Vintage view: The end of 'knock-off' furniture

Have you been holding off treating yourself to that pretend Charles Eames EA 208 (original €2,371/Vitra) — or a cheery knock-off Louis Poulsen PH Artichoke suspension lamp dealt out in copper shields (original €6,795/ Poulsen)?
Vintage view: The end of 'knock-off' furniture

Well, the sun is setting on your naughty buy. The days of circumventing the often terrifying price of patented original mid-century masterpieces is coming to an end.

Flagrant ‘democratisation’ of industrially manufacturered design by imitators and replicators is about to become illegal in the UK, and well-honed Irish ‘tut-tuts’ and pressure from the EU, will ensure our copyright laws follow suit in the near future.

The end of the era of furniture and a lot of lighting marketed as ‘inspired by’, (insert offended 20th century maker’s name here), has resulted from the repeal of section 52 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 in the UK.

Giving way to an EU directive, aided by lobbying from within the British design community, this brings industrial design into line with the legal respect given to writing, music and photography.

The protection for designs deemed of sufficient ‘artistic craftsmanship’ will be extended from 25 to 70 years after the designer dies. That’s right — 70 years after the creator dies, not 70 years after the piece blossomed off the drawing board.

So, for commercial favourites by say, Arne Jacobsen who died in 1971, that would keep his work under license until 2041, translating to a whopping €771 for a modest, spiny AJ floor lamp c1960, with all its pert credentials intact.

The AJ is marketed as a tasteful homage by Voga in Ireland for €169. A Wegner Wishbone chair (Carl Hansen & Sons, best price Ambiente Direct €575 in beech), a common sight here and wheedled in shape all over the shops, only falls out of patent in 2077 in the UK and the rest of Europe.

CA Design of Dublin currently offer a similar chair in walnut, without license, but completely legal at the moment for €225.

A six-month amnesty allowed UK retailers to dump their wares from July of 2016, brought forward from 2020 largely through the efforts of design house Vitra (sorely burned by the replica business in the UK and the Far East).

On January 28, the jig is up. Pieces made from 1988 will have similar protection with Registered Design Rights and even if the maker fails to register the piece, it is understood to be protected for 15 years from outright imitation.

A further amendment by the Intellectual Property Office has been introduced to copyright certain designs works made prior to June 1, 1957, and these will be protected in law in the UK from the April 1.

Intellectual property law and license-holding might just seem like spoiling the field for ordinary consumers who just love a great and groovy line and couldn’t give a monkey’s if Fritz Hansen’s designs or the profits of the firm’s present day executives, were being compromised.

However, there’s more. With a free-for-all in replication, and faceless makers (shaded by the term ‘our suppliers’ by the vendor) churning out sofas, lamps, side tables and loungers, there was very often no control on quality referenced from the original article.

All we could cling to was the word of the shop front — online or off. Ultimately this not only infuriated the designer’s estate and the license-holders, but hurt the public who ended up with the worst tat at a still considerable price.

In my travels I have seen sumptuously beautiful examples of reproduced items sold here in Ireland, outside the proper patent (made in China) and other horrible, badly rendered copies — Le Corbusier chairs and Isamu Noguchi coffee tables literally falling apart.

Still, the inescapable elitism of iconic modernist design today is troubling. The reality that many items even those drawn and intended for factory production in relatively cheap materials — and in a few key pieces in some cases (formed plastic is a doddle to run up) — are in fact only available to the wealthy.

In some cases, the very wealthy. Many creatives working through the 1950s and 1960s, including Ray and Charles Eames were outspoken advocates of affordable great design available to all.

I recently ate from a fairly well executed faked Eifel (DSW) chair in a McDonalds outlet in Co Waterford — would the Eames’s have approved of this egalitarian spirit? UK retailers of these 20th century wannabes are counting down.

Soon, I’m afraid, it’s back to staring at the unattainable originals online and elsewhere, for the rest of us. To align with the rest of Europe, it’s more than likely that retailers of 20th century iconic furniture in Ireland, including CA Design (which champions some new design as well as nods to mid-century), and Voga (retail refugees from the UK and now based in Kildare), ZinZan and others Irish sellers, will be forced to either close, or shift focus.

Small alterations in the features, shape and finish may play havoc with enforcing the new legislation, and with the UK leaving the European Union, who knows that may actually happen from January 28 to April 1.

You have been warned.

We will not be spared, and in the end, I’m afraid ending the Mad Man party is the right and only proper thing to do, despite the design-democracy affect.

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