Here’s How Knockoff Furniture Is Hurting the Design Industry

The Internet has given us many great things. For better or for worse, it’s also given us some not-so-great ones. One prime example is the appallingly pervasive practice of stealing designs. In the promo-code frenetic, comparatively-priced world of e-commerce, counterfeiting is the biggest dirty little secret. It’s evident everywhere from the independent Etsy crafters who frequently spot suspiciously similar versions of their work at fast fashion retailers—without the compensation—to the hundreds of home decor sites selling knockoff Eames, Kartell, and Le Corbusier models at IKEA prices. With the near-infinite array of options—not to mention the anonymous nature of online shopping—it can be tempting to go for a price-slashed version that’s barely distinguishable from the real deal. But this constant poaching of designs has real consequences. Just ask Jerry Helling. As the president and creative director of Bernhardt Design, Helling knows the dark side of the counterfeit furniture market all too well–his company’s designs are frequent victims of cheap knockoffs. In 2012, Helling, along with several other industry executives, founded Be Original Americas, a not-for-profit aimed at educating the design community on the pitfalls of counterfeiting; Helling served as its first president. AD spoke to Helling about the problems with knockoffs, why they’re often more troubling than we realize, and what—if anything—the design community can do to stop them.
AD: How did you first get involved with this cause? Why do you find it important?

Jerry Helling: This counterfeiting topic is out of control. When all these companies came together to try to do something about it, I immediately said I was on board. As individual companies, we don’t really have the resources to go through all the lawsuits, so we thought the only way to do anything was to come together collectively and spread the message. Herman Miller and Emeco, some of these companies have gone the lawsuit route, but most of us don’t have the wherewithal to do it. So it began as a messaging platform; we wanted to put out the message of the impact that states have. From my perspective, we’ve done that well.

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AD: Can you elaborate on the exact impacts counterfeiting has on the design world?

JH: One is the integrity of design: if copies are acceptable, then the companies that really invest in design can’t afford to do it. This is especially true in furniture, which is a huge investment compared to, say, fashion. The designers then can’t make a living. So it really means that the entire design ecosystem starts coming unraveled. Because if the companies who are really committed to design can’t afford to do it, there will be no original designs to copy anymore! So that was the first and strongest element, and the most visible.

AD: What might people not realize about the counterfeit industry?
JH: So much of any conversation you read, it’s about the Eames chair, Corbusier pieces, product that’s been out there a long time and has become iconic. But the truth of the matter is, and the part that I was most interested in, is that it’s not just about iconic product. It’s about newer product, product that’s very usable, that might not be iconic, but that a great deal of investment has been put into. It’s not just about protecting the Eames; it could be designs we did a month ago. So it’s about covering all design. It’s protecting the creators and the producers.
You also get into environmental issues. We go through incredible environmental testing and standards at Bernhardt Design. LEED, Level, FSC—the whole chain of control for all the material that goes into our products. The knockoff people, they don’t do that at all. So there’s a certain cost associated with doing all the work up front and having to make sure your whole supply chain is adhering to those standards—and yes, it makes your product more expensive, but it accomplishes what we all say we want to environmentally.

The next issue that usually isn’t talked about is the safety of a knockoff. The legitimate manufacturer is going through an incredible series of strength tests, revising over and over, where the knockoff company just copies from a photo. They have no idea what’s on the inside and what had to be done to make it work. A few years back, we’d sent a sample of our Corvo chair to a certain unnamed company you likely frequent, waited for them to put in the order, and then they went silent. We just figured they’d gone with a different option. About a year later, we got a call saying, “you need to fix our chairs, they’re all breaking.” They had taken our specs and given them to somebody to knock off, and it broke.
AD: How has the counterfeit world changed due to ecommerce?
JH: Anybody around the globe has access now to buy a chair and copy it or, what they usually do, is use drawings. Before, they had to lay their hands on the piece or go off of a photograph, which is much harder. So that’s had a major impact.

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AD: What do you actively do to stop counterfeit?
JH: We can do very little. We’re a smaller company and we can’t take something to litigation. So our route has been to educate the design community. Because often, especially in hospitality projects, they might not know, or they might turn a blind eye to stay on budget. We try to remind people about say, the potential for lawsuits if these start breaking, about the child labor that might be used.

The truth is, though, as a consumer culture, we’ve done counterfeits so much—from purses on Canal Street to fast fashion imitations—it’s so normalized. And if you’re going to buy a knockoff purse on Canal Street, you’re going to buy a knockoff chair. So it’s the designers and the companies behind this that have to be targeted. You can’t target the millions of consumers.
AD: What do you say to those who point to designers like the Eames who wanted their designs to be accessible—and whose chairs now sell for thousands of dollars?
JH: That is a bigger question than I can answer: How long should these products be protected? However, the flip side of that, which I’m shocked by, is, after the Milan Furniture Fair, you go to a factory in Asia, and you see 100 of the best new product launches all knocked off. You can make an argument about patent protection on older pieces, but I think it’s harder with the immediate stuff. I mean, Kartell has been knocked off at every turn—they continue to be—and that’s new investment!

AD: What can customers do?
JH: I don’t know the answer to the mass market. The problem is that it’s become so pervasive. When Homeland Security started working with us on seizing furniture, they were like, where do we even begin? They often didn’t even know they were knockoffs. So that’s why we have to go after the people who are doing it, not the consumer. If we can target them, and we can enlighten designers, that’s the best way.

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