So, I question Samantha Cameron’s ethics in buying a phoney classic and I’m “elitist” according to David Gutfreund, Managing Director of Iconic Lights, the replica lighting retailer that provoked this debate. Or a “snob” as suggested by someone else, responding to a Guardian article that picked up on the furore by listing other knock-off merchants for your design-lite shopping pleasure. Additionally, David claimed that if my “rules” applied to medicine, we’d all have been denied paracetemol! Methinks Mr Gutfreund, there is a huge difference between the right of the world to profit from a life-saving pill versus your opportunity to cheaply reproduce a pricey light. But lets not split hairs. And forget SamCam for a moment, too, as the argument isn’t about her, or money, or design snobbery, it’s about authenticity and the principle of respecting design authorship. So herewith I seek to further clarify my thinking, plus I’ve added in comment from those it actually affects, the licensed manufacturers and retailers who we here at ELLE Decoration so heartily support…
1 Classic designs – Eames loungers, Arco lamps, Jacobsen Egg chairs et al – have attained iconic status because their respective designers (and manufacturers) went beyond the call of duty and created not just another product, but something that combines supreme function with beauty, detail, engineering and a touch of creative genius. It’s natural to aspire to own these designs; who wouldn’t want such a gem? I’d also love to possess a Picasso, but until I win the lottery, I’ll make do with something less lofty from the Brighton Art Fair. Point being, Picasso isn’t the only great artist, and while a work by him gracing my walls would be a dream purchase, there are many other more obtainable and equally cherishable options available.
Therefore, why even bother to buy a fake when there’s so much other great affordable design out there? “Good” design, or say art, does not come in only one accepted form. While classics may represent a universally-agreed ideal eminently worthy of our aspirations, if you can’t afford one, or simply don’t wish to spend that much, better surely to exercise a little individuality and upcycle, recycle or contribute to the coffers of a unknown designer than piss on the legacy of a legend with a replica. Besides, the best homes are always the ones furnished with a mix of designer and high street, curio with commonplace.
Tony Ash, Managing Director of Vitra UK (licensed manufacturer of Eames, Noguchi, George Nelson etc): “I believe there are a number of issues here. Firstly, would one willingly buy a fake Rolex, knock-off Versace luggage or use pirated Microsoft software? Probably not. Therefore, why is it OK to buy fake versions of design classics, be they lamps or chairs? Secondly, companies who manufacture authorised original products, such as Flos or Vitra, choose to pay royalties to the descendents of the original designers (and in some case foundations which manage the designer’s archive). Vitra, for instance, work closely with the grandson of Charles and Ray Eames, the daughter of Jean Prouvé and the widow of Verner Panton. These royalties are then reinvested in promoting the works of those designers, in the upkeep of archives and collections and in the maintenance of, for instances, the Eames House in Santa Monica. Put simply, every £1 spent with a copyist is a £1 taken away from the design industry and young designers.”
2 Classics cost what they do because of the legislated workforces employed to create them and the associated health and safety guidelines, stringent quality testing and the controlled use of authentic materials. Allegedly some copy companies are only able to offer such low prices because they cut costs via illegal labour practices and dangerously substandard components. Would you really want to run the risk of unintentionally supporting such ventures and enabling their proliferation?
Jacob Holm, CEO, Fritz Hansen (licence holder for Jacobsen, Wegner and more): “Fritz Hansen’s furniture design icons such as the Egg™, Swan™ and the Series 7™ are some of the most copied furniture designs in the world. Every year action is taken by Fritz Hansen to challenge companies and individuals who infringe our design rights. It’s a big challenge as the design and property rights are not respected in all parts of the world.
“With an original Fritz Hansen design you not only buy world class craftsmanship that will last for decades, you also buy a historical and sculptural piece that should be seen as a financial investment. High quality and an equally high level of service follow automatically with the purchase of authentic products, such as receiving up to 20 years limited guarantee. Copies are accompanied with the uncertainties of product lifespan, safety and quality guarantees thereby distinguishing them significantly from the originals.”
3 Finally, this all highlights the nonsensical disparity between UK design copyright laws and those in the rest of Europe, all intended to protect designers and their heirs. Here it is legal to copy any design after just 25 years, but in the rest of Europe (excepting Romania and Estonia) it’s permissable only 70 years after the designer’s death? The same 70-year rule applies in the UK to the ownership of art and music, thus is design deemed a lesser ‘art’ with the corresponding implication that designers expend less thought, dedication and expertise on their craft than musicians or artists? Surely taking steps to ratify this would be a smart move for the government and a great boost for our evidently under-valued British design industry.
Tony Ash, Managing Director, Vitra UK: “The legal situation in the UK that reduces the term of copyright protection for iconic pieces of furniture, such as the Arco lamp, to 25 years is in clear violation of EU law as implemented in all other member states except Romania, Estonia and……..the UK! All other EU states give 70 years. It would be a disaster if the EU commission would have to initiate proceedings against the UK, as the commission has done several years before against Italy.”
Daniel Aram, Director, Aram Designs (official manufacturer for Eileen Gray): “It is unfortunate that Britain treats furniture design as if it were an industrial product. On the continent the same products are classed as works of art and are protected accordingly. Therefore while Britain has a huge number of imitations and fakes, the continent does not. Some people see this as a good thing as it allows you to get the look for less, but the problem is that it fundamentally undermines the integrity of the furniture design industry as British companies are less willing to support long term investment in furniture design, unlike their European competitors; and it shows. Secondly the consumer is being actively misled by retailers who knowingly, or unknowingly, pass off imitations as the genuine article. This situation is often compounded by certain sections of the media who see nothing wrong in promoting cheaper, lower quality imitations alongside images of the genuine designs.”
Magnus Englund, Managing Director, Skandium (modern Scandanavian design retailer):“Besides living off someone else’s intellectual copyright and marketing effort, the copies also encourage traders to bring in items made in countries with no control over working conditions, nor over materials used, or if they comply with British safety standards. Besides all this, I also find it frustrating that many consumers still think a chair is a chair is a chair (or in this case a lamp) while they clearly understand the difference between a real and a fake handbag.
“It’s not just what’s on the surface; a poor bottle of wine doesn’t suddenly get better just because you stick a different label on it. Buying an unauthorised copy is not being smart, it’s buying something poorly made which won’t last, which shows you don’t care about design or designers but you want to give the impression that you do, and that you’re happy to contribute to a cycle of consumerism, short life span and not passing something onto the next generation. At Skandium we perhaps surprisingly never slag off IKEA because at least they are honest about what they sell; low quality at low price. Copies is something else and much more sinister, and I hope not only politicians wives but also politicians get to hear that.”