It’s $224.95 retail (Ruben did get it reduced since it was out of the box). That’s a little over $4 per square inch.
To Ruben, however, it’s an investment. That’s the reason for his decision to go honest with furniture, his reason for brand purism in clothing. “They’re well made. Maybe they won’t always be in style, but if I wanted to, I could keep them forever.” The quality argument for products like the shell chair is an argument for their protection. When a product is made in such a way that its life often extends beyond its owners, it sets itself apart from the imitators. This is where the argument for patent protection for the process to make the chairs comes in; if the chair is just better made than the competitors, there’s clearly something better about the way of making it that makes it unique. There’s also the argument that by making knock offs with such a disparity of quality, it can damage the original brand’s image in the eyes of the consumer (that ‘confusion at point of sale clause again). It comes down to honesty, in Ruben’s opinion at least. “It’s about being original. And not trying to pass anything off as real.”
Originality, much like cost, is one of the key aspects of the counterfeit problem and the laws associated with it. There is that essential question of what makes these designs art, as opposed to simply a utility, comes with their originality. The Eames Shell was, and still is, a truly innovative design. In terms of the material, the technique; down to the shape, and the posture of its user. Yet it was designed for the express purpose of mass production, to fit in every modern home that matched its target audience and their taste. Sure, it is still handmade; even with thousands of units put out every year, the chairs are set and assembled individually by Herman Miller’s manufacturing staff. But it was designed for the mass market, and if you were to buy one, you’d become another customer for a product that while exclusive in its pricing, is insanely popular. This is just one of the reasons that the product appeals to those looking to make a quick buck out of the knock off market. If you wanted to stay away from the counterfeit problem, you might begin to search for something more individual. In fact you might even want something that’s a one of a kind. And on the scale of originality, from IKEA, to Herman Miller, to a piece you made yourself in the wood shop, Joe Cauvel of CAUV design fits in just before the wood shop.
Joe’s work is in a word, unique. In fact everything about his practice seems unique. Working out of the corner of a larger machine shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn, he designed his own workspace to perfectly fit his slightly cramped situation. Planks of wood, of every color and variant, are stacked up the the ceiling; tools and workbenches slide out and fold up in order to be stowed away to make the most out of every square inch of space. Opposite the wood, an elevated corner office- welded together, and shaped exactly to fit the layout of the room while fitting more equipment underneath- proudly displays a few personal items. A Pennsylvania native, a Pittsburgh Penguins pennant hangs beside more tools, and above that sits a shelf with one more tool- an early 1900’s Stanley wood plane that he inherited from his great- great-grandfather.
While he may have inherited his grandfather’s tools, Joe never really had any skills to inherit. Originally a film student, the knowledge of his craft has all been attained through work. Much like Eames experimented with fiberglass, Joe uses non traditional materials- concrete, welded metal- as well as wood- and picked up his knowledge through experimentation. He picked up his interest in concrete from skateboarding, and metal working through a short stint at an auto shop. Every piece is made to order- while he has a catalogue of designs he has created previously, each pieces begins with creating 3D renderings for every customer, then bringing the pieces to life by hand. His work is brutalist in nature; modern, square and angular, from desks, to chairs, benches, stools, dining room tables. He has a particular aesthetic that he has honed– marbling wood and concrete, wood and steel; he may have drawn inspiration from past designs (as well as ‘bridges and buildings’) but each piece has its own voice. From the rendering, to the creation, to delivery- he delivers pieces himself- is a one man operation. In essence, it couldn’t be a smaller, and a more one of a kind experience.
