Samantha cameron's purchase of a floor lamp in 2011 sparked off a row in the media that precipitated a change in legislation with long-term implications for the buying and selling of reproduction furniture.
The lamp in question which the British Prime Minister David Cameron's wife routinely bought was an Arco floor lamp based on an original 1962 design by Achille and Pier Castiglioni. It's a magnificent piece with the light fitting suspended from a giant arc, extending from a marble base.
Flos, the original Italian manufacturer, still holds the licence to reproduce the design. But Mrs Cameron didn't buy an authorised reproduction of the classic design. She purchased a replica, almost identical in appearance and probably less than half the price. You can currently buy a replica of the Arco lamp, made in China, for around €790. The real thing costs €1,960 from Minima.
Mrs Cameron's lamp purchase triggered a public debate on copyright for furniture designs and a campaign, launched by Michelle Ogundehin of Elle Decoration, to give designers the same legal rights as artists, writers and musicians. In response to this, a new British law, which comes into force in 2020, will make it illegal to manufacture or sell copies of mass-produced items such as furniture and lighting. The new copyright protection law brings Britain in line with most of Europe where 'artistic' designs are copyright protected for 70 years after the death of the designer.
But here in Ireland, registered designs are protected for a maximum of 25 years and after that it's open season. The Patents Office has no plans to change the law. This means that it is fully legal, now and for the foreseeable future, to buy and sell replica furniture in this country so long as the design is more than 25 years old. And most of the iconic chairs, tables and pieces people seek out have already passed that expiry date.
The trouble here is that many people can't tell the difference between authorised reproductions and clever replicas and this in turn leads to confusion as to why the prices are so different. Here's an example. Eileen Gray's adjustable table E1027 is a side table with a round glass top and a frame of chromium plated steel. A fully licenced reproduction, made to the exact specifications of the designer, costs between €760 and €920 from Minima. A good quality replica of the same table, made in China, costs €250 from CA Design.
The important thing is to be clear about what you're buying, particularly if you're also buying with an investment in mind.
Each type of furniture has its pros and cons. Buying authorised reproductions is massively expensive, but buying replicas can be a minefield because of quality variance. I've seen overweight versions of Arne Jacobsen's Egg Chair in cheap hotel lobbies, dodgy Eames-style chairs with cracked plastic castors, and bulging Bibendum-style chairs covered in splitting vinyl. They look like the furniture equivalent of naive taxidermy.
That said, you can also buy very high quality Chinese replicas of classic furniture design for about a third of the price of the real thing. An authorised reproduction of the Eames lounge chair and ottoman in rosewood, made under licence by a Swiss company called Vitra, costs around €6,882 from Scott Howard, a retailer that also sells a Chinese replica of the very same chair from around €970 (excluding VAT and delivery to Ireland). Scott Howard is unusual in that it sells both authorised reproductions and replicas, but the company is very clear that the two are different and should not be confused.
In the blue corner, we have Carol-Anne Leyden of CA Design, an Irish company that sells high quality replicas of design classics. Her pieces look very similar to the originals, but there are differences in dimensions and materials. They are made in carefully vetted Chinese factories. "There's a big variation in the quality of reproduction furniture you can buy online. That's why we've gone for the higher end and opened a shop," she says. "We're not pretending they're the real thing. We just want to offer good design to people who can't afford the originals."
A Charles Eames-style lounger and ottoman from CA Design costs €1,895. "We have a shop in Ranelagh, Dublin, so you can check that you're happy with the quality before you buy. If you're going to spend that kind of money on a chair you need to sit on it first," says Leyden.
And in the red corner, we have Emily Maher of Lost Weekend, a shop that's committed to selling authorised reproductions to those that are prepared to pay the premium. "The biggest issue for me is integrity," she says. "We only sell the real thing. The original designer or design company won't see any money from a fake." Since the designers in question are dead, the money from the originals tends to go to foundations set up in their name. An authorised Wishbone Chair designed by Hans Wegner costs around €800 from Lost Weekend (a Wishbone-style chair from CA Design costs €265). A Womb chair and ottoman in the style of Eero Saarinen costs €1,500 from CA Design. Purchase the authorised version from Lost Weekend and you wouldn't see much change from €8,000.
Once again, information is the key. The quality of the authorised reproductions is superb. They last forever and will appreciate in value. Pay €6,000 for a chair and you may well find that it's worth €35,000 in 20 years' time.
"Some of our customers are on quite modest incomes but they love design and are happy to save up for the real thing. It's like people who save up for a Gucci handbag and wouldn't dream about buying a fake," says Maher.
"Other people just want a nice-looking piece of furniture and they don't care if it's an original or not. But I think it's awful when people buy a fake thinking that it's something else."
For more info on the products here, see lostweekend.ie, cadesign.ie, minimafurniture.co.uk, scotthoward.co.uk.