do cheap copies of good designs matter?

Yes of course they matter. They are a serious problem in so many different ways.

For a start the term ‘replica’ seen in some adverts is a weasel word that really should not be used for the commercial production of current or recent design pieces. Of course a museum replica is valid, where it reproduces something that has been destroyed or lost or so badly damaged that it is difficult to appreciate or understand what it looked like originally but the word replica should not be used for what is a fake just because it doesn’t sound quite as bad.

So the right word for these copies is that … at the very least unlicensed and unauthorised copies … where the design has been filched or in some cases crudely copied or knocked off and knocked up or it should be described as a rip off or, bluntly, in many cases, a deception.

There was an article recently in Dezeen that came out with that old old argument that cheaper copies allow less well-off buyers to afford good design. The Robin Hood argument. 

So is horse meat in pies a reasonable substitute for people who can’t afford prime beef? Is perfume sold on a street corner with very dubious ingredients that irritate the skin fine because people who can’t afford the original can afford the fake? Wonder if he would argue that a great song is exactly the same whoever sings it? Is his furniture - sold to help the poor buy good design - sold at cost? Thought not?

If he has a good team of skilled carpenters and good metal workers and wants to make a good well-designed piece of furniture at a reasonable price then pay a good designer and make a good original piece in large-enough quantities to bring the unit price down. Or if he really admires a specific design and wants to reproduce it - particularly a piece no longer in production - then go to the designer, or their heirs, and negotiate a fee to produce the design under licence. 

OneCollection is a very good example of a company doing it the right way - their furniture from designs by Finn Juhl is made with the support and permission of his estate. They show that it is possible to produce classic designs ethically to produce pieces properly and carefully and as the designer intended.

But that takes investment and takes time and a designer or their heirs might say no … much easier for most of these factories to simply copy a design and avoid all that hassle. 

Someone wrote as a comment “Why should the rich be the only people to enjoy style and design in their homes” as if somehow making an Eames recliner available to everyone is going to eradicate wealth inequality. And of course it makes that weird link between loads’a money and good design and good taste which really really isn’t a given. Just walk around Knightsbridge to see that people can have lots of money and no taste and little sense of what makes good design good. Although, to be honest, I will be the first in the queue if Illums Bolighus starts selling cheap copies of the furniture from the Mezhyrhirya Palace because I certainly can’t afford the originals.

This argument about the price tag making good design unaffordable always hints at a subtext … the idea that somehow good design is a rip off … and that a name like Eames or Jacobsen or a manufacturer’s name like Hansen or Miller on the label means that surely ‘they’ just add another zero on the end of the price because they can. No. The price usually reflects the quality of the product but also reflects the time and investment that was put into the design and the development of the piece. 

There is also the important fact that a reasonable return from a design actually subsidises and supports the designer and the manufacturer while they work on the next design. 

Somehow these rip-off merchants and, unfortunately, the buying public as well, like to tell themselves that, after all, designing something is easy … surely it’s just a bit of imagination and a few sketches. Easy! Surely you can’t justify that price just for the design bit.

No it’s not easy. If it was that easy these companies would design their own pieces of furniture. 

Look at all the carefully laid out displays, exhibitions and publicity material for the latest range of tables and chairs from Normann of Copenhagen. This is not ordinary advertising and it is not actually them blowing their own trumpet. It is in fact a designer and a design company saying this product is really good because of three years hard slog trying to get it right. Three years and a lot of money invested. And that’s not counting the years of education and training and hard work for the designer to get where he is now in terms of skill and confidence. Or the time and money spent on interim pieces or mock ups to work towards that final design. And by paying up front for the huge expense of displaying their work at design fairs in Copenhagen and Stockholm, Normann is primarily trying to build up enough interest and enough buyers just so that the unit cost can be kept down at a commercially viable level.

In paying the going rate for a good design you are recognising and rewarding effort, training and experience. By buying the copy you are rewarding the person who simply skipped all the difficult and expensive bits.