Joe recognizes this, but also recognizes that he is filling a very small niche in the market. “I’m not filling a void. Furniture exists beyond what I’m doing.” It’s an obvious statement, but an insight that encapsulates the space he occupies in the expansive world of interior design- a minor piece, but a part of the more individual minded small businesses that make up a part of the industry. Even within the community of Red Hook, he is not the only one making furniture; there are studios not unlike his up and down the block. And just up the river is the looming colossus of New York’s only IKEA, a perfect counterpoint to designers like Joe. But this isn’t a problem according to him, as there is enough room for individuals needs to allow them to coexist. “People need different things. I don’t make curtain rods.” While most of his furniture is his own, usually prototypes of work he is in the process of creating for customers, even he needs to look elsewhere for items; he confessed to having an IKEA couch in his apartment.
Again, the concept of a ‘product for everyone’ comes into play. There may be some overlap of people looking for a piece that commands a room, and those looking for the cheap and stylish product that IKEA is best known for. But there is of course, the matter of price. For custom designed and produced piece, you might expect a hefty price tag– Joe’s pieces certainly aren’t going for those on an IKEA budget. To him it’s about longevity. “People come to see me when they’re looking for a replacement for the things that they don’t ever want to replace again.” The argument is there for his products sturdiness– his promotional photos advertise him standing on objects as small as nightstands on coffee tables. And, he’ll never have to provide an allen wrench and instructions for his pieces. “It’s an investment, and I know that. There’s a reselling ability with these pieces. They’ll hold up for generations; they can be passed down, and they’ll still be in the right condition.”
Despite his vision for his products, he’s still a one man operation. He plans to keep it that way too. “A lot of friends ask me what I think success would be, and they think that I think that’s an office job; running a company. But I never want to be hands off. I always want to work directly with clients.” He concedes that one day, having apprentices who he could teach his skills to would be the most sustainable way to give up some work, while still handling the most intricate projects. Having such a small operation means one thing though. No patents, no trademarks, and no copyrights. When I asked him if he’d thought about the problem of counterfeiting applied to his own work, he laughed it off; “I’m not the Shell Chair. Who would want to rip me off?” Then, he thought about it for a second, and recalled that actually, it had happened.
Out of curiosity, he’d searched his own work and had found that somebody in Russia had attempted to make one of his chairs, going so far as to label it as one of Joe’s pieces. He was mostly surprised; he wondered how someone had even managed to find him. He was also a little flattered. But, the chair just wasn’t his; the build wasn’t right, the quality wasn’t the same. Somebody passing off subpar work as his was more dangerous in its ability to confuse potential clients than for larger scale designers, if only because the thing he holds most dear is his reputation as a producer of fine work. “And when the craftsmanship just wasn’t there”, he said. He has not pursued the infringer. As a one man operation, without the legal means to pursue copyists (no matter their intention); what can he do?
Eric Stauble and Gaurav Nanda, from Bend Goods in Los Angeles, might have an answer. Bend aren’t exactly a huge design house, but they’re definitely bigger than CAUV. They’ve been operating for 7 years, and work out of Bend House, a furniture showroom out of a very- LA ranch style house in West Hollywood. Their furniture is a mix of modern and mid century– chairs, tables and decorative ‘trophy heads’ all made from wire, that gives them a distinctive look while remaining reminiscent of the great designs of the past. Their message for those looking to beat counterfeiters, however, is much more modern. “We don’t want to attack people; the best route for us was through open letters,” said Stauble, the company’s managing director. “We want to educate the customers on what’s real. If there’s no business for knock offs, there’s no problem.”
Stauble’s first open letter came on the company’s website, under the title “Seek 2B Original”. In these posts he outlines the problem– simply put, that small designers are having their work ripped off for the profit of others. They might not have started out with the intention of calling out offenders, but through the posts they have brought to light particular cases. One WAS with Zara, who had taken liberties with a small designers pins and patches, barely altering them and then selling them, giving no credit to the original artist Tuesday Bassen. By sticking up not only for themselves, but other smaller designers as well, Stauble sees Bend as a platform to, “Give a voice to the grass roots community”. And it seems to be paying off; “We felt that no one was in the small stores corner. It’s competitive, but we’re happy to help each other.” The movement, led by a hashtag, has gained traction; Eric says that after reaching out to creative friends, people started contacting them with tips of big box stores knocking off products they were familiar with. It’s the perfect strategy to tackle the problem, now; technologically oriented, and with the consumer behind it.
