Dezeen and MINI World Tour: in this movie filmed in Milan earlier this month, leading designers and manufacturers discuss the phenomenon of copying and how they are responding. "It’s become an increasingly big problem for us," says Tom Dixon. "People can steal ideas and produce them almost faster than we can now."

“Milan is a breeding ground for people who copy our products”

"An original design product will have a cost higher than its copy," says designer Marcel Wanders (above). "It’s very simple. Stealing most of the time is more cheap than buying."

Unscrupulous manufacturers visit Milan to photograph new prototypes and then rush out copies before the original products reach the market, according to Casper Vissers (below), CEO of furniture and lighting brand Moooi.

“Milan is a breeding ground for people who copy our products”

"It’s very sour if you have presented a product in April and it’s in the shops in September, but a bloody copier has it already in August," says Vissers, speaking at Moooi's spectacular Unexpected Welcome show in Milan (below). "This is what happens at the moment."

Vissers adds that legal action against copiers in Asia is expensive and, even if it’s successful in the short term, it does little to stem the tide: "You need huge amounts of money [to launch a law suit in the Far East] and if you win - if - a new limited company in China will start production [of copies]".

“Milan is a breeding ground for people who copy our products”

Copiers are increasingly shameless about their intentions, says Tom Dixon, speaking at his presentation at MOST in Milan. "People feel very confident copying things. Some people come around with spy glasses photographing things but other people are more overt and come in with iPads or film crews."

Dixon says the problem is getting worse, with markets around the world and even the UK market increasingly flooded with copies. "Everywhere we go in Australia or Singapore or India we’ll see many, many copies, and that’s also hitting more and more the UK as well."

“Milan is a breeding ground for people who copy our products”

Gregg Buchbinder (above), CEO of furniture company Emeco, says the solution is for designers to push manufacturers to make more sophisticated products that are harder to copy. The furniture collection Emeco developed with designer Konstantin Grcic for the Parrish Art Museum on Long Island (below), for example, "was a very difficult project to do. Although the chair looks simple, there’s nothing skipped."

"The more difficult it is, the more difficult it is for people to knock it off," Buchbinder adds.

“Milan is a breeding ground for people who copy our products”

Emeco aggressively pursues copyists through the courts and earlier this year won a case against fellow US manufacturer Restoration Hardware, which had copied the iconic Navy chair.

But outside Europe and the US, copyright law is less robust and harder to enforce. "It’s very, very difficult to protect yourself legally," says Dixon.

Dixon’s company is directly responding to the problem of copying by developing a range of new products designed to make life more difficult for counterfeiters.

“Milan is a breeding ground for people who copy our products”

"What you’ll see [at our Milan presentation] is a number of coping strategies," Dixon explains. "We’ve been trying as much as possible to invest in tooling and slightly more advanced technology. We’re working on adaptive models where we make specific things for clients. A new bespoke division where we make things for people, so we adapt our products to suit a client’s needs. So there’s ways of dealing with it. We’ve just got to be faster and smarter."

See all our stories about copying in design ».

“Milan is a breeding ground for people who copy our product”

Milan is the second stop on our Dezeen and MINI World Tour. See all our reports from our first destination, Cape Town. This movie features a MINI Cooper S Paceman.

The music featured is a track called Divisive by We Have Band, a UK-based electronic act who played at the MINI Paceman Garage in Milan on Friday. You can listen to the full track on Dezeen Music Project.

  • Reminds me of this talk on 'Learning from Fashion's Free Culture' by Johanna Blakely http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zL2FOrx41N0

  • Dan Leno

    “To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.” – Pablo Picasso.

    • douglas

      No, that’s a copout and you’re using the perceived status and authority of Picasso to justify copying – a plagiariser of African art, so he would try to minimise the inherent and conscious cynicism in such a strategy.

      The world doesn’t need any more products, so the least we can do is try to aspire to originality.

      • Dan Leno

        Strange reading. Here’s a translation:

        If there is any serious threat to good design or the notion of orginiality, it is not the Chinese copycat, but specifically the approach of the types of Wanders and Dixon who have been pathetically repeating themselves in an attempt to brand a certain style. A strategy, by the way, which strongly encourages the production of counterfeits as it has been proven before in fashion.

        • beatrice

          By ‘a certain style’ do you mean Tom Dixon’s style? Isn’t it okay to have a style?

        • Ditto. It sounds like “ooh look at us, we are so famous we are being copied. Please, stop copying us so we can make more money and be so exclusive, only ‘les connaisseurs’ with money deserve to buy our products. Because we are geniuses and all, you know…’

          I think of Radiohead and their marketing logic: pay what you think it is worth, not for overpriced design mavericks and branding. Who is going to remember Wanders or the like and their products in 40 years? Product is the keyword.