It is a competitive market so the price, for instance for the chairs and tables in that new Normann collection, is controlled, to a considerable extent, by what else is available. The price can only be kept down if enough tables and chairs are sold. But if they get the price wrong - if they are just slightly too expensive - trying to recover the design and development costs too quickly - then buyers will go for cheaper rivals - whatever the merits of this design - and the company and the designer would then face a huge financial loss. Normann are also very sensibly pointing out that this is a phenomenal investment in terms of time and money for a relatively small company so don’t actually expect a zingy new design to come along for next “season”. Real design classics are relatively rare because actually no designer or manufacturer can keep turning out great design after great design after great design … or at least not every three months. The real problem with the furniture industry trying to follow the hype and methods of the fashion industry is that it feeds and nurtures that monster that is the public’s insatiable demand for novelty. When you feed the monster it gets bigger and you get your fingers bitten.

It is again one of the obvious things about the rip-off merchants. They can keep up with fashion trends - or do I mean the whims of a fickle market - much more easily. You want a Bertoia wire chair now because you want the chair you saw in a magazine. Ok we will give you that. You want a Tulip Chair now because that was in that TV serial that was so popular. Ok we can do that for you at a good price.

I’m not being an elitist or a snob over all this. Really I’m not. One concern is that, with many of the copies, the buyer is not actually getting a good deal. In many cases the copy is not well made and is made in poor-quality materials. That’s one of the reasons why it's cheap. If it does not use cheap materials then they may be keeping the price down by using cheap labour and that should be a problem to prick the conscience of any buyer.

Good design usually comes from using good materials with careful quality control … read about how Arne Jacobsen monitored the production of his designs; worked with craftsmen in the factory to get the production piece right and assiduously rejected pieces that did not come up to standard. 

And that raises another problem. If a copy breaks or wears out or looks tatty after a short time then that, curiously, reflects badly on the original designer and his reputation and not on the company that made a poor-quality copy of the design … if you cut your finger on the badly-finished edge of a plastic chair you don’t tell people you cut your finger on the rough edge of a poorly finished copy of a Jacobsen chair. 

There is a new problem. It’s not just the well-known designs that are copied. Sharks cruise the design fairs and trade exhibitions with their cameras taking photographs and some very unlucky designers have seen copies of their designs advertised for sale a few weeks after the design fair when actually they have only got to the prototype stage and were exhibiting the work to attract finance or a manufacturer. Many designers, manufacturers and design shops are now more cautious about letting people take photographs of new designs and for good reasons.

There is another relatively new problem … and that is the mobile phone shopper. This is the person who spends their Saturday afternoon in the design shops sitting in chairs, deciding on the colours they want, taking a photo or two and then when asked if they need any help or advice will declare openly that they like the piece but know that they can get it cheaper on line. Obviously there are several problems … if people use design shops as a place to try out (and wear out and scuff) chairs, for instance, that they have in stock and then buy elsewhere then the design shops will go out of business … and they already are going out of business. The other point about getting it cheaper on line is that some items are cheaper because the online store has reduced their fixed costs like staff and high street rents and rates but often it’s simply because it is a copy. 

It’s not just a moral thing either. And it’s not just a quality control issue about ensuring that a good design is properly made, although both are important, but unfortunately we are now also seeing a growing race to the bottom. Designers and manufacturers, faced with the harsh reality of declining sales, are starting to out-source manufacture to keep costs down - to try and compete on price with the cowboys - and curiously the effect is just the opposite of the “making good design available to the poor” argument. With the market threatened by cheap copies many manufacturers are having to cut quality and get products made more cheaply abroad so even those customers prepared to pay the going rate get a poorer quality item. And if the company is driven out of business then no one can buy the furniture.

Small workshops and manufacturers in Europe who used to work closely with designers, because they were relatively close, geographically, cannot now compete with large flexible work forces in factories in Eastern Europe or in Asia. Does that matter if the price is right? Yes it does because close collaboration between designer and maker often improved the final piece and local jobs, local skills and highly trained and highly motivated craftsmen are disappearing fast because they cannot compete right now on price. When the cost of labour in Asia goes up, as it will, or the cost of transport rises to the point where it then becomes a significant element of the final ticket price, then trying to return to production in England or Denmark or Italy will be very difficult because the skills and the specialist equipment and the small manufacturers will no longer be there. They will have gone to the wall years or decades ago. When was the last time anyone saw a bodger in Berkshire?

