Over the past 18 months, a five-year-old consortium of furniture manufacturers and design firms called BeOriginal Americas has been training US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers to distinguish real Eames, Starck, and Mies van der Rohe designs from fakes, among others. It’s working: According to CBP’s Intellectual Property Rights Seizure Statistics report (pdf, p.5), in 2016, customs officials confiscated 42 shipments of unauthorized replicas worth an estimated $4.2 million. In the same report, the CBP claimed that their “furniture enforcement efforts have helped to protect over 8,000 American jobs” a figure calculated according to workforce data provided to them by US furniture manufacturers.
But they’re up against a vast knock-off industry. Labeled with nice-sounding terms like “reproduction,”replica,” or “homage,” many designer chairs in offices, hotel lobbies, airports, restaurants and even big furniture stores are actually unauthorized copies. And while a knock-off Eames or Barcelona chair might seem like a harmless, budget-friendly addition to your living room, these illegal knockoffs threaten the economy and the environment, and erode the very meaning of design.
Designer chairs are often advertised based on form, finish and material. But like all good design, furniture design is primarily concerned with looking for solutions for specific needs. Well-built office chairs, for instance, are engineered so they don’t tip over when the sitter leans back; the superdurable Navy chair emerged from the US military’s need for a deckchair that could “withstand water, salt air and sailors”; and the Eames lounge chair is obsessively designed for comfort. Knockoffs, while styled similarly, can fail to deliver solutions because counterfeiters are focused on mass producing and selling good-enough products cheaply and quickly.