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The Journal Gazette

Monday, April 17, 2017 1:00 am

Furniture fakes don't sit well with purists

Noah Charney | Washington Post

Original or not?

What to look for in buying reproductions:

• Original furniture should come from licensed dealers, and there are us ually only one or two licensed dealers per country.

• Original dealers pay for licensing and are proud of their status, meaning they will make it clear that they are licensed to sell originals. If there is any doubt, it's unlikely that you're dealing with the right company.

• Originals should have a label or logo from the licensed dealer. Although there are lots of reproductions out there, few proactively try to trick consumers into thinking that they are buying from the licensed dealer.

• The price is the biggest indication. Reproductions tend to cost far less than originals – half to one-tenth of the price. If the cost is too good to be true, then that means it's too good to be true.

• Reproductions cut costs by using cheaper materials (plastic vs. fiberglass, engineered wood vs. solid). Always ask about materials and compare the feel to originals.

• If you are buying reproductions where it is legal to do so (such as in the United States), visit a licensed dealer to carefully examine originals so you have a point of comparison.

• Quality furniture is made of as few pieces as possible. Bad reproductions are less comfortable, and the feel is more rigid.

• Hardware such as bolts and screws should be metal, not plastic.

• Never buy a reproduction without seeing it in person. A common trick is to use photographs of the original to sell a reproduction on a website. But when you order it, what you receive only vaguely matches the photo of what you thought you were getting.

The confusion began when I inherited my father's original Eames lounge chair, the sort that has cushioned psychiatrists such as him for decades. He'd bought it with his first big paycheck back in the 1960s, when Charles and Ray Eames, arguably the most famous of American industrial designers, were at their peak – and still living.

Renovating a house this year, and wishing to furnish it with a similar mid-century modern aesthetic, I wanted to buy more items by the Eameses and others I admire, the aesthetic all-stars whose creations are ubiquitous, although you might not know them by name if you are neither an architect nor a design geek: the likes of Isamu Noguchi, Vernon Panton, Hans Coray and Jean Prouvé.

But a quick Internet search left me stumped.

Take the iconic Eames DSW chair, also known as the Eiffel chair. The Swiss Vitra firm has long held the license to distribute original Eames chairs in Europe, paying the Eames estate and the original producer of the chair, U.S. firm Herman Miller, for the privilege. These chairs are as the designers intended, aesthetically and materially. But they also cost more than $436 each.

I found scores of chairs on various online stores, all labeled and looking identical, but with prices ranging from $44 to $436. Some websites indicated that they sold reproductions, but others did not.

“People who wouldn't even think of buying a fake handbag, watch or sunglasses lower their standards dramatically when it comes to furniture,” said Ula Vehovar Kenda, owner of Kubus, an official Vitra retailer in Ljubljana, Slovenia. “Authorities who very efficiently intercept shipments of counterfeit cigarettes or sports goods see no problem in containers of replicas arriving from the Far East.”

Laws flouted

I began to explore reproductions and found many similar to the original in aesthetic and, according to reviews, quality. This puzzled me, because I live in Europe, where the European Union has ostensibly strict laws protecting 3-D design, such as furniture, from unlicensed reproduction.

The proliferation of copies openly advertised online suggests that the rules are confusing, rife with loopholes and inconsistently enforced.

As Ljubljana-based lawyer Metod Zagar said, “Enforcing the rights holder of the design largely resembles tilting at windmills.”

Most of the sites advertising reproductions were in the United Kingdom. There are some that were different from the original: The legs were stouter, the bolts were a different color, the impression of the legs, like two dimples, was visible in the base of the seat. Others appeared identical, even when looking at details.

My research also turned up some interesting wrinkles. The Guardian published an article about a company called Voga, which sells quality yet inexpensive reproductions. About a year ago, the company closed down in England and moved to Ireland. You can still order from its site, voga.com, but it requires buyers to arrange shipping from a warehouse in Ireland. The Guardian said this was a way to circumvent strict E.U. design protection laws that the United Kingdom is enforcing.

This issue is hardly unique to the United Kingdom, but there have been some high-profile kerfuffles related to it of late. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron's wife, Samantha, bought a reproduction of Achille Castiglioni's Arco lamp for $312 (originals cost $1,875), prompting the editor of Elle Decoration magazine to call her “cheap, hypocritical and fake” for her support of the faux furniture industry.

But is this so wrong, if a reproduction is labeled as such? In the world of fine art, there is no objection, legal or moral, to one artist producing work that copies another, as long as there is no attempt at fraud: Copies, labeled as such and made by hand, are considered acts of homage rather than theft.

In the world of luxury goods, such as Louis Vuitton handbags, the shape of the bag is not what is copyrighted, but the logos are – a Louis Vuitton-shaped handbag without any of the brand identifiers would be legal to produce.

But industrial design, particularly pieces such as the Eames chair, are iconic based on their overall shape and material.

Different in US

In the U.S., the laws appear simpler, but there is much room for interpretation, which can lead to confusion. Although trademarks, logos and patents are protected, University of Oxford law professor Graeme B. Dinwoodie wrote in IPRinfo magazine, “the United States doesn't have utility model laws, and it does not grant protection against slavish imitation; in the United States, that's called free competition.”

As Amsterdam-based lawyer Edgar Tijhuis wrote in the online literary magazine Versopolis, “This means that firms can indeed approximate the designs of others, though without reproducing trademarked logos and, of course, without trying to pass them off as something they are not.”

Design patents can be registered, but Dinwoodie says they have proved to be “very unreliable.”

That is why the Samsung-Apple lawsuit is particularly interesting. In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reopened the long-standing patent lawsuit that accused Samsung of copying the design of the iPhone, including the shape of the phone and its screen. The outcome of this suit could set a precedent for future design-related laws, although it remains to be seen whether U.S. laws will shift.

Bringing the U.K. law in line with the rest of Europe was partly because of Brexit and partly because of the heavy lobbying of Vitra, which claimed to be losing more than a quarter-billion dollars per year to U.K.-based copies of designs for which they hold exclusive license.

The market for these mid-century modern objects is enormous. Experts say that the reproduction black market will continue to grow; otherwise products such as these would be available only to the wealthy. This is ironic, because the Eameses' goal was to make great design available to the masses.