Fritz Hansen on Knockoffs and Authentic Design
In recent years, the Danish furniture company Fritz Hansen has taken aggressive measures to protect their products against knockoffs and counterfeits across the globe. They have rounded up and destroyed numerous counterfeit Series 7 chairs (labeled incorrectly and illegally as Fritz Hansen products), identifying the pieces as fakes by their shoddy quality and lack of official identification (since 2006, all authentic Fritz Hansen products have a unique serial number and a tag with an invisible thread in it to validate its authenticity). They’ve also campaigned on the internet, releasing viral videos that show company employees stomping on fake Series 7 chairs (spoiler alert, they break) and then stomping on a real one (which bouncily absorbs the employee’s weight). Though their classic designs are thoroughly protected in Europe under Registered Community Design laws, they are not safeguarded in the U.S., where intellectual property protections are weaker and expire more quickly. Some, of course, see this as a good thing, as they return classic designs to the public realm for free and unrestrained reinterpretation by a new generation of designers—but that also opens things up to copycats.
Flip through a Restoration Hardware catalog, for example, and you’ll discover the $1,395 Copenhagen chair, a replica of Arne Jacobsen’s 1958 Egg chair, described as “a fresh and exquisite reproduction of modern Danish design of the 1950s.” Of course Fritz Hansen, who holds the exclusive official license to manufacture the “authentic” $4,500 chair, sees it differently. “It’s not a tribute to the original design; it’s spitting on it,” says David Obel Rosenkvist, Fritz Hansen’s vice president of sales. “For sure it would make Jacobsen roll in his grave.” Though it’s technically legal for Restoration Hardware to make a close copy of this chair, Fritz Hansen nevertheless issued a cease-and-desist letter to the company, demanding they stop using Arne Jacobsen’s design story to promote what Rosenkvist calls its “rough and clumsy knockoff.”
To gain more perspective on Fritz Hansen’s take on knockoffs and authentic design, we asked Rosenkvist a few questions—such as: Are knockoffs really so bad? Judging by this interview and previous ones I’ve conducted (see what Herman Miller’s Marg Mojzak has to say on the subject here; read quotes about the concept of “authentic design” from 10 design insiders here; and check out the essay that kicked off the discussion here) it’s clear that most manufacturers see this as a very black and white issue. As well they might, considering everything they’ve invested in the pieces they produce and promote. No one likes a cheat, especially the companies that suffer losses both concrete (financial) and abstract (damage to their reputation for quality) when consumers opt for a knockoff.
What is Fritz Hansen's most frequently knocked-off design?
The most copied furniture from our collection is the Egg, Swan, and Series 7 designed by Arne Jacobsen in the 1950's and the PK22 designed by Poul Kjærholm in 1956. The PK20, PK24, and PK61 designed by Poul Kjærholm are also becoming increasingly copied. Particularly in the USA we have experienced some aggressive activity by companies copying our products and are investigating these companies and will take legal action wherever possible.
How do knockoffs affect the design industry, from your company’s perspective?
Knockoffs cheapen the entire design industry and the craftsmanship involved in true design. By creating cheaper, inferior versions and using poor materials to produce replicas of original design, it sends the wrong message and takes away from the design product. Design requires quality materials, craftsmanship by experts as well experienced design techniques. Copies are not only an infringement upon Fritz Hansen's design rights, but it's an exploitation of the original design history and heritage that has been built up over the last century.
How do you protect your designs, both new pieces and old? What are the biggest challenges around preventing knockoffs of Fritz Hansen products, generally speaking?
We go to great lengths to protect our design products. We trademark the names of our products and our design rights are protected in parts of Europe. Unfortunately, we don’t have the same protection in the United States. Fritz Hansen invests a lot of time and resources in protecting their design rights by actively investigating counterfeit operations and taking legal action wherever possible to halt production and destroy any counterfeit products.
Although there is no comparison between the finishing standard of an original piece and that of a copy, Fritz Hansen has introduced a number of initiatives to help customers identify a counterfeit product. For example, all products produced since 2006 by Fritz Hansen bear a “Republic of Fritz Hansen™” tag as a sign of authenticity. The tag also includes an invisible thread which helps Fritz Hansen identify counterfeit products. All products manufactured by Fritz Hansen also include a serial number which enables customers to check online whether the product is a genuine Republic of Fritz Hansen product.
Can you give me some examples of how Fritz Hansen invests in original, authentic design?
Fritz Hansen has always been invested in original design. Every piece of furniture we produce is original and authentic, designed by an architect and designer—this is a part of our company’s culture and DNA, it’s our value system. Every year we launch a new piece of furniture. Last year at Salone del Mobile in Milan, we launched the Favn sofa by Jaime Hayon. Hayon, a Spanish designer and artist, was inspired by the Danish classics like the Egg and Swan chairs (originally designed for the SAS Royal Hotel in the 50s by Arne Jacobsen with Fritz Hansen). Favn uses the same manufacturing techniques and materials as the Egg and Swan chairs, and everything is made in Europe.
Fritz Hansen has collaborated with some of the world’s most talented and renowned architects and designers of our time. This tradition continues to this day through collaborations with international design stars such as Kasper Salto, Cecilie Manz, Jaime Hayon, and Todd Bracher.
Can you think of any instances or situations where you'd say knockoffs are not entirely evil? Any cases where they actually help the design industry? For example, I've heard people say they spur innovation, by provoking designers to keep creating new and exciting designs and moving things forward. And that since people who buy knockoffs often can't afford the "real thing," a knockoff isn't actually stealing a customer, since it's a different market. And that knockoffs create more demand for the real thing, and make it even more iconic, since more and more people are exposed to these examples of "great design"—like it cultivates their taste and when they have more money they're be more likely to splurge on the real thing. Any thoughts on any of these points, or anything to add?
Knock-offs harm the design industry. They do not add to the demand or contribute to the authenticity of the original. The design process starts with an original idea and is then executed through precision manufacturing techniques and quality materials. Knockoffs take away from this process by trying to look like design and in reality, don’t offer the same qualities—such as sustainability, environmentally friendly materials, longevity, quality, integrity, craftsmanship, or history. Knockoffs discredit and devalue authentic design with their association with inferior quality. It damages the design brand and product. The best designs in the world deserve to have the reputation they have. That is how these products became classics in the first place—because they are made so well.
We do not accept any company or individual that infringes our rights. Copies are an exploitation of the original design history and heritage which has been built up by Fritz Hansen over the last century.
I've also heard people justify purchasing knockoffs with lines like "the designer is long dead anyway, so I don't feel guilty about depriving a huge business from my hard-earned money—it's not like the designer is benefiting from my purchase anyway." Any response to that idea?
Of course the role of a deceased designer is integral to these designs; however, the role of the manufacturer cannot be overlooked in establishing these projects as design classics through their investment in product development and craftsmanship. The original design and its designer should always be respected. When buying an original Fritz Hansen design, you not only buy world class craftsmanship that will last for decades, you also buy a historical and sculptural piece that should be seen as a financial investment. Original design often only increases in value over time.