When you see the excuses for copying designs that have been set out in Dezeen you realise there is another convenient misconception. That is that designers and manufacturers are somehow linked with large faceless multinationals so where’s the harm in stealing their designs? Again that Robin Hood argument. In reality many designers are working on their own or in studios as small co-operative groups and often surviving on the income of a spouse or by selling their initial works to family and friends and often the workshop is a small local factory struggling to maintain standards and with no spare cash to take on apprentices to continue the business. Yes I know an original full-price Eames Lounger is not made by one leather craftsman in a small workshop lit by candles but there is a very good point that if instead of spending money on a fake recliner someone spent the same amount of money on a really good design from a young local team of innovative designers and craftsmen … then everyone gains.

Is there a solution. Well yes … several ideas could be tried. At the very least, the legal system could be used effectively to protect the names of designers and manufacturers. In England the law can be used to protect trade names or advertising slogans or to protect the makers and the reputation of Cheddar or Stilton cheese or in France the term champagne, is rightly defended, so why not the design of chairs or cutlery or a ceramic pattern or shape of drinking glass? 

Designers and manufacturers should sign their pieces and preferably date them and for major items add a unique item number creating one of a known series. Of course these details can be copied or imitated but then it really is a very very clear case of deliberate fraud and passing something off as genuine and that could be prosecuted more easily rather than the vague thing now of trying to stop someone advertising an “Eames-type desk chair” or a Wegner-style Wishbone chair as if those were somehow generic terms. Several companies seem to have coined the phrase ‘re-issue’ and even I could not help smiling when I saw several of these companies had put a copyright sign next to their own company name.

I’m curious but not surprised that politicians don’t understand that to copy a design is intellectual property theft. If they had spent a week writing a major speech and then heard a rival giving the same speech before they had a chance to … because their secretary or cleaner or “friend” had not only sold a copy but an early draft … not even the carefully polished final version … they would be incensed.

Politicians, or at least some politicians, seem to think that the answer to all the problems of the World is free trade and global agreements on removing tariffs. So why not global agreements on copyright and strict enforcement of that? One obvious problem for designers is that it is expensive and difficult if not impossible to enforce their rights in a foreign jurisdiction. Or am I getting my rights and freedoms mixed up again? Oh yes I remember now … free trade is a country’s right to buy your raw materials at a price they set and your right to buy their goods at the price they set. Or is it the other way round? Good job I never went into politics or the diplomatic service.

To come back to the business of protecting rights to designs, there are also slightly less obvious ways forward. Designers and manufacturers really do have to spell out why and how something they have produced is good and why it costs that much. Good design and high-quality manufacturing actually benefits from well-informed customers. A potential buyer does not need or want a lecture when they buy a chair but it does help them if they can see why something was designed and made in that way and why and how it is better than a cheaper rival.

There is also a very important point about encouraging designers, craftsmen and factories in China or Indonesia or wherever to focus on their own amazing design heritage. Genuine Chinese or Indian designs could have a huge market in Europe without them copying what they think we want from our recent past. And schools of design in China or India or wherever should be encouraging young new designers there to look at local styles, historic forms and local materials to produce new and unique designs. 

Of course there is a real irony here and I would guess that some design historians will point out that in Europe and America we are simply now getting our comeuppance. Merchants in the 18th century brought to Europe large quantities of porcelain and printed silk from China. These were initially, of course, incredibly expensive and only the wealthy could afford them but then factories in the centre of England, around Stoke, and in Liverpool and in London, started copying the shapes and patterns of the porcelain pieces in local earthenware and then in bone china and the mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire copied the fabrics and developed the machines to produce the cloth much more cheaply. They started to modify the patterns and designs for English taste and then went on to export their own Chinese or Indian-inspired designs to the rest of the World, undercutting the price and cheapening the quality of the design and the quality of the product. So an early Paisley pattern wasn’t actually designed in Glasgow … it was replicated or copied - OK ripped off - from pieces brought back from Kashmir and Isfahan. The English even successfully sold cotton fabrics back to the Indian market undermining their own textile production.

But then the argument of have done unto you what your ancestors did unto others is hardly a useful way of dealing with the problem of stealing designs now.