What is considered a Design Knockoff?
AND WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
(*Disclaimer: I'm not accusing anyone of malicious intent. Don't send your lawyers after me. It is entirely possible that everyone here came up with their designs independently and without knowledge of similar pieces already in existence.)
1. Why should I care?
2. What is considered a design knockoff?
a. Obvious design knockoff
b. The gray area
c. Acceptable knockoffs?
3. What can be done about it?
a. Designers need to advocate for themselves
b. Designers must be educated
If you’re like me, you don’t have a lot of money. It’s tempting to want great design at affordable prices. Rarely do we realize that every decision we make has consequences. We want cheap clothing that is produced with sweatshop labor. We want cheap electronics that lead to exploitation in factories We want cheap knockoff furniture that hurts designers.
I don’t think it’s possible to shun the modern economy , but we do have a choice on what type of furniture or home goods we buy. Furniture plagerism hurt all of us. They discourage designers from innovating when they can no longer reap the rewards of their designs. When we stop pushing boundaries, we all suffer. Why come up with a cool chair when someone like Restoration Hardware can copy your design and make a fortune? We have patent laws for a reason. At the end of the day, designers need to put food on the table. For the young designer, patents are an expensive and time consuming endeavor. It simply is not financially feasible to patent everything and hire lawyers to hound your thieves. Even then patents only last 14 years.
Jacqueline at York Avenue blog brings up an interesting point. Of course price is a big factor. Most people can’t afford the real deal. In addition you feel you can modify and change knockoffs whereas the originals have a certain a purity about them. I think modifications to classic designs are not a bad thing. As long as you modify it enough, it starts to become something new. But some knockoffs don’t even bother changing anything.
“One is the integrity of design: if copies are acceptable, then the companies that really invest in design can't afford to do it. This is especially true in furniture, which is a huge investment compared to, say, fashion. The designers then can't make a living.”
“That is a bigger question than I can answer: How long should these products be protected? However, the flip side of that, which I’m shocked by, is, after the Milan Furniture Fair, you go to a factory in Asia, and you see 100 of the best new product launches all knocked off. You can make an argument about patent protection on older pieces, but I think it’s harder with the immediate stuff. I mean, Kartell has been knocked off at every turn—they continue to be—and that’s new investment!”
Furthermore, at the high end market, there is no excuse for buying a furniture design knockoff. At that level we expect to reward those with creativity.
2. What is Considered a Design Knockoff?
But what is and is not a knockoff? It's harder to answer than it first appears. Back to the controversy with Matter Studio, people brought up how even Ana's tables are merely imitations of Mario Bellini, so why the fuss over Mattan's copies?
You can see she uses the same forms but makes two changes: she move the legs in, and changed the material. It is worth noting that just is the only table from Ana that resembles Bellini. The rest of her work uses huge legs, and that work is the one that Mattan copied.
So where do we draw the line? Let's start with easy examples and move on to harder ones.
BeOriginal has a good list which is a good start, but let's explore some examples I’ve found in my research. Keep in mind this is only a FRACTION of my collection.
A. Obvious Design Knockoffs
Exhibit A) Jean Michel Frank’s Gueridons VS. The Lacquer Company’s KRB Table and John Saladino’s Terrazo Table
Copying old designs is an easy example to start with. From what I understand, design patents don't last a long time. Copying a design from the 1930's should be legal. The question is, should copies say who the original designer is? What is the right way to go about coping old designs? Or should it be done at all?
Exhibit B) Kelly Wearstler’s Melange Pill Form Sconce VS Jean Louis Denoit’s Hercule sconce
I don’t know who made the design first but you can see they are essentially the same. What holds them up is a little thicker in the Deniot version though.
Exhibit C) Pouenat VS Restoration Hardware (both inspired by Tobia Scarpa’s Foglio sconce)
Restoration Hardware and Pouenat (for Holly Hunt) use different materials but both are essentially the same. I don’t know which came out first. I attached Tobia Scarpa as well just to show how the design has evolved over time.
Exhibit D) David Netto’s Moderne Crib VS Room and Board’s Moda Crib
This is what inspired me to write this blog. David posted these images on Instagram. To be fair to Room and Board, they’re not exactly any worse than the other examples on this list. They did change the feet and got rid of the reveals.
Exhibit E) Christian Liaigre Calme Plat Bench VS Atler London’s Huxley Bench
Material changed but otherwise identical. Szekely’s design came first. This is similar to the Ana/Bellini comparision. We're taking old ideas and repackaging them with new materials, but Ana changed the location of the legs in her piece.
Exhibit H) Mathieu Lehanneur VS Damien Gernay
Pretty sure Mathieu came first based on when they both posted their work on Instagram. Both claim inspiration from the ocean. Now they both do look different in a way. Is the concept of "water on a flat surface" patented? I've seen other people do ripple things. I have some aprehensions about put this example in this section instead of the one below.
Exhibit I) Jacques Quinet console 1960 painted wood via Phillips VS Eric Schmitt Console Dogue
Pretty obvious. It's basically the same except one has a cushion, which I'm sure can come off anyway. Michael’s bench came out in 2014 and I believe Stacklab’s came out in 2017. This particular stool is at Maison Gerard.
Exhibit L) Tristan Aeur YSA sconce VS Charles Burnand
It’s worth noting a ton of places have the Quinet table. I just picked Dessin because it was in my mind
Exhibit N) Mauro Mori’s Movimento Bass 2013 VS Chista’s Parmesan Table
I’m unsure of who came up with the design first.