  • Rex

    What this has to do with Milan?

  • beatrice

    I like it when Tom Dixon says “they download the dimensions of our chairs from our catalogue online”. Does he means they write them down?

  • David

    Speaking of copying, look at this design that popped up in Milan this year as a “new” product designed by Foster & Partners for Molteni & C. This is a direct replica of the Victoria Tables designed in 2009 by Kain Lucas for Australian Brand Ute Design and released in two sizes.

    The big name designers cry bloody murder over the Chinese copying their designs, but what about when the big name designers start copying the small independant designers and making huge sums of money off it? Is there any difference?




    • Adam

      And I can bet that Ute took that inspiration or copy from something else. I am not defending Foster and Partners, but we live in a world where nothing is original, and even the “original” Ute design is probably not original either.

  • dUMB

    As soon as you exhibit or publish images of your product it will photographed and sent direct to mainland China. In a matter of weeks they will be producing your design at knockdown prices, selling it in shops near you. This covers everything you can think of: textiles, lighting, computers, phones no problem – even some Chinese students I teach are at it!

  • It’s a shame more designers don’t bring out their own “value” ranges that are affordable to the mass market. Then it wouldn’t be so easy for others to undercut them. The argument is always that the quality is so much better but often the differences are negligible and the main difference is the profit margin.

  • George

    I’m not well known outside my community, but I stopped posting on my website a couple of years ago. My ideas are my own until I decide to come out with them as production pieces. Also I see no value trying to get pieces published anymore… just ego!

  • Greg, really. Make things more complicated? Please. Er, anyone here heard of open design? Right now, or certainly in the next half-generation, the whole idea of intellectual property is ripe for a re-definition. Share, collaborate, make better things, sell the design not the product. You yourself talk about this, Tom. Owning and protecting an idea becomes so difficult in the digital world that it just ain’t worth it. As Tom Hulme of IDEO – creator of OpenIDEO – says, most of the time we overvalue the idea anyway.

  • sor perdida

    Sadly, it is big retailers who steal then mass-produce. Check out ‘Silvia Drop’ pendant lamp from Crate & Barrel’s current collection, a Tom Dixon look-a-like in white…

  • Steven

    Interesting post. Some things come to mind: timing, distribution, relevance.

    Since furniture has a longer life cycle than fashion (even though furniture seems to want to emulate fashion in go-to market approaches and lifestyle branding), there is no reason for a manufacturer to show off something it hasn’t already started production on. Simple. I mean, at least there are numerous well-trusted, easily accessible (location, not price) clothing outlets that can ensure I won”t get a replica, if that’s what I’m into. But designer furniture doesn’t have the same distribution.

    Which leads right into relevance. I know all the brands and love designer furniture. However, most people don’t even know Tom Dixon, Marcel Wanders and crew. They know what they like, and if they ever happen to see anything remotely close to the work these folks produce, they’ll do what they can to get it. But because they like it, not because some famous designer made it (and certainly not b/c one chair eats their entire dining room budget).

    These designers need to find a way to connect with the people.

  • Neogeo

    The copies are never as good in quality and construction as the originals. You get what you pay for and you really do appreciate the minute details and the tactile quality of the original which you never experience with a copy. With furniture this is very important.

    Just like a Louis Vuitton bag. Only the owner of an authentic bag would appreciate and understand the meticulous craftsmanship and fine materials that went into its production, whereas an owner of a $50 knockoff bag won’t give a sh*t.

  • Todd

    If I wrote down a brilliant idea, right here, right now, about dealing with this problem, someone would steal that idea from me.

    • So by allowing it to be stolen you will give a better chance for that idea to materialise. Alternative to it just laying about in your head or in a computer folder.

  • It’s just like that – there are people for the great originals and there are people who do not care about quality and design value – they are happy to have something that looks like a famous/fashionable design. And good design should be more accessible – then who would buy a cheaper, bad quality version?

  • P Garlington

    If everyone is so enamoured with the fashion model of production why not prototype and develop in the “couture” style and sell to collectors at high cost and limited production, while using what is learned to produce a “ready to wear” line based on the design development that could be produced at a more affordable price point?

  • anonymous

    COPY! As long as you IMPROVE!

  • garo ungaro

    It’s a bad day for all designers.

  • dorona

    Copy as long as you create something new. 99% of all new designs originate from something that already exists.
    Check out the 3D printed mash up collection by Diederik Schneemann shown in Milan this April far away from the famous designers. Puts the discussion out there.

