More and more, inexpensive copies of designer furnishings are available to consumers. But are the inferior quality and effect on creative industry worth it? Helen McLaughlin reports
With its gently curved back, sleek steel legs and studded soft leather upholstery, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair is an instantly familiar icon of mid-20th-century design.
But as with many pieces of modernist furniture, the simplicity of the Barcelona chair means it is very easy to copy. Turn to the classified pages at the back of a contemporary home interiors magazine and you'll find dozens of adverts for shops and online stores selling reproduction chairs, lamps, sofas and tables for a fraction of the cost of licensed reissues. In the past decade, the furniture market has been flooded with such copies. Most are made in China, the Far East or Italy and their quality varies enormously.
At its new location on Dubai's Sheikh Zayed Road, just along from the premium Italian furniture store Natuzzi, Objekts of Design has a number of such reproduction versions of the Barcelona chair, along with similar copies of pieces including Fritz Hansen's Egg chair and Eero Saarinen's Tulip chair.
To the untrained eye, the Barcelona chair on sale here is identical in its shape and form to a licensed reissue. The upholstery looks to be good-quality leather, the finish isn't bad and the shiny steel frame and legs are sleek and sturdy. The vital difference is that this reproduction will cost you just Dh3,950. With an original chair costing about Dh23,000, that's almost six times cheaper.
The Barcelona chair is one of the shop's biggest sellers, albeit under a different name. Under copyright law the real deal can only be manufactured by Knoll, the design firm that also holds the rights to manufacture and sell Saarinen's Tulip chair.
"We cannot sell the item you called Barcelona chair as a Barcelona chair or even call it Barcelona chair," explains the shop's owner, Maleck Habib. "We use the name only for communication purposes."
Habib is totally open about the fact that his stock are unlicensed copies, but this isn't always the case. Several online stores we looked at use terms such as "discount design classics" or "Bauhaus classics for less" as their selling points and you have to look closely for the small print disclaimer to know what you are buying is a copy.
Yet buying reproduction furniture isn't the same experience as picking up a fake Prada or Hermès bag in the back streets of Karama. In most cases you are buying from chic boutiques or expertly designed websites. Essentially, however, you are still buying a cheap, inferior version and the official design house won't see any of the proceeds.
"Buying copies of modernist furniture is no different to me than buying a knock-off designer handbag," says Robert Reid, a professor of interior design at the American University of Sharjah. "It is not buying something 'inspired by' or 'in the style of'. It is buying something that is intended to represent the real thing.
"Unlicensed copies and counterfeits are created to provide the appearance of design sophistication to people who could otherwise not afford the real thing."
Habib sees things differently, however. He maintains that by choosing a reproduction piece over an original, people are buying "intelligently".
"Why is it acceptable to pay Dh25,000 or Dh50,000 for a chair when you can get a fairly similar item for Dh2,500?" he asks. "I find it puzzling that one would buy a chair for the same price as a small car."
This seems like common sense. Why should ordinary consumers be consigned to ubiquitous, run-of-the-mill furniture when they can own an example of classic design at a fraction of the cost? And who is to say that the quality of a reproduction is vastly inferior to an original?
In the US, an unlicensed reproduction of the Eames lounge chair, made by Plycraft, is considered to be superior in both quality and comfort to the real thing, not least because it is deemed to be more ergonomic for today's larger American frames. What's more, an expensive unlicensed piece from Italy (as opposed to the cheaper Asian-made versions) may still be a quality piece of furniture, even though it's a fake.
Professor Reid is adamant, however. Buying a copy is never an acceptable option, he says, not least because it has serious implications for the design industry.
"When supporting the proliferation of unlicensed and counterfeit products, you need to consider the impact on the creative community," he asserts. "Where is the incentive for designers to be innovative when their ideas and the value for their livelihood are not supported and protected? A designer's greatest professional value is their creativity - their intellectual property. Instead of coming up with an original idea, manufacturers of copies find it easier to steal someone else's idea and make money from it."
"We totally support intellectual and design property," counters Habib. "Our editions are inspired by the classics. Also, these 'original' designs, some of which date from the 1920s and 1930s have evolved so much that you would not call them 'originals' any longer. The items we are selling are available all over the world, with the exception of some countries like Denmark or Germany, where for cultural reasons they have very stringent laws on copyright of design classics."
So why are the originals so much more expensive? Where, exactly, do our extra thousands of dirhams go? Patricia d'Silva is from Knoll Middle East, the official manufacturers of the Barcelona chair and the Tulip chair.
"In terms of the materials and manufacturing processes used, an original Knoll product's value lies in its workmanship and components - the grade of stainless steel and leather used, the dye type, stitching and cushion fill," she explains. "Licensed products always come from quality materials and higher quality-control standards. Buying the original version is more expensive but worth it for a quality with real warranty. In the long run these pieces will retain their value and perhaps be worth even more."
Professor Reid adds that "expensive" is a relative term. In short, he says, you get what you pay for.
"Licensed and reissued products are made to adhere to the specific intent of the original designer, which includes the materials, construction method and details, dimensions and structure. There are very high quality-control standards. Copies can be made cheaper if corners are cut. It's not just quality of the materials but the scale, proportion and detailing. I constantly see hollow and plated steel used in place of polished, solid stainless steel; poorly finished welded seams; poor upholstery details and poor wood finishes.
"One of the most offensive details I have seen on many inferior copies is the substitution of PVC for leather, which doesn't look or feel the same, nor will it last. It's important to remember that products made to a high level of quality are built to last a lifetime."
What's more, a licensed reissue may also be an investment piece. "Products from the original production runs of modernist furniture are always in demand at auction, similar to works of art," says Reid. "A few years ago, a Barcelona chair from 1929-30 sold for over $100,000."
And it's this longevity that quality craftmenship and materials buy. While it is generally acknowledged that reproduction pieces will start to show signs of wear within a few years, an original will last a lifetime, and probably even improve with age.
"Many people believe that buying a copy gives them instant 'design credibility'," says Reid, a former interior designer with 10 years' experience. "But if you buy fake, you are ultimately only fooling yourself.
"I do find it interesting when an individual is asked why they purchased a copy or knock-off of anything. Invariably they want something they can't afford, so are willing to buy a fake at a lower price."
And if you can't afford an original, there is an alternative, says Reid.
"Find something that has a similar inspiration. If you like the style of furniture designed by Mies van der Rohe but can't afford a real Barcelona chair, look for a chair elsewhere that shares a similar aesthetic. A very good, professional designer will have access to many great sources of furniture without having to resort to a copy. Down the road when you can afford it, you can always choose to replace the existing furniture with what you really wanted.
"People should not be afraid to be inspired, take the initiative and create a look all of their own."
Where to find it
Official UAE Knoll distributors
Al Reyami Group, Dubai, 04 336 4666 Al Reyami Interiors, Abu Dhabi, 02 643 0305
Objekts of Design
Al Kuthban Building, Sheikh Zayed Rd, Exit #43, 04 341-6061, www.od.ae