Monday, 6 September 2010

Design Vigilantism

Lock up your replica Eames chairs, because there is a hard-core Design Vigilante group who will be targeting you next!

I've just finished reading an extremely interesting article about the replica furniture industry. Apparently earlier this year, a number of designer lounge chair "knock offs" were slashed at a large Sydney hotel by an unknown attacker.

Heron Chair image from here
The slashed chairs were copies of an award winning design by contemporary Australian designer Charles Wilson. There had been some disquiet in the design community about a five star hotel having terrible quality copies of his designer chairs.

There is a belief, in design circles, that this vicious slashing is the first wave of attack by design purists in the battle against the forces of the 'evil' knock-off merchants. Design Vigilantism - a stylish, lisping Dexter who can recommend dazzling window treatments, whilst gutting your replica Egg chair!

This article raises the never-ending debate regarding original versus knock-off.  You can read the entire article from the Sydney Morning Herald  here.

What I found most interesting was the comments by Charles Wilson on the issue.

"I believe that after a certain period of time, a cantilevered tubular chair becomes a generic type and not a Bauhaus original. There is also an argument that if the companies that produce Eames and Jacobsen weren't living off the royalties from their old designs, they might be more inclined to invest in stuff by new designers."

However, he said ripping off a living designer was theft.

I tend to agree with Charles Wilson on this matter. No one likes having their work plagiarised, but after a lengthy period of time (or when the designer is dead) surely good design becomes a part of everyday life...even if the manufacturing of the item is dubious? 

What do you think?

At any rate, the article has put me off venturing into Matt Blatt, Milan Direct and all the other replica furniture stores. 

You don't know where those bad-ass designer vigilante types lurk...I wouldn't want to mess with them!



  1. I'm a bit of a purist, I must admit. Though I don't have the cash to be a purist ... so I just act pompous.

    My eldest child drew on my Eames rocker ... not original. Does that mean she's a design vigilante? I think she'd wear that title with honour.

    And then my youngest vomitted on my Camper shoes ... is that also design vigilantism?

  2. Oh dear. Maybe. But I think there has to be intent in the vandalism and they are children...

  3. This is a seriously iffy issue. I wrote a post about replica versus original last year and I still sway back and forth.

    At this point I don't think I would buy replica because it just doesn't feel as special as saving up to buy a special piece or finding a vintage version of something you love. Kind of silly really, spend more money so that it feels more special - sheesh, see I'm swaying right now!

    I do think it is disrespectful to the original designer BUT I don't condone knifing chairs. Poor chair.

  4. I think a good quality replica is fine so long as it doesn't cheat anyone, and now I'm wondering how I can tell whether or not your blog is a replica of the real Fun and VJs? The plot thickens.

  5. a) physically attacking anything in order to send a message is nothing less than terrorism.

    b) I have to admire anyone that takes good design so seriously.

    c) isn't the intent of good design to inspire the further propagation of good design, even that means the inevitable knockoffs?

    d) should the less than wealthy spend their lives sitting on plastic or nylon lawn furniture? - as those designs are ripped off from no one who would take the "credit."

    e) should I be concerned about my faux Stickleys?

  6. Interesting post today. I would buy replica though, mainly because I could never afford the original (as with most people) and I think the designer should take this as a compliment. The fact is that Joe bloggs loves the chair, wants the chair etc but can't afford it - but the replicas allow them to join in and have that look at a fee they can manage. I certainly don't think the slashing of chairs etc is doing anyone any favours. In fact it could be a huge disadvantage. Anyway, those are my thoughts. ;-)

  7. Hmmm. I have to say, I think some of the knock-offs out there are pretty bunk. Obviously, if a design is around long enough there will certainly be variations of it, but those cheap replicas make me crazy. Interesting to read what Charles Wilson had to say, and kind of surprising. I haven't bought a replica, as I tend to prefer vintage pieces with a bit of wear.
    Great post. Love your blog too!

  8. I read that article too and the irony is that Eames was trying to take good design to the masses but his original stuff is priced way outside their reach. I agree with you about the older classics but the man interviewed in that story produces knock offs of brand new cult furniture items. I am against it but I have bought from him!! So I must be a hypocrite. xoxo

  9. I think it comes down to price, availability and condition. I don't think there is anything wrong with a reproduction of anything be it Art Deco, colonial, Georgian or mid century furniture etc aslong as it is done well and with a nod to the original era/designer. It seems it is the mid century purists that get their nickers in a twist about it all. I would think they should be happy mid century design is so popular again. It will mean their originals will hold their value.

  10. I have a number of replica pieces in my home, a well as original pieces. I buy the replicas becasue I can't afford the real thing in most cases! I also actually work in the area of copyright (predominantly art work copyright), so can see the other side of the coin as well.

    It differs from country to country, and I must admit I am not 100 per cent familiar with the laws for different kinds of copyright, but as I understand it design patents (including for furniture) expire after 20 years or so. This means that after 20 years of the original patent being submitted for a furniture design, it is legally up for grabs for reproduction (regardless of whether an artist is living or dead). On the other hand, copyright in things such as art works and literary works does not expire until the creator has been dead for 70 years. Even so, for both copyrighted material or patented material, I believe that the moral rights of the creator must still be upheld.