Exhibit O) Barber & Osgerby Tobi Ishi Table VS Alison Rose 026 On the Bias Table
No commentary needed
B. The Gray Area
Let's look at some examples of where things are a little murkier. Argugable some of the pieces on the previous section should be placed here instead.
Exhibit A) Ron Arad’s Skin Chair VS Daniel Widrig’s Peeler Chair
Here we see the chairs are essentially the same but the form is slightly different. They are also made of different materials.
Exhibit B) Patrick Naggar’s Ischia Bench VS Bernhardt Design Linc Table VS May Furniture’s struttura
The materials are different and the forms are slightly changed in each version, but at first glance, the overall form is the same.
Exhibit C) Eidos Glass’s Aurum Sconce VS Achille Salvagni’s Saturn Sconce
The Eidos sconce is from Kips Bay where it hangs just next to Achille's other work (not pictured)
Eidos did change the material and mounting but the design is the same. To my knowledge Eidos is not selling this sconce and I don't see it on their website
Exhibit D) Egg Collective’s Wu stool vs OKHA’s Lean table
Egg’s table uses the same forms but changes the proportions. It creates a new look, as opposed to other copies, which simply scale a piece in a few directions but look exactly the same.
Exhibit E) Bellboys’ table VS Paris Soeul coffee table for Poliform
The overall form is the same but Bellboy’s table move one of the supports to the middle and add different detailing. They also use different materials. Bellboy is represented at Maison Gerard.
Exhibit F) AWA table from B&B Italia VS Bloop table from Stillfried Wien
Not sure whose design came out first. This reminds me of the Bellboy example as the form at first glance is the same, but looking closer you see minor differences.
Exhibit G) Wim Reitveld's Pyramid table VS Jean Prouve
Showing even back in the day, furniture designs were copied.
c. Acceptable "knockoffs" (not really knockoffs but can't think of a better word)
Let's look at what I consider the correct way to take another design and reuse it
Exhibit A) Apparatus's Block VS Brian Thoreen's Vessel
Both start with the basic idea of putting a capsule on top of some glass, but both do it in different ways. Plus Brian has this marble thing on top of his.
Exhibit B) Joseph Andre Motte VS KGBL's Mancini Chair
Although both look the same, KGBL changed the base (it doesn't angle), they changed how the chair attached to the base, and they changed the upholsetry.
Exhibit C) Marry Wallis's Edie lighting vs Pierre Chareau's Boule Light
The point here is how you can take the same idea and apply it in new ways
Exhibit D) Pedro Venzon's Moca table VS Filipe Ramos's Lagoas Table
Looking back on this list it feels light I’m further from my goal than before I started. We can all agree that blatant ripoffs like the one from Mark Jupiter and Kimberly Denman are pretty clear cut.
Next you have people like MR Architecture who took a table and just changed the material, and people like Stacklab or Atler London who take a piece and scale it in one direction. In my opinion those are still ripoffs. You are not creating a new piece. If I took a car and repainted it, it's not a new car. As a child grows up they get bigger but they are still the same person. If you take a piece of furniture and give it a new material or size, that's not an original design.
Things start to get tricky as people scale parts of the design but it creates a new aesthetic. Eric Schmitt and Egg Collective are in this category and, maybe it was wrong to put them in different sections, but I feel like Eric's piece is still just scaling things whereas Egg Collective introduced a new feature (one leg intersects the other).
Next we have people who take an idea and modify it slightly. Daniel Widrig and Bellboy fit into the category as do many others. The gut feeling you get from the pieces is that they are different and similar to their predecessors at the same time, which is why I called that section the "gray area."
The last section gives hope that we can take existing designs and modify them enough to make something unique. I disagree with people on Instagram that say "everything has been done before." No it hasn't. Basic ideas have been done before, but there are ever newer combinations of those ideas.
3. What can be done about it?
a. Designers need to advocate for themselves
The controversy surrounding Mattan and the aftermath show that, while lynch mobs are regrettable, advocacy worked. Mattan withdrew their furniture line after Matter brought it up on Instagram. Not everyone has 10,000s of followers like Matter, but we should all strive to callout plagiarism, whether it is our design or not. BeOriginalAmerica seems like a good first step, although they are small and I bet they only callout knockoffs that happen to their members.
b. Designers must be educated
I can't think of any interior designer who would willingly buy a ripoff. There needs to be an educational database compiling all the copies we know of. We also need a database of all the designs that have ever been done so designers can make sure what they've designed has not been done before.
Crazy you say, but we already have tons of people doing this already on Pinterest. We just need to organize them together. And yes, the Patent office also has a database, but have you ever tried searching that thing? It's impossible.
As I said earlier, I'm not accusing anyone of malicious intent. When I was in school I designed a chair made of keyboards and was really proud of myself. I was shocked when my teacher said it had been done before. It is entirely possible that all these people I've talked about have come up with their pieces independently.
So why did I write this? I did so for a few reasons
1. I genuinely want a better understanding of what is considered a design knockoff and I hope that this post will create a dialog. There are not clear rules, and there never will be, but we can try to reach a general consensus on what is acceptable and what isn't. The lines between them will be blurry, but hopefully those lines will narrow.
2. I want to educate the public. Furniture plagiarism doesn't just happen from Chinese imports. It happens here, right in our backyard. It's not something to say "well there is nothing we can do about it. " No, that's not true. I'm trying to do something. BeOriginalAmerica is trying to do something. If you're a designer reading this post, share it with other designers. Get the word out there. Do something!
3. When I launch my product line, I want critical eyes on me. If this post is a success, chances are there will be lots of people upset with me and will jump at any of my designs that are viewed as copies. I welcome this wholeheartedly!