One of the more provocative panel discussions at Dwell on Design 2013, "Can You Spot the Fake? How Knockoffs Affect the Design Industry" raised many important questions—thanks to panelists Gregg Buchbinder, Emeco chairman (and Be Original member); Made in America blogger John Briggs; and textile designer, color consultant, and trend forecaster Laura Guido-Clark. The 25-minute discussion flew by, touching on everything from a Burger King in Las Vegas to America's $300 billion trade deficit with China. Here's a look at some of the highlight of the talk.
Pictured here are Dwell on Design 2013 "Can You Spot the Fake?" panelists (left to right) Emeco chairman and Be Original member Gregg Buchbinder; textile designer, color consultant, and trend forecaster Laura Guido-Clark; and Made in America blogger John Briggs. At first Buchbinder was hesitant to bring, as requested, an original Emeco Navy Chair and a knockoff version. After all, as he pointed out, the real differences between the two chairs are not always visible to the naked eye. The whole point of knockoffs is to create a product that visually resembles an original, authentic design. So to really understand the difference between the two chairs, one has to look much deeper—into the design and manufacturing process, environmental protection, worker rights, and even to the broader American economy.
Pictured here is an authentic Emeco Navy Chair (on the right) and a "Naval Chair" from Restoration Hardware. "They not only copied our chair but they stole our identity," said Buchbinder—referring to the company's allusions, in their catalog copy, to the long history of the 1940's-era aluminum chair. Emeco sued Restoration Hardware—and won a settlement earlier this year. As part of that settlement, Restoration Hardware had to stop producing the knockoff, and recycle those that were already produced. Emeco snagged one of them, and brought it onstage for the Dwell on Design talk. The chair on the right, Emeco's original, is handmade by 54 craftspeople in Hanover, Pennsylvania, through a 77-step process that includes a heat treatment which arranges the molecules to T6 in hardness and a thick anodized finish (the reason the Navy Chair comes with a lifetime guarantee). The company works with top designers and uses recycled waste to make a high-quality, sustainable product that's built to last. The chair on the left is produced overseas, and its quality isn't guaranteed.
Buchbinder said knockoffs of the Navy Chair often fall apart within a few years. To illustrate this, he showed a photo of Navy Chair knockoffs used in a Burger King in the Las Vegas airport—the seat corners were corroded and the chair looked like it was about to collapse. This is terrible for a company's reputation for quality, and causes confusion in the marketplace. Another hidden cost of knockoffs: "When Emeco spends their money on legal fights against counterfeiters like Restoration Hardware, we are not able to take on new design projects. And if we choose not to fight and the public chooses to buy counterfeits, the design royalties dry up."
Guido-Clark (on the left) experienced this first-hand when a company knocked off a textile design she'd invested nearly a year into developing. The ensuing battle resulted in textile mills in the U.S. now requiring that designers provide evidence that a design is their own. Now Guido-Clark has a more stringent contract that states that companies she works for cannot produce any "sister products," nor produce any of her designs without paying her a royalty. She also made the case that the "passion and energy in real design is palpable." Briggs broadened the discussion, offering some compelling statistics about manufacturing in the U.S. According to him, there were 20 million Americans working in manufacturing in 1979. It's now down to 11 million. And we have a $300 billion trade deficit with China. He doesn't chalk this up to foreign-made knockoffs, of course, but they do figure into the equation. "We vote with our dollars every day," said Briggs. "It's an environmental disaster over there [in China]. The first thing I look at [when I'm buying something] is the label."
Another benefit to buying American, as Buchbinder pointed out, is that you know companies are complying with environmental laws and workers' rights. And if something goes wrong with the product you purchase, there is accountability. If you have a problem with an Emeco chair, you can call the company. If something goes wrong with a knockoff (Briggs offered the slightly alarmist scenario of someone burning themselves on the solvent a knockoff maker used to wash another toxic chemical off their chair), good luck tracking down that manufacturer. "As a consumer, you have to make responsible choices," he said.