Tribute or Knock-Off: Replica furniture is it OK or just plain wrong?
Pick up any magazine nowadays (whether interiors specific or not) and you are bound to find countless examples of mid-century furniture. It is prevalent in film and TV, and in offices, residential buildings, retail and restaurants.
It wasn’t that long ago you could buy an original Louis Poulsen PH Snowball Pendanet Lamp, Hans Wegner Bear Chair or Grant Featherston R160 Armchair on eBay or at a local auction for what it would have cost you to buy a badly designed uncomfortable chair from a high street store. This is now rarely possible. Yet, there is an insatiable demand for iconic pieces of furniture. Consequently, in countries like Australia, America, the UK and China where it is legal to manufacture replicas, the industry in fakes is booming. Everything from Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair to Arne Jakobsen’s Swan Chair, Saarinen’s Tulip Table, Isamu Noguchi’s Coffee Table, Pierre Paulin’s Orange Slice Chair, Thonet’s No 18 Bentwood Chair, Warren Platner Table are available for purchase. Whether you call these copies, fakes, replicas, reproductions or knock-offs, I’m quite divided about them.
On the one hand, the manufacturers and sellers of such pieces are filling a demand for iconic objects at an affordable price. For example, an original Egg Chair will cost you somewhere between 7,500-10,000AUD whereas the replica version, depending on the quality, is between $795-1650AUD. An original Archille Castigolioni Arco Lamp will set you back around $2500, a replica $385. As much as I would love an original (new or old) it is simply not anywhere near my (or most people’s) budget. Ironically, these exorbitant prices are at direct odds with ethos of designers like Jacobsen who aimed for pieces which were simple and affordable.
Having said that, there is no doubt that the originals are manufactured to a high standard with better quality of materials and craftsmanship being used. But my main reservation is that the designer and also manufacturer have invested time, money and effort into a design: from the initial concepts through to creating a prototype and taking the piece to market. Why shouldn’t the designer (or their estate) reap financial reward for their creative genius, just as other artists, like the Beatles, George Orwell and Andy Warhol do. Furthermore, if we want manufacturers to put money into research and development and fostering new talent then there needs to be financial incentive to do so.
In some countries replicas are non-existent while in others they are prevalent. It depends entirely on that country’s copyright laws. In Australia, copyright lasts only 10 years while in the States furniture falls completely outside the copyright laws as it is considered a functional object. Recently, the UK, Romania and Estonia introduced tougher copyright protection for ‘artistic’ manufactured goods from 25 years to the European standard of 70 years after the death of the creator, bringing it into line with literature and art. The legislation in Australia is quite clear: the retailers of the non-orginal pieces have to clearly state in all marketing and promotion that the pieces they are selling are “replicas”.
Historically, a similar distinction between copies and forgeries has been made in art. From ancient Rome through to the Baroque the copying of masterworks was common. Initially the identity of the creator was not considered important, just the beauty of the piece. By the Renaissance pupils were faithfully copying their master’s works. This was seen as a tribute to the creative genius of the likes of Raphael and Rembrandt. Indeed, many paintings exist where art historians are still unclear about whether a particular work is by the master or his ‘school’. Commercially minded artists such as Albrecht Duerer (1471-1528) began adding his signature to prints to ensure their authenticity. His views on copying are clearly stated on an engraving: ”Be cursed, plunderers and imitators of the work and talent of others”.
The current situation with replica furniture in many ways parallels the crossroads that the music, book, film and TV industries finds themselves in: people still read, listen and watch, but there is less tolerance for paying high prices to consume these things. The outcomes won’t be what the doomsayers predict: the death of these art forms. But the current models of supply are not working and consequently will die and something else will grow in its place.
What I don’t understand is why that the replica manufacturers who are making considerable profits aren’t obliged to pay some sort of fee to the creator or original manufacturer for use of the design.
What do you think? Have you or would you ever buy a replica? Or does it sit uncomfortably with you? I’d love to hear.