A lamp is rarely a source of great contention. However, when Samantha Cameron, the prime minister’s wife, recently chose to buy a replica of the famous marble-based Arco design by brothers Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni rather than a far more expensive original, the interiors world was divided.
On the one side were those happy to accommodate legal copies of this sort on the grounds that it makes designer furniture available to more people. On the other, were those championing authentic design and the protection of its creators. The authenticity debate has raised questions about the choices people make when choosing furniture for their homes, in terms of cost, quality and production methods. But it has also raised wider questions about the adequacy of the rules protecting designs in the UK and whether these rules operate to stimulate creativity or to stifle it.
In the UK, design is offered far less protection than other art forms. A designer can prevent people copying his or her work for up to 25 years if the designs are registered but only three to 10 years if they are not. However, the work of an artist or writer is protected for the lifetime of the creator plus an additional 70 years. This increased level of protection is available in many other European countries, although the US and China also offer a relatively low level of protection (especially if designs are unregistered).
As a result of the relatively short period of protection in the UK, copies of classic furniture are widespread. It is possible to buy a legal reproduction of a Jacobsen Egg chair or an Eames lounger for a fraction of what the authentic pieces cost. This has caused considerable unrest among some manufacturers, which produce “authentic” pieces and pay royalties for the privilege.
Cassina, an Italian furniture manufacturer, has built its brand upon authenticity. The company is licensed to produce furniture by the likes of Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Philippe Starck. In many cases, Cassina has manufactured the furniture designs since they were first brought to the market. The designers (or their heirs) are paid a royalty and every piece is made in collaboration with the original creator or the family if he or she is no longer alive.
This arrangement is, according to Gianluca Armento, brand director of Cassina, a fundamental aspect of what the company stands for. “Collaboration is part and parcel of everything we do,” he says. “Our collaborators enrich us and also ensure we are on the right track.” Armento is unimpressed by companies that reproduce classic pieces without such arrangements in place and without being true to the original design. It is not just a question of quality and workmanship, he says, but also a matter of protecting the designer’s intentions. Any changes Cassina makes are cleared with the original designers or their families. The company works to protect the archives of the designer by reproducing entire collections rather than individual pieces that are likely to sell well. “There is an investment in making things properly,” says Armento. “I don’t think it is right that there are other companies that just take advantage of the work of the creator and the progress one company has made.”
Currently, however, there is nothing that companies such as Cassina can do to prevent copies in the UK, once the period of protection for a particular design has expired.
At the other end of the spectrum is Iconic Interiors, an online company that sells replicas of the designs by Charles and Ray Eames, Arne Jacobsen and Le Corbusier, among others. Each piece is labelled as “inspired by” its original creator and the prices come in at hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds below the cost of “authentic” pieces.
Mark Holdsworth, founder of Iconic Interiors, says there are parallels between the design and fashion industries in terms of how design trickles down from luxury products to the mass market, and the benefits of this. “If you didn’t have any reproductions in the fashion world, you could kiss goodbye to many high street shops. Really, the same applies to the furniture world but specifically with iconic furniture.”
Holdsworth says that, rather than undermining creativity, the imitations sold by Iconic Interiors are building a wider awareness of interior design. “I imagine a designer really wants to have a big impact on the world,” he says. “They want to be rewarded financially but they want to be rewarded emotionally as well. If you didn’t have reproductions, who would be exposed to the designs?”
Holdsworth says that his customers are fully aware of the fact that they are buying a reproduction piece. Although the pieces are not cheap, the price gap is considerable: “They can’t justify a £3,000 Barcelona chair [designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, now licensed to Knoll – his “inspired by” Barcelona chair costs from £692]. If we sell them a Barcelona chair, it doesn’t mean Knoll has lost a sale because that customer would never have bought a chair from Knoll.”
According to Jacob Holm, president of Fritz Hansen, a company that produces authentic pieces by some of the greatest Scandinavian designers, including Hans Wegner and Arne Jacobsen, it is not simply a question of money. He says that original design – expensive or not – should be protected: “You can find many other designs which are original designs that obviously are of less cost than the chairs at Fritz Hansen.”
What is important, according to Holm, is recognising and supporting creativity: “From my perspective, if you are an interested person who has a certain affection for design, why would you choose to buy a copy instead of buying an original. In my mind, the thing that you cherish about design is that you know that someone actually had an original thought.”
Dids Macdonald is the chief executive of Anti Copying in Design (Acid), an organisation that raises awareness of design copying and lobbies to improve designers’ rights. She works with many small businesses that often suffer from the limited ways in which they can prevent their designs being copied or the limited funds they have to challenge imitations. Macdonald says the design industry contributes an estimated £33bn or 2.4 per cent of the UK’s gross domestic product and that design protection is very much on the government’s radar. A recent government report, the Hargreaves review, is investigating how intellectual property law can support growth and innovation.
While acknowledging that designers are often influenced by their predecessors, Macdonald does not feel that enhanced design protection in the UK would restrict legitimate creative endeavour. “We all live on the inspiration of others, otherwise the world wouldn’t carry on,” she says. “But there is a difference between being ‘inspired by’ and slavishly copying and free-riding on the reputation of others that have gone before.”
Armento agrees that the debate is not just about the great furniture designs of the 1930s and 1940s but also about protecting creativity in the future. “We are talking about creativity in general. Creativity is such a fundamental part of progress today, and the human need to advance. And it is perfectly right that creativity should be protected.”