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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.

Image credits [1}{2 & 3}
3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Chris #

    Good question Kate! This has been on my mind too.
    I have never bought an exact replica. Even though I would love to own an Egg chair and the price of an authentic one is too high, I never seriously considered buying a replica. Maybe that has to do with the fact that I wouldn’t know where to find replica’s of furniture (except online perhaps) and, not a good argument though: it wouldn’t feel good. I also do not download music or movies for free. I’d rather go to a nice store in my neighbourhood and take advice from the knowledgeable staff there. This means I buy less music than I would like, because my budget has limits, but I like it this way. It feels like a treat! There will always be things that I desire out of my reach. My boyfriend would say jokingly that my superego internalized one lesson very well: my parents used to say that everything has a price, and when I’m not willing to pay it, somebody else will pay that price. Be that clothes manufacturers in third world countries stitching my cheap jeans, to the animals that make up cheap meat. Obviously, this is only my moral compass, other people may have very different ideas and are just as ok. And one could argue that nobody loses when I buy a replica piece of furniture because I would never have bought the original :-)
    I have been buying stuff from, say, Ikea, and later, I came across a design product that looked like the inspiration for the Ikea product. In those cases, you cannot speak of a direct replica, but you clearly see where the idea came from. What then to think of that?

    I totally agree with your notion to have replica manufacturers pay a fee to the original designer / manufacturer. Just like in the old days, when buying cassette tapes, money was raised for the artists that were copied on the tapes. I don’t know either why this is not the case. Anyone have an answer?

    August 14, 2012
    • kate #

      You ask a really good question about what happens when it is not an exact copy but clearly inspired by a masterpiece. That’s a much more tricky area as all creative people and processes take inspiration from what went before. I love that Isaac Newton quote: “If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”
      For copyright law to be really effective it needs to be a global one, otherwise you have a situation we have now where I can legally buy a replica in Australia, but it would be illegal for you to buy one. Seems really illogical.

      August 16, 2012
  2. kate #

    This is also an interesting video to look at
    http://vimeo.com/46417418

    August 19, 2012

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