    I think in many cases the areas of patents and copyright is becoming confused/blurred, which is why there is this 'backlash' occurring. But, at the end of the day, so long as the furniture patent has expired replicas are perfectly legitimate.

    One particular design vigilante page I saw recently (I can't remember the exact site off the top of my head) lumped furniture replicas in with graphic design and other art work ripoffs - this is quite misleading, as both are covered by different parts of the law.

    If someone knows anything different, please correct me!

  11. Buying knock-off furniture is like cheating on a test: even if nobody else notices, you'll always know that it wasn't real. Some people are bothered by that, some people aren't.
    I think ripping off a living designer is wrong. But think about the 'keep calm and carry on' posters. There were loads of knockoffs going around of those, and because they were everywhere, people got sick of them a lot quicker.
    Knockoffs make things popular for shorter amounts of time. But as the cycle comes around again, the originals will be worth more than the knockoffs. Companies like Herman Miller always have the option of reissuing designs that are out of production, or launching entirely new designs. Knockoffs make that process happen faster.

  12. This is a really interesting post. I have debated with myself over the years re knockoffs v the real deal. However, I have a mix of both in my home - my eames rocker is a fake - I think there are good and bad fakes out there too. I'm glad my rocker is a fake as my 21 month old took to it with a can a few months back and it now needs a new paint job! I adore the style of some of the furniture but cannot have the real thing in my house until the kids are older.

    All that being said, I do not condone the vigilante style of attack on a bad knock off. Surely the style can still be appreciated by those who cannot afford the real thing? Michelle

  13. Hmm, it's a tricky one. I'm not sure how I feel. Ideally there would be no knock-offs but then could any of us afford semi-decent design if this were the case? I know I couldn't (for the most part).
    But then as an artist, it's not very nice when someone rips you off. I had a 'friend' blatantly copy some of my work a couple of years ago (we were in the same evening class) and she still flogs it of around all the markets. So unimpressive.

  14. Further to my above 'essay', I just did a little more digging to try and explain the difference between copyright and patents in terms of what they protect. Copyright protects non-funtional items (such as art works, text, music etc.), whilst patents protect physical, functional items (such as furniture, medications etc.). It's the same arrangement that is used in the health sector - we're often offered 'generic' medications, which are made available once the 20-year patent on the original medication has expired.

    Therefore, the intellectual property of a poster design, for example, can not be compared to a piece of furniture, as they are not considered by intellectual property law worldwide as the same thing. So, unless a replica is made of a piece of furniture where the artist still holds an existing patent because it was created less than 20 years ago, it is considered to be perfectly ethical, at least in a legal sense.

  15. Wow Kylie. You certainly did some digging. And I'm glad you did. Interesting that the patent is only 20 years for furniture - I always assumed it was more (for no particular reason).

    I liked reading everyone's views. I'm glad all of you don't have vigilante tendencies too.

    And for the record, I'm fairly non-judgmental about these sort of things and have always kept an open mind regarding replicas. I don't own any though, but I always look at them as possible options.

  16. Brismod - ditto!

    Great post and discussion.

  17. Wow, that's really going over the top, I think, to destroy property that way. I guess they felt that was the only way to make a statement people would notice. But I do agree that design knock-offs are a form of theft. That said, the replica issue is thorny because not all of us have deep pockets that original designs require. Maybe there could be some sort of licensed replicas, with some proceeds going to original designer?

  18. I love all this furniture but am not prepared to wait until my kids have left home to climb into my Eames rocker and knit booties. I have babies to knit for now that also need food and school fees so Replica Schmeplica. If it's the only way you can see the gorgeous idea some designer had in your home (for the masses as has been noted!) then commit the "crime" and enjoy the time rocking on whatever you want.

  19. What a great post - it really has got me thinking. I have replica furniture and also recently became the owner of original designer furniture. The replica is an Eames chair with the Eiffel-tower like base (sorry, forget it's name!) and the originals are Thonet Tolix stools which we could only afford with wedding money that we recently received. I definitely support buying originals where possible but unfortunately that's impossible for most people - me included - because of the cost. It's a shame isn't it. But then again, at least replicas make us feel as though we are living with an original at a fraction of the cost. Whether this is morally or ethically right I'm not sure...but personally I have no issue with buying replica - live the (replica) dream I say!!

    Hmm food for thought! xx

  20. Just checking back in to see everyone's comments. It's really a personal choice isn't it, I agree that we shouldn't put our judgy hats on about other people's decisions but it's great that we are conscious about the issue and discussing it.

    I just re-read the post I wrote last year about the issue, which didn't go into the finer details, just my little internal dilemma - if you want to read it you can find it here:

    Thanks for starting the conversation Anita (and thanks for your email too).


  21. Very interesting post. The slashing incident does seem extreme and unncessary. We can't be sure that it was an act of design vigilantism though. Maybe they had a grudge against the hotel or goodness knows what. I do think that replicas have a place for traditional pieces but agree that living designers should not be copied. As a designer trying to make a living, I hate blatant copies of anything. Be inspired by all means but at least try and make it a little different to the original.

