Monday 21 October 2019

Interiors: When that chair is a steal

Not yet illegal in Ireland, fake designer furniture raises issues of ethics and economics

Panton Chair produced by Vitra from Minima
Panton Chair produced by Vitra from Minima
Tip Ton chair, produced by Vitra from Minima
Mariposa sofa produced by Vitra from Minima
Eames Plastic Chair DSW produced by Vitra from Minima
The Fredericia Swoon chair from CA Design
Charles and Ray Eames on a Motorcycle
Vitra organic chair from Minima
Verner Panton (designer), Rolf Fehlbaum, Manfred Diebold and Josef Stürmlinger

'You wouldn't steal a car, you wouldn't steal a handbag, you wouldn't steal a television, you wouldn't steal a movie."

Back in the mid-2000s, every rental DVD ran this public service announcement, accompanied by a video of a sinister person stealing these items. It concluded: "Downloading pirated films is stealing, stealing is against the law - piracy it's a crime!" It was aimed at preventing copyright infringement, but its main effect was to scare the bejaysus out of a generation of children and to spawn memes, most of them along the lines of 'You wouldn't download a car'.

You can't download a chair either, but it's not a crime to buy and sell fake designer furniture in Ireland. Opinion is divided about whether this is a good thing or not. Some people find it morally reprehensible. Others feel that it brings classic designs within the reach of those who can't afford the originals. The uber-iconic Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair (from €5,800) is reproduced under license by Fritz Hansen and the Irish supplier is Lost Weekend. Alternatively, you can buy a bootleg copy for less than a grand. This is by no means the same product, but it's made to look as close to the original as possible. One such item, the 'Egg Chair, inspired by Arne Jacobsen' costs €949 from Voga, a company that sells online but doesn't advertise its postal address.

Voga was originally a British company but moved to Ireland in response to a change in the law there. In 2016, the UK came in line with the EU directive on copyright infringement. This gave full copyright protection, for 70 years after the designer's death, to all artistic works created after 1957. The following year, pre-1957 designs were brought under copyright protection too. The upshot of this was that replica design classics could no longer be sold in the UK. Ireland has yet to come in line with the EU directive. However, this is a window that could close at any time.

Now, furniture ordered from the Voga website is made abroad - one assumes the Far East - and delivered to an Irish warehouse. And the actual location of this warehouse is a closely guarded secret. I emailed the company to ask where Irish customers could pick up their orders. "When the order is ready for you, you will receive an email confirmation containing the warehouse address, phone number, email and the details (dimensions etc) of your order," wrote Camila, customer service advisor with Voga. "You can then either choose to collect the order yourself, or contact a delivery company to arrange this for you. Usually we advise you to get in contact with the warehouse first, to start the process."

It's all very cloak-and-dagger. I can imagine beleaguered British families trying to smuggle their ersatz design classic back to Blighty on the car ferry, or being exploited by unscrupulous Irish delivery services. I wonder if the thrill of dodging the law would add to the experience, or if the feeling of doing something wrong would diminish the pleasure of the purchase.

Helen Kilmartin of Minima has decided views on the topic. "Replica furniture should be illegal. We're part of Europe - why are we not actively doing something? In Scandinavian countries they block those websites."

Minima is a design consultancy and high-end furniture retailer, the Irish supplier for Vitra, a Swiss company that makes licensed reproductions of furniture by some of the big names of 20th-century design as well as work by new designers. "As time goes by, a company needs to keep changing," she says. "They can't limit themselves to reproducing the same old classics."

Often, people shy away from authorised reproductions because of the price, but not all design classics are exorbitant. The Panton chair, for example, costs €263 from Minima. It was conceived by Verner Panton in 1960 and is now considered an icon of 20th-century design. The chair is made of plastic and comes in a choice of contemporary colours. You can buy a replica, advertised as the 'Red Panton-Style Chair (Ireland Exclusive)', from CA Design for €220. In this case, €43 seems a relatively small price to pay for authenticity.

CA Design is an Irish-owned company based in Dublin. It has a showroom where you can see what you're buying, it also sells original designs from contemporary companies, like the Fredericia Swoon chair (€4,800), which is widely expected to become a classic. The Swoon chair is not tagged 'Ireland Exclusive' because, unlike the replica furniture, it can legally be sold in the UK and abroad.

Another issue with bootleg furniture is quality. "If you buy a good piece of plastic you will have it forever," Kilmartin says. "If you buy a rubbish piece of plastic it will be to the detriment of the world."

It's true that authorised reproductions by companies like Vitra and Fritz Hansen are reliably well made. While replicas probably won't match their standard of making, some of the more expensive ones are decent, well-constructed pieces of furniture. Others are truly wojus. The trouble is that those in search of a bargain can find it hard to tell the difference, especially if they buy online.

I've never bought a piece of bootleg furniture. There are times when I have been tempted, but it upsets me to see faux-designer furniture advertised alongside a photo of the designer. It's claiming a legacy that isn't deserved. That said, I've never bought an original design classic either, largely because of the price. Can you justify paying out the price of a second hand family car for a chair - no matter how clever and swish? Trying to be ethical and economical at the same time can be hard on the nerves.

An exhibition of Vitra originals opens today at Minima, Hanover Quay, in Dublin where it will continue for three weeks. It includes work by the 20th-century design deities, Charles and Ray Eames, but also modern classics, like the 2011 Grand Repos chair (€4,552) by Antonio Citterio. Each piece is shown with information about its history, including technical drawings, sketches, models and prototypes. One of the modern classics is the Tip Ton chair (€275) by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. This is a solid plastic chair with a forward-tilt action, facilitating those who chronically tilt their chairs (in the 1980s, children got smacked for tilting their chairs). You can imagine a scenario, in the not-too-distant future, when someone could download the design for the chair and print it on a 3D printer. In that case, you actually could download a chair, but that would only be ethical if the designs were open source.

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