  • Bangkoker

    In Thailand, “authentic” designer furniture & lighting is subject to 200-300% import tax, making already expensive products out of reach for most. This is one of the main factors that create a market for “replicas”.

    If the big designer furniture manufacturers would pool resources and hire lobbyists working to change the import tax laws in countries like Thailand, I think it would do damage to the “replica” market.

    Furthermore, I think designer furniture & lighting manufacturer’s pricing/margins should be reconsidered. Especially for mass production products (i.e. Eames philosophy) that was supposed to make great design accessible to the average consumer – raising everyone’s appreciation for design.

  • dan ny

    I’m tired of hearing Tom Dixon cry poor.

    Besides, counterfeiting has benefits like raised awareness and brand dissemination; http://www.brandchannel.com/home/post/2011/06/08/

  • Christabel

    I was shocked to find that a big respected retailer in South Africa copied the Wishbone chair. The Wishbone chair! And renamed it something mundane. I was so disappointed.

  • Dean

    Tom Dixon is the biggest design thief of them all, copper sphere pendants have been around since the 70s, thus I find it absurd he thinks he has the right to whinge about this considering how many reproduced copper balls he has sold in recent years. Let’s have a true and inspiring designer become an advocate for this topic, not Tom “Reproduction” Dixon.

  • Adam

    This is why you take the time, effort, and financial responsability to patent your design and secure it for future use.

  • Putting aside ethical arguments and ideologies, let’s just deal with the facts: valuable products (commercial goods that have good profit potential) get copied. Period. Filing patents and trademarks are only really valuable to CYA (Cover Your Ass) so some unscrupulous troll doesn’t register the IP you, as a designer, created, and turn around and sue you for violating your own design (this does happen). Using registered IP to combat copycats is a game profitable only for lawyers. You can’t fight all the copycats, and the few victories are more of a moral value than financial. By the time you’ve ‘won’ in court against a copycat, the damage to your brand and your sales has already been done. That being said, designers and companies need to invest in applying for IP protection in the country of manufacturing origin of most of the copycats. If all the copycats are in China, why the hell aren’t you registering Chinese patents? Duh.

    For the rest of us, who haven’t the money to play the legal cat and mouse games, I might offer a more pragmatic strategy not to deter, but to at least delay or minimise the impact of copy cats.

    First, as Steven wrote, why show off your designs if your manufacturers aren’t already set to produce it? Why show off valuable concepts when they are just prototypes? This is really hubris at work, and it’s an unnecessary gratification of the ego… it’s like ‘Look what I did mommy and daddy! Tell me how much you love it!’. Seriously, a designer and his/her clients are in control of their own schedule. Why blow your load prematurely? Have patience and reveal new products at the same time you’re ready to take orders and produce goods. If you need to test market reaction to new concepts, there are ways to do this more discreetly than public exhibitions.

    Additionally, why reveal the full enchilada all at once? If new concepts must be exhibited in public, tease by showing an early stage idea, or show a near final beta version. If anyone copies it, the copies will be obviously different and probably lacking in some crucial details that will be present on the originals. Better still, why not add in something superfluous or design something intentionally bad or unstable into the exhibited design? Copycats are lazy – they will copy the bad parts as well as the good. Let them copy something that is cleverly designed to fail after a certain number of mechanical cycles, or that won’t be stable past a low threshold of loading. The customer complaints and product returns and refunds will damage the copycats financially.

    As a final safe precaution, always hold back on some critical or useful design detail even from your manufacturers until the last moment, when they prepare to make the tools needed for production. Products that are injection molded, stamped, or otherwise repeatably produced through tools & dies often go through several rounds of vendor quotations and bids for the work. Of course it’s expected that all vendors are signing your NDA and Confidentiality Agreements, but you never know when one enterprising person on their staff might ‘leak’ your design data to a ‘friend’s’ factory. You can get accurate enough quotes by showing a 99% perfect version of your design, keeping a critical 1% up until the last second, and given only to your chosen manufacturer right at the moment they need to use it. Anyone else who may have your design will only be able to produce the 99% version of it, so it will be easy to identify the copy. Sure, they can ‘fix’ their tools later, but you’ll already be that much ahead of them in the market, and they’ll need to halt their own production to make that tooling change.

    There will always be copycats. You can’t stop them. Why not at least try to slow them down and make things a bit more difficult for them?

  • Roberta Mutti

    This is ridiculous. If there’s a place where people buy original, this is Singapore.

  • Bart

    Lower your prices. 4000EUR for a lamp? 5000EUR for a carpet? Why? So you can buy another house in the French riviera? These prices are ridiculously high. Way above their value, even with the ‘design’ value included.