The Knock-Off Effect: Who You’re Really Cheating When You Buy Copies

Many consumers jump at the chance to own a beautiful piece of furniture at a fraction of the price. But this seemingly innocuous practice is anything but.

The elevation of an object to the category of design classic is hardly ever linear, nor predictable. When Verner Panton devised the concept for his Panton chair in 1959, most manufacturers dismissed his idea, failing to see a viable means of mass-producing a chair made out of a single piece of cantilevered plastic. Finally, in 1965, Panton found a partner in the Swiss manufacturer Vitra and, over the next few years, the designer and manufacturer developed the idea of a hard foam plastic chair that was as aesthetically striking as it was technologically sound. Once released, the Panton chair was quick to become a design hallmark—but this did not stop the team from continuing to innovate in the following decades.

As late as 1999, Vitra engineered a method to replace hard foam with polypropylene and began treating the chair with a special UV-ray protective additive, making it suitable for outdoor use. For Vitra, this story highlights “the importance of a manufacturer’s investment in a designer, both in terms of time and resources,” says Vitra’s Head of Marketing and Events, North America, Adrian Parra. “For us, this is something that we value and we cherish.” Today, the Panton chair is an almost ubiquitous presence in both residential and commercial spaces. However, all too often the original version, still manufactured by Vitra, is substituted by cheaper copies—ones that reduce a chair laden with historical and cultural meaning into a mere visual cue.  

The process of creating a copy is a relatively simple one. Often, a successful design product is shipped overseas to be reverse engineered in countries where intellectual property laws are lax and labor costs are low (with workers often too easily exploited). The internet helps connect knockoff manufacturers with consumers, and the lack of brick and mortar stores allows for lower overhead and easier evasion of legal systems. At a cursory glance, this type of copying may seem like a harmless, and perhaps even healthy, by-product of global capitalism. Many consumers find furniture prices unreasonably high, particularly when compared to other industries such as fashion, and are eager to find a fast-fashion equivalent in the furniture market. It doesn’t help that the furniture industry often tends to be opaque, concealing the labor and environmental practices that underlie its operations. So when knockoff manufacturers hack this process by developing a product from the outside in, in turn making the manufacturing process cheaper and faster, many consumers jump at the chance to own a beautiful piece of furniture at a fraction of the price. But what is seemingly an innocuous practice in effect throws the entire creative ecosystem off balance—threatening many links in the chain of healthy production.

Perhaps the easiest to understand is safety. The ease of disseminating inaccurate information on the internet makes it easy to mislead, and the web’s intangible nature makes it difficult for consumers to judge the physical aspects of a product. When manufacturers of replicas use flimsy materials and cut steps in the manufacturing process (for instance in the famous 77-step process it takes to make an Emeco aluminum chair), they fail to meet industry standards set up to protect the consumer. For manufacturers and designers, it is also clear that copying stunts future innovation—it siphons away a primary source of income from emerging and established designers, yes, but also from manufacturers who allocate a portion of their budget to investing in future research, development, and prototyping. For Vitra, investment in the future of the industry is a crucial aspect of its business-making approach, as we saw in the Panton example. “Knockoffs completely undermine that,” Parra says.

But it’s not just the future of the industry that is at stake, but of our environment as well. “This whole cycle of consuming and throwing away products is dreadful because, one, we’re running out of resources, and, two, we’re running out of landfills,” Emeco’s Gregg Buchbinder says. “No matter what you’re producing, you need to be cognizant of how it will affect the planet.” For many manufacturers, the interest in sustainability goes deeper than superficial greenwashing, becoming a part of the company ethos and influencing every step of the manufacturing process (Herman Miller’s decision to replace the endangered Brazilian rosewood used on the original Eames Lounger with santos palisander, a richly grained sustainable veneer that looks like the original rosewood comes to mind).

Togo chairs. Courtesy Ligne Roset

A key line of defense in the fight against knockoffs has of course been the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which, just in 2016, seized over 40 shipments of unauthorized replica furniture, involving goods that would have had an estimated retail price of $4.2 million if genuine. According to CBP’s Intellectual Property Rights Seizure Statistics for the year 2016, this effort helped protect over 8,000 American jobs. “We met with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency last year during NeoCon,” says Antoine Roset, the Executive Vice President of Ligne Roset. “Since then, we’ve worked with them on two training sessions, during which we trained the Customs agent to spot fake Ligne Roset designs.” For instance, in the case of Togo, Ligne Roset’s groundbreaking 1973 sofa (and one of the company’s most knocked off designs), consumers can vouch for the authenticity of the piece by the very specific ticking used to cover the bottom part of the sofa, identical to the very first Togo of over 40 years ago.

But while the efforts of the Customs agency are crucial, manufacturers themselves must not sit idly by. The first step for the majority of designers and manufacturers is to draw on the expertise of law firms specializing in intellectual property law, such as Gottlieb, Rackman & Reisman. “First you need to protect your intellectual property. For some types of protection, for instance the utility and design patents, which are commonly used to protect furniture design, there is a firm deadline of one year from the first public showing of the product to file for the patent,” George Gottlieb, a founding partner at the firm, says. “And then you need to go out and enforce this—in most cases infringement ends at a cease and desist letter, but if you’re not stemming the flow through these letters or the customs there is always the ability to file a lawsuit—although the internet has made the process a bit like whack-a-mole,” adds Marc Misthal, a partner at Gottlieb, Rackman & Reisman.

The proliferation of knockoffs in recent years has also led to a rise in non-profit organizations, such as BeOriginal, through which manufacturers, including Herman Miller, Flos, and Artek, are attempting to create platforms for dialogue and education on design and originality. “Part of this education, for us, also happens internally,” Roset says. “We are constantly informing our employees about the identity of our brand and our commitment to original design and craftsmanship—they regularly visit the Ligne Roset factory in France and see our respect for the materials and building know-how; and the respect for our employees and their work environment.”

Many manufacturers are also leveraging the internet, which has been somewhat of an accomplice in making copying easier, to disseminate information on how their products are manufactured, accompanied by striking visuals and videos. Forums and social media have also become major channels for reporting knockoffs and circulating information on design originals—as a result, more people are becoming aware of the limitations of adopting the low-cost aesthetics of good design without knowing and appreciating the history and the investment that comes along with buying directly from designers and manufacturers themselves.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading about Fritz Hansen’s take on what makes design “authentic.

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