  22. My view on this is that all furniture is designed by someone - the only difference is that some have a recognised "name" as designer. So the question for me becomes is the "name" more important than the style, comfort, or whatever criteria I'm using to judge the piece. Take the Barcelon chair for example. I love the style and have sat on both the expensive "name" version and the knock off. Both are equally uncomfortable so if I was buying one for just the look I would buy the knock off.


  23. I've come back too. Seriously, wilful damage of furniture is a blatant criminal act.

    So, whomever slashed the hotel chairs is just a fool and deserves the full-weight of the law to fall on him/her. Surely, if you are a design purist then the best thing is to look down your nose at replicas and move on, and publicise that the hotel is cheap.

    I looked back at something I'd read by Charles Eames and he said once, to the question, "Is desgin a creation of an individual?"

    "No - because to be realistic one must always admit the influence of those who have gone before". How true, Mr Eames. There will always be imitators of, and variances on, great design.

    Further, in reality, if you have children, what's the point of having original designs if they are not child proof?

    And Anita, I love those chairs m-c jo snaffled!

  24. Very interesting article & post, thanks. I used to not care about the original vs knockoff debate, but I have become more of a purist: I can either afford the original or I can't, and if I can't, I try to source a vintage one at an affordable price. Vintage knockoffs--I'm talking Wegner inspired designs actually made in the 60s and 70s for example--are absolutely fine by me too, but again I am of course buying them second hand.

  25. cool post darl! i hadnt heard about this before, makes for interesting discussion. have been eyeing off some fake tolixs at MB - now i'm nervous!!!

    but i agree, a knock off of something that came out last year and the designer is still reaping their just rewards from is not cool.


  26. Hi everyone,

    It's great to see so many people discussing this issue. We, the Authentic Design Alliance, were mentioned in that SMH article (don't worry, we didn't slash those chairs!). There are other reasons why buying counterfeit furniture and consumer products may not be the best option.

    High-end designer furniture is usually made with infinite care and quality materials, so it'll last you generations. Knock-offs often last only a couple of years or so, meaning your money is wasted and you contribute to the glut of worn-out and broken products that end up at the rubbish tip. Even if the materials are recycled, you're wasting more resources than necessary in breaking down the products.

    And an outrageously interesting study recently found that buying counterfeit products may increase your willingness to lie, cheat and be overall deceitful.

    If you don't believe us, check out our blog (

    There's links to the original articles there, plus other posts and information on the site for anyone who's interested in maintaining original design in furniture and beyond.

    Feel free to add your comments to any of the blog posts- we'd love to hear your thoughts, even if they're the opposite of our own views.

    The Authentic Design Alliance

  27. Hi Authentic Alliance and thanks for weighing in!

    I must say, though, that I do have a bit of an issue with the term 'counterfeit', which implies that someone is essentially purchasing a 'stolen' design by someone trying to pass it off as an original. Buying a replica after a patent has expired in my opinion is not the same as purchasing a counterfeit item. That said, a knock-off of a design for which the patent is still in place and which is being passed off as an 'original' is certainly counterfeit.

    And I think we all take your point about the care and quality of materials - of course there's no comparison in that regard. :)

  28. "And an outrageously interesting study recently found that buying counterfeit products may increase your willingness to lie, cheat and be overall deceitful."

    Outrageously is definitely an apt description. Who conducted the study? Are you telling me I shouldn't trust a person with a replica?

    Anyway, your comment will certainly stimulate more discussion which is not a bad thing.

  29. Hello,

    Yes, many people believe buying a replica based on an expired patent is completely acceptable, especially because the law gives us the 'OK'. But often the law and ethics don't coincide or align perfectly, in which case it's the prerogative of individuals to decide what actions are ethical- you do whatever you are comfortable with.

    Patents and temporal copyright attempt to ensure the designer can benefit from his or her designs during his or her lifetime; these IP laws and regulations try to balance this right with giving others the opportunity to use and recreate such designs.

    It's very tricky to find the balance between protecting IP and stifling creativity, and it's good that the law gives some guidance while also giving us the freedom to act as we wish and recognising our status as moral, thinking beings. And there are always 'fair use' or 'fair dealing' exemptions that, for example, let people satirise works or use certain content for educational or review purposes.

    The study was conducted by three scientists: one from University of North Carolina, one from Harvard Business School and the third from Duke University.

    We apologise if you perceive that we are telling you who to trust, as this was not our intention. We are simply communicating the details of a study that suggests people with replicas MAY act in certain ways. Please bear in mind that every scientific study has research and methodological limitations that impact the results, and the best way to make a judgement on the research is to read how the experiments were performed and in what context.

    If you have access or subscriptions to the Wiley-Interscience database or the academic journal Psychological Science, you could find a detailed description of the methodology, research and findings.

    We are looking forward to hearing more opinions posted on this forum.

  30. isn't it a form of flattery that allows another end of the socio-economic triangle to enjoy something that is covertable - fashion has 'suffered' from this for years and they seem to manage :) best le


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