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10 Design Insiders Sound Off on Knockoffs

In researching the much-discussed essay "The Real Cost of Rip-Offs" for Dwell's June 2012 issue (on newsstands now), many design luminaries shared their perspectives on the subject of knockoffs and authentic design.

Today and in coming weeks, Dwell will share some of these engaging exchanges with design insiders. These are some of the most provocative quotes from those interviewed, which, due to space constraints, were not all included in the original essay. From the evils of Zara to America's disposable culture to the real value of a $1,000 chair, here are ten designers, manufacturers, and design observers sounding off on knockoffs and authentic design.

Although the topic is a gray area for many consumers—some of whom see knockoffs as an acceptable substitute for designs they can't afford in their original, more expensive, and usually higher-quality form—for designers and manufacturers, the subject is typically far more black and white. In their eyes, knockoffs are simply and indisputably bad for the industry, for consumers, and for the future of design.

vintage white restored Bertoia chair
Faux Bertoia dining chairs for $150.

Antoine Roset, Ligne Roset:

"Sometimes people ask 'why is [authentic design] so expensive?' Our products are more expensive because we respect the work of others, we respect the guys working for us, the craftsmen, the designers, and we pay them so they can have a good life. When you’re high-end, you pick the best—in terms of quality, the know-how of craftsmen. We're more expensive because of our quality, and because we respect the designers we work with. We also have to pay to protect the piece and to fight knockoffs. With knockoffs there are no designers, no legal fees...

...There is something behind our products: a designer who did a study for a long time, and this is the only way they can make a living. When people buy a product, we pay a royalty fee to the designer. 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."

Alan Heller, president of Heller:

"Here in the U.S., there’s not a sense of proportion between quality, value, and price; it's all based upon price. So when the consumer is used to this, this [knockoff culture] is what happens. There's this aspect of disposable - you buy it, have it for a year or two, and then you get rid of it. In Europe, they buy a piece of furniture the way you buy a BMW; you're going to keep it for a long, long, long time. We in the U.S. just don’t have that cultural aspect of buying something of quality that will last a long time...

...People rationalizing knockoffs, saying 'it's too expensive' - I don't go along with that at all, I find that such a pathetic rationalization. You can buy things at all price points. Somebody saying 'I don't want to pay the money, I'll buy a knockoff'- why don't you buy something that's original, but at your price point?"

Lindsay Adelman, designer:

"I've seen my work knocked off, and for a minute it stings. But a couple minutes later it doesn't sting anymore. It's emotional, then you get over it because you figure: it means they must like my work. If it's an independent designer 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. I have seen my friends get knocked off, and they all handle it differently. It can get ugly. Some of them go through a down and out time. In the end, if an individual knocking something off, they’re missing out on the fun of arriving at their own ideas."

Evan Lobel, Lobel Modern gallery:

"A knockoff has no intrinsic value, zero. The clearest parallel I can draw is between buying a real Picasso and a photocopy of one. The real keeps on going up in value, while the knockoff was worthless when it was made and will always be worthless."

Morgan Satterfield, blogger and set designer, the Brick House:

"I appreciate design and I would love to be able to have the authentic thing, but it's not always an option. [Buying the occasional knockoff] is how I make do. I know on a level that the real pieces inherently have more value than the fakes, but the fact is, I use both all the time and they function the same way for me."

Benjamin Cherner, the Cherner Chair Company:

"The people who are buying knockoffs are sort of familiar with modern furniture and they go, I wonder if I can get it cheaper. If it's half or a quarter of the price, there's got to be something wrong with it. If a consumer goes down that road they pretty much know what they're getting into. But it's not our consumer. A Cherner chair sells for over $1000 now, but 99% of the people we sell to wouldn't think of a buying a knockoff. It's an investment. They know that if you buy the real thing, with a certificate of authenticity, and the high level of fit and finish, it's valuable and it's never going to lose its value. If Cherner, Herman Miller, or Knoll were to produce their iconic pieces in a way that wasn't absolutely perfect, that would be it for the brand. If for some reason the quality went down that would be the end of the brand. It has to be perfect...

...Our company's products are produced with environmentally sustainable materials and methods. However, the most environmentally important aspect of our production is the craftsmanship and design of our furniture: No Cherner Chair product will ever end up in a landfill."

M.J. Bogatin, lawyer, Intellectual Property and Artists' Moral Rights specialist:

"The fact of the matter is, people are looking to improve upon prior existing technology, and to do it in a way to be more financially successful than other. That's just capitalism. It stimulates innovation, and it also stimulates a lot of rip-offs. People think they're innovating but they're actually just stealing."

Eames Demetrios, Eames Office director:

"People today have grown up in an extremely unusual time, myself included. Many of the most expensive items in our houses have gotten cheaper and better over the years - computers and T.V.s being the most obvious example. This has really distorted our experience of consumer objects in the world. 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. 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. But when it comes to Eames designs, the skilled labor is the same, the tools haven't changed, it still takes effort to make things well."

Jason Miller, Roll & Hill:

"From my standpoint, the frustration is that [knockoffs are] always going to happen—companies like Zara or H&M are so good at doing this that by the time they've already sold everything, that's when you've figured out. We designers really have no recourse; you can attempt to sue them but the amount of money you're going to recover rarely makes it worth it...

...You feel cheated in some way - The first time I was knocked off [by Zara], I was still struggling to make a living as a designer, struggling to pay my rent, so the idea that a large company was selling my product and not paying me was maddening. That sucked. And there's no recourse. That's why places like Zara and H&M can exist. They build this into their model; 95% of the time nothing will happen. Basically they're paying for design after the fact, only when they get caught."

John Edelman, CEO, DWR:

"When you knowingly buy a knockoff, you’re saying: 'I don't care about the future of design'...Every dollar spent on a knockoff is a dollar taken away from fresh design."

Image via: JForth

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