Designers: the debate against knock-offs is worth it

Can the purchase of an expensive, yet original design object be contextualized as an investment in the design industry, manufacturing R&D, and national economies?

Was the iconic Eames lounge chair ever officially available in tweed?

A chair is a chair. Or is it? When one chair costs thousands of dollars and bears the name of a revered designer, is it worth more than another seat that looks an awful lot like the expensive one with the fancy label? What if, when you sit in either one, they are equally as comfortable--on the body and on the eyes?

Product designers and, perhaps even more powerfully, respected design magazines are escalating the debate against knock-offs. In the article "The Real Cost of Ripoffs," published in the June 2012 print issue of Dwell magazine, Deputy Editor Jaime Gillin breaks down why original design is so darn expensive. It's worth the investment, she argues, because it is just that: an investment in design as an industry, as well as in the research and development efforts of individual designers and manufacturers.

She writes:

"...a percentage of your purchase goes back to the designer, who reinvests it into her business, her next idea. In order to take risks and innovate—and, indeed, to make a living—a designer needs to profit from her successes. Same with manufacturers—they need money to contract and promote designers' work and to keep their production quality high. This is the basic premise of how the design industry works, at least when all goes well.

Enter knockoffs, to blow this balanced ecosystem to bits. Some enterprising person sees a popular design and gets dollar (or euro, or yuan) signs in their eyes. It's relatively easy to ship a piece overseas to be reverse engineered and manufactured inexpensively. Labor costs are low and it's simple to swap cheaper materials and compromise on quality. Maybe they tweak the dimensions or add a small new flourish in order to improve their chances of getting away with it."

Beautiful, comfortable--but if a knock-off, its sale may arguably divert funds from design R&D

But Gillin and Dwell aren't stopping there. Gillin also wrote a companion blog post in which ten design-world luminaries voice their opinions on the topic. She plans on expanding on this post in coming weeks, too, offering more quotes that couldn't fit in the print story. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming sentiment is to rally against copycats. But the rationales are insightful for the most part and worth reading--if anything for peeking behind the curtain of the elite design world.

"With knockoffs there are no designers, no legal fees...[and] when people buy a product, we pay a royalty fee to the designer," Antoine Roset, vice president of Ligne Roset USA, the upscale furniture maker owned by his family, is quoted in Gillen's blog post. "We pay designers because we respect designers. When you buy a knockoff, you say: I don't care how it's made, I just care that it's cheap."

On a somewhat positive note, lighting designer Lindsey Adelman noted that "If it's an independent designer [copying your design] you think, maybe them imitating my work is along their path of development as a designer. You encouraged them to develop their own path and voice. That's cool, it's not threatening. It's different if it's a corporation like West Elm; that feels lazy and bad."

Perhaps some of the most intriguing and philosophical context comes from Eames Demetrios, grandson of legendary husband-and-wife designers Charles and Ray Eames. Demetrios is the director of the Eames Office in Santa Monica, CA. "If you look at the cost of living and the cost of the Eames lounge chair, it's basically the same cost today as it was in 1956," Demetrios, of exquisite design provenance himself, is quoted in the Dwell blog post. "It's just that other objects around us are cheaper and better today. I'm not even saying it's bad; it's just that people have an expectation that everything should be cheaper and better."

Demetrios and Gillin will also take part in a conversation on the topic along with Gregg Buchbinder, president and CEO of chair maker Emeco on June 24 in Los Angeles at the Dwell on Design Conference. If all this seems like quite a large effort around a magazine story, it is. But it can be justified as a campaign to defend original design in the U.S.

It's not without precedent. Consider that Just last week, the U.K. government changed its copyright laws to give designers of manufactured goods the same long-term protection that artists and writers have received for their original work in that nation. This was less than two months after Michelle Ogundehin, the editor-in-chief of interior design magazine ELLE Decoration U.K. launched a petition to increase copyright protection for design, extending it to 70 years after the death of the author or authors--equal to art and literature--and up from 25, the former duration for designers. Star designers such as Sir Terence Conran, who was vocal in the ELLE Decoration U.K. campaign, have spoken out praising the updated law.

"By protecting new designs more generously, we are encouraging more investment of time and talent in British design. That will lead to more manufacturing in Britain, and that in turn will lead to more jobs – which we desperately need right now," Conran was quoted in a statement from the U.K. Design Council. "Properly protected design can help make the U.K. a profitable workshop again."

Of course, it's hard to make direct cause-and-effect correlations between public statements by design experts and magazine editors and how governments and consumers value design. But to designers, the debate against knock-offs is clearly one worth making--especially in terms of contextualizing the high prices of original design as, essentially, micro-investments in R&D and even in national economies.

Images: So Sylvie/Flickr; super-structure/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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