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Fake out: What designers should know about the high price of cheap knockoffs
Jun 29, 2016

By Katy B. Olson
It seems every product designer has a cautionary tale: California woodworker Jory Brigham says his work was copied, plank for plank, by an online furniture flash sales site after he refused a partnership with them. Filipino designer Kenneth Cobonpue watched alongside a judge last winter as imitations of his armchair were destroyed following a court order against his counterfeiters. And Bret Englander, director of sales and marketing at high-end lighting firm Cerno/Revelite, says knockoffs of his company’s lamps have appeared in every room of certain large-scale hotel projects.

 


Design by Herman Miller; the company’s global brand director, Sam Grawe, is also president of Be Original Americas 

“Each time our work is knocked off, it stings,” says Englander, who says the company has several patents, trademarks and copyrights aimed to protect its work. “But the large jobs are what really sting. Our designs are a product of a team of people who have devoted their lives to design and their craft. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been taken from our company and our employees, what really makes us mad is the lack of integrity that these predatory companies display when they steal our designs and steal the opportunities our designs created.”

Cobonpue continues to monitor the marketplace for fakes and has a legal team that pursues action against violators. He reflects, “I consider each piece I create to be like my children.... Having my work counterfeited was not only an offense against me as a designer, but also to the people who depend upon me for their living, especially my craftsmen who are proud of their part in the work that I do.” 

Brigham, who says the flash sales site Touch of Modern has sold nearly identical versions of his side tables, tells EAL: “I don’t think they care. They’re the type of company that has a mind-set of, ‘We’re going to make this, as long as we can, until we get busted.’”

  
John Edelman, courtesy Design Within Reach; Antoine Roset, courtesy Aude Adrien; Jerry Helling, courtesy of Bernhardt Design

But what recourse do product designers have—and how can interior designers sift out the phonies? Enter Be Original Americas. The nonprofit, which promotes a mission of “informing, educating and influencing manufacturers, design professionals and individuals on the economic, ethical and environmental value of authentic design while preserving and investing in its future,” met with two reps from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and a special agent from the Department of Homeland Security, who delivered an hour-long presentation to board members at NeoCon on June 15.

On the agenda: explaining methods of protecting design (federally registered trademarks, copyrights, patents); how Customs can detain or seize imported fakes that violate the law; and “recordation,” which means legally documenting the counterfeits for up to 10 years. Among the meeting attendees were Antoine Roset, executive vice president of Ligne Roset USA and charter member and vice president of Be Original Americas; Jerry Helling, president of Bernhardt Design and Be Original charter member; and John Edelman, CEO of Design Within Reach and Be Original board member. “I was surprised to learn that the Customs Department, and in turn the Department of Homeland Security, were taking such an active role in preventing copies from entering the country,” Helling tells EAL. “More importantly, that their efforts weren’t confined to fashion and electronics, but also furniture.”

Designers and companies should register designs with copyrights and trademarks with these agencies, says Helling. After that, he explains, “It falls on the manufacturers to provide as much information as possible to enable the U.S. CBP to be more focused in their search for copies at the ports of entry.”


Knoll Bertoia Chairs for Design Within Reach; DWR CEO John Edelman serves as board member of Be Original Americas

Gaurav Nanda, founder of Bend Goods, started a social media campaign, #seek2boriginal, earlier this month to raise awareness, and has pledged allegiance to Be Original Americas. He reflects, “There are so many pieces to the puzzle of this movement. Tackling it from the legal and governmental stand point is definitely one of the hardest, though. The ability to regulate even a small percentage of the replica and knockoff product that comes into the United States is a huge win.”

Nanda continues, “In terms of design patents and trademarking, we have a legal representative that we work with on these issues. The problem is that even with design patents, there is still a lot of room for knocking off and creating confusion legally with design. Very little of a design has to be changed before it can be re-registered and the offender given a legal leg to stand on.”

 
From left: Touch of Modern's side table; woodworker Jory Brigham’s original

The smaller the firm, the more difficult it may feel to navigate the legal landscape. Lisa Fay VonGerichten, co-owner and creative director of Lisa Fay Design, launched her lighting product line earlier this year. She trademarked her company logo, saying it took nearly two years and cost more than expected, and this impacted her views on the process of protecting her product. “As a small design company, if it came down to it, I wouldn’t be able to afford the court/attorney fees, especially if I were [fighting to protect my product design] against a big-box retailer.”

Designer Kenneth Cobonpue, in gray shirt, watches as an illegal counterfeit of his Yoda Chair is destroyed; courtesy the Philippine Daily Inquirer / Kimberly Dela Cruz

Interior designers may be product designers’ best advocates. To that end, Be Original has developed a CEU course on original design, which, as Edelman says, helps them “become ambassadors of the message as they work with clients and specify product.” Designers can also encourage clients to look for original work within their price range. “Original design is available at every price point and every piece of original design has a story,” shares Edelman. “It is important that the designers tell these stories and encourage clients to learn about the significance of their selections. The final decision often comes down to budget, so it is crucial for interior designers to be able to demonstrate why a product is worth the investment and simultaneously be prepared with alternative, original options that meet the client’s needs.”


Design by Ligne Roset; Ligne Roset USA's executive vice president, Antoine Roset, serves as charter member and vice president of Be Original Americas

Echoes Roset, “Today, there is a lot of confusion in the marketplace that original means expensive and knockoff means affordable, [but] this is not true.... Knockoffs are often poorly made with shortcuts to materials used and shoddy craftsmanship that doesn’t last. We educate to show the short-term dangers of knockoffs and the true long-term value of originality for the consumer.”

Eric Trine, a California product designer and commercial artist, has never formally protected his work, but he recently applied for Be Original Americas membership. He cautions designers against the “influencer economy,” where designers receive a payoff to promote brands that carry knockoffs. “They are placing them in their projects and showcasing them on their blogs and social media channels. And who doesn’t want to use the stuff that the coolest designers are using? I see that as the biggest problem: influencers being a bad influence.”


Bernhardt Design’s Mellow Sofa, which won the Best of NeoCon Innovation Award this year; the company’s president, Jerry Helling, is a charter member of Be Original Americas

U.S. Customs has been in contact with many Be Original Americas members, says the organization, and this August, officers in the New York area will meet with seven member companies to learn more about their original work and help address the problem of counterfeit furnishings throughout the country.

“I really want to be surrounded by things with soul. Things that have personality and a story,” reflects woodworker Brigham. “When people are mass-producing stuff just to make money, and their hearts are not really in it, they cut every possible corner they can cut, from finish to construction—everything. They don’t have that intention to make it last for generations.”

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