Of course, this kind of movement has to come from somewhere, and for Bend that came from their struggle with the current Intellectual Property Law. According to Stauble, the American market isn’t the biggest problem for Bend; Australia, where they’re distributed through Own World furniture, is worse for counterfeiters, with the worst infringers being big box stores. “We spent a lot of time with lawyers, here and in Australia, and we were going to pursue the legal route. We compiled everything we needed, but we were surprised by how many ways people can get around the law.”
In some cases, some counterfeiters weren’t simply copying Bend’s designs, but were claiming that Bend had designed furniture for them; and presenting the design process, a key part of obtaining a trademark was not enough for Bend to prove their case. “Even if you can show the entire process, there are still so many avenues they can use to get out of it.” The problem necessitated an extra quality check in their production process– adding a signature stamp to the front of their Lucy chair, like a jeweler’s mark, to assure consumers that they were buying the real thing. “Some of these knock offs are so good, there was the question of if the work was actually ours… the difference is that we want people to know our design process, and what went into the work.”
The issue of knocking off the work of others has made its way into Bend’s own creative process, and forced them to evaluate their influences. The Lucy chair, one of Bend’s key products, bears a resemblance to the Bertoia chair, which was designed by Italian designer Harry Bertoia, and once considered an infringer on an Eames patent for a wire welding technique. “But that’s just inspiration. It’s presented differently, you’d never mistake them for the same chair”, said Stauble. And it’s true; the resemblance stops, really at the material.
For Bend though, the counterfeit problem goes further than lost sales and cease and desist letters. “It’s always in the back of your mind. You’re not even focused on the design anymore”, Stauble said. Bend found themselves in the position of having to defend their designs, without the means to defend themselves with the law. A small company like their could only wish for the resources available to the larger players like Herman Miller. “They do have the money for a legal team. Smaller companies need to be more creative in taking on the problem.” In fact, Herman Miller has teamed up with Be Original Americas (a different movement than Dare 2B Original) in taking on the problem with the same focus on public education, but a slightly more industry oriented focus. Despite their more legal heavy method of tackling knock offs, Stauble thinks that Herman Miller serves as an example; “In a world where every big box store pumps out bad knock offs, we can look to Herman Miller for their pride, and their respect in the design process.”
There really doesn’t seem to be any easy fix for the counterfeit problem. The way IP laws surrounding furniture are currently laid out makes them complex to navigate– cases can sometimes fall into a grey area of overprotection, and there seems to be ways around every layer of protection for some counterfeiters. This is not to mention the fact that for many, achieving sufficient protection or actively pursuing every infringement is just too expensive to be realistic with legal fees. We might think about updating the law; but as we can see with the recent UK law repeal, changing it might be counterproductive, forcing designers to ‘prove’ their products’ artistic value. And while educational efforts for consumers- through social media, or just by creating a community awareness of what is real- are working in the right direction, the problem just isn’t going away. As long as there are Eames chairs for over $400, and ‘Mid Century Modern’ chairs for half that price; people are going to buy fake.
Perhaps, we can only try to do our best; to stay authentic, and to let others know the potential problems with buying fake just to save a buck. And, of course, to appreciate the art. There are few works of art that are seen on a day to day basis. One wouldn’t expect to find them tucked underneath desks, tables; placed in the corners of rooms, covered in blankets or pillows, or arranged in rows at the counter of your favorite coffee shop, or even obscured by something as mundane as a coworkers desk. It’s fair to say that as far as works of art go, furniture is the second cousin at the family gathering– forgettable, in the background. Unless you’d seen some spectacular piece as you went about your daily business, you probably wouldn’t say anything about it. But next time you take a seat, just think; who am I taking this from?