Interview with Gregg Buchbinder and Adrian Parra
Whenever particular properties or a particular shape function well, they are copied. The problem in design is: originals want to maintain their ascendancy, while copies want to be taken for originals. The value and the quality, which the originals vouchsafe are things which the imitations often cannot supply. Thus, intellectual property enjoys copyright protection and is defended by designers who can afford such design developments and their defence. We look at this phenomenon in detail in form 281. We talked to Gregg Buchbinder, CEO of Emeco, and Adrian Parra, Head of Marketing at Vitra US about copyright and replica.
What can designers do to avoid their work being copied?
Gregg Buchbinder: We register the design of every US- and Europe-made chair in order to protect our intellectual property. If someone produces or sells an imitation, we first inform them that they are infringing our intellectual property. An honest firm will then remove the knock-off from their catalogue. The real villains, the counterfeiters, generally ignore or reject our claims and continue selling knock-offs. If we are forced to take legal action, they will have to pay damages. The counterfeit chairs are then seized, recycled, and turned into genuine items. We have never once lost in court.
Adrian Parra: In some societies, everything belongs to the collective rather than to an individual, even intellectual property. That’s not how our global market economy works though. Authenticity and its promotion is highly prized. All designers should be familiar with the basics of patents and registered designs, of trademarks and copyright, and know what kind of protection each one offers. By investing in advance in appropriate legal protection, you can protect yourself against counterfeiting.
Can you give an example of a culture that champions intellectual property as belonging to everyone?
Adrian Parra: China is an obvious example of a society in which great emphasis is placed on collective ownership of property. It’s very easy to understand why, as a furniture manufacturer, you’d point the finger at exporters’ counterfeit goods and insist that the rights of intellectual property owners be respected. The reality, however, is far more complicated, especially in developing countries and in societies that have yet to feel the benefits of globalisation.
The construct of intellectual property is rooted in the European culture – it’s a Western idea that has spread to become the cornerstone of our global system of trade. In order to take part in the global economy, participants have to agree to abide by its basic principles, of which intellectual property rights is one. There are, though, also designers who share their designs with a wider community.
Adrian Parra: Last August, I saw a great exhibition at the gallery Kurimanzutto in Mexico City, where the architect Oscar Hagerman researched his 1969 Arullo chair, which was itself a reinterpretation of a popular Mexican folk design. Instead of using the scarcity principle, that is limiting supply to create higher demand and higher prices, Hagerman took the development of his designer chair as the starting point for a community project. He taught Mexican communities how to make their own version, thereby supporting local economies and craftsmen. Essentially, he took an open source approach to the chair. Hagerman thus swapped his status as a designer, an author, for anonymity. The exhibition in Mexico City showed various different designs based on the Arullo chair that were all made by Mexican craftsmen.
Why should people always buy the original of a design?
Gregg Buchbinder: The best argument against counterfeits is when the product doesn’t perform as expected and falls apart. You get what you pay for. We guarantee that our genuine 1006 Navy Chair will last a lifetime. The leg of a fake Navy chair is fixed to the seat in such a way that it soon breaks off because counterfeit chairs are not heat-treated. Consumers mistake the counterfeits for genuine Navy chairs and can even end up injuring themselves. That’s very bad for our reputation.
What do you think of designers accusing other designers of copying their work?
Gregg Buchbinder: Frank Gehry’s son Sam spent six months working on the design for his Tuyomyo aluminium lounger, which was then realised by Emeco metalworkers. After seeing the finished piece for the first time, Frank came across a photo in an auction house book that looked very similar to our product. “There aren’t any new ideas,” he said, but he still insisted on going back to the drawing board. He didn’t want people thinking he copied from other designers. One of the reasons we apply for patents for all our projects is that, in the process, we thoroughly investigate whether our design is original. The Tuyomyo project was a one-off developed to raise money for the Hereditary Disease Foundation. It didn’t go into production and so a design patent wasn’t deemed necessary. In retrospect, it would have been smart to do some market research before starting the design process.
Adrian Parra: Inspiration comes from all over. The soft knock-off phenomenon, though, is a slippery slope, particularly in the age of social media and widespread access to information. I love that we have this discussion because you soon see those who have a deep passion for design – and also those who understand the mechanics. But you also soon recognise who is just jumping on a commercial bandwagon to earn a quick buck.
Why do those who copy designs, deliberately sell knock-offs to consumers or buy knock-offs themselves often not feel they are doing anything morally wrong?
Gregg Buchbinder: They are being deceived. Most consumers can’t tell the copy and the original apart. They go online and see a chair that appeals to them and, if it’s a knock-off, doesn’t cost much. So they are simply buying something they like the look of. When they complain to us about its quality and thus discover they’ve bought an imitation, many customers buy genuine chairs and get rid of the knock-offs.
Do designs that look similar sell better than those that look different?
Gregg Buchbinder: It’s true that customers won’t buy a design that’s too different.The Superlight chair we made with Frank Gehry, an ironic take on Gio Ponti’s Superleggera, isn’t selling very well. If a design firm always worked like that, it could put the health of the company at risk. But if you get the chance to work with someone like Frank Gehry, who is one of the most remarkable people on the planet, then that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Fashion designers often play around with imitation – Marc Jacobs is currently imitating his own work, while Miuccia Prada openly admits that she copies vintage Balenciaga styles. Why is this approach not favoured by product designers?
Gregg Buchbinder: Knowing Miuccia Prada myself, I’d say she draws inspiration from vintage designs. Obviously, product designers are also influenced by designs others have created over the years. With real designers, though, you can see their own work in the development of a new design. And the new design won’t be an exact copy of a vintage product.
Adrian Parra: I find it reassuring to know that the “furniture evolutionary tree” is taken seriously, with academics and design historians making it their life’s work. New branches are constantly being formed and it’s exciting to see a pioneering designer start exploring a new branch. It helps a designer to make the case for their design and against the imitation of another if their work has historical and contemporary relevance. I think people’s visual intuition has evolved – despite social media and Instagram. Manufacturers and designers in today’s global economy have a responsibility to speak out if they see their designs reproduced as cheap throwaway fashion items.
What do you mean by “furniture evolutionary tree”?
Adrian Parra: I like talking about design history, so I came up with this idea of an evolutionary tree for furniture. Furniture design doesn’t exist in a vacuum, with no context. It is underpinned by what has gone before, be it technological or material innovations, culture, fashion or changing tastes, not to mention market successes and failures. One of my favourite examples is the Monobloc, a white plastic garden chair that is not only stackable but also weighs up to 114 kilos and costs just twelve euros. In the evolutionary analogy, it’s the equivalent of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Sometimes, you get these magic moments in which furniture design’s genuine pioneers, people who define whole new furniture types, are precisely in tune with the market – a desk at which you can work standing up, for example, I would categorise as a branch of desk design. From that point on, this new category develops of its own accord because others recognise the market demand and launch their own versions in order to compete with the category’s pioneers. In many ways, the market is the driving force behind the development of furniture design.