The topic has generated significant online discussion in the Dwell community this month, beginning with Gillin's original essay, "The Real Cost of Rip-Offs," published in the June 2012 issue and, subsequently, 10 Design Insiders Sound Off on Knockoffs and Fritz Hansen on Knockoffs and Authentic Design, published online. This weekend's panel was no less compelling as Gillin pushed to complicate arguments around licensing, ethics, quality, accessibility, and cost.
The panel opened with introductions that included two "mystery guests": A pair of chairs draped in black sheets, which Demetrios revealed to be an authentic Eames chair and a knockoff. When viewed side by side, the differences were glaring. The knockoff was built from inferior materials, and the shape had been subtly modified from the original. While Herman Miller follows detailed design specifications when producing an Eames chair, copycat manufacturers most typically do not. The knockoff debate, on its surface, can appear to center on licensing, or branding, but both Demetrios and Buchbinder emphasized a sobering concern for both makers and consumers of genuine design: That poor quality hurts everyone in the long run.
Knockoff manufacturers typically do not consider sustainability in any context, whether the environment ("Copy our philosophy, too. Stop using natural resources," said Buchbinder), or the impact of such practices long-term on designers and artisans.
"Technology is always changing," said Buchbinder, referencing gadgets and cell phones as examples of things that can become obsolete relatively quickly. "But furniture has been made in much the same way for centuries." The lack of respect for, or focus on, the manufacturing process by knockoff producers is a serious ethical challenge, echoed Demetrios.
"Today there are fewer people in manufacturing, creating products with their hands. We have lost touch with the physicality of making stuff," he said. "It is difficult to have a conversation about authentic design when kids click a button to switch from aluminum to wood. They don't understand there are consequences to making such a decision. If they made it with their hands, they would know."
Buchbinder shared that EMECO's frequently copied Navy Chair is the result of an elaborate, 77-step manufacturing process. In order to create a less expensive version, or knockoff, a number of those steps are skipped. He said the end result is a chair that might look somewhat the same, at least for a short time, but can't begin to approach an authentic piece in quality. The further problem for a designer is that the majority of people cannot initially tell the difference - until a piece breaks. If an airport lounge is full of knockoff Navy chairs, for example, and they're breaking, people will simply assume it's an EMECO and that's bad for us and designers, Buchbinder said.
But for all the talk of ethics and quality, such arguments are generally lost on a price-driven marketplace. In recent decades, as mass production technologies have improved and globalization has permanently altered economies, American consumers have been increasingly primed for cheaply produced, disposable consumption that extends beyond fast fashion and fast food to things people used to consider investment purchases one would save up for - things like furniture.
Buchbinder said that in today's disposable culture of IKEA and instant gratification, where "out of the average [number of] products made today, only 1% of them last more than 6 months...EMECO stands for the total opposite. The Navy Chair is made from 80% recycled materials and is guaranteed for life."
Still, Buchbinder acknowledged the importance of the price factor and said companies should be sensitive to this reality. "We've designed an affordable chair for those that can't afford the Navy Chair. It is one-half the price and made of recycled Coca-Cola bottles."
Demetrios took a very sympathetic view. "People today often have less disposable income and there's a pressure to buy cheap. It's important to always offer something affordable to the consumer."
Echoing a sentiment she expressed in her essay, Gillin suggested consumers seeking good design look outside the popular players of modern design, and opt to support new works by young designers just starting out. For those desiring iconic pieces - that Eames chaise or a fleet of Bertoias, for instance - vintage and online shopping are increasingly viable options.
On the issue of price, perhaps the most important takeaway is that how we define value must be reevaluated - or, put another way, returned to its original defintion, one based upon buying a piece to last a lifetime, to hand down, to endure. For Demetrios, the consumer's role in establishing the right concept of value is as vital as that of the designer and manufacturer. By investing in authentic pieces, the consumer supports design for the next generation.
"The consumer needs to add value to a chair or it will stop being made," said Demetrios.
- with additional reporting by Kim Derby
Main image credit: geraintandkim via Flickr