"Copyists are eating away at the creativity
of our industry"


Opinion from Tony Ash, managing director of Vitra

Opinion: the UK is one of only three European countries failing to protect designers from intellectual property theft – damaging both their income and the reputation of their products, says Tony Ash, managing director for design brand Vitra.

When I joined Vitra, back in 1999, my predecessor gave me some advice: "Get over the fakes". Fifteen years later, I simply cannot get to grips with the fact that people are able to copy the products of designers such as Ray and Charles Eames, Ron Arad, George Nelson, BarberOsgerby, Verner Panton, Norman Foster, the Bouroullecs and Isamu Noguchi, manufactured by Vitra, without paying a penny to the designer, their heirs or the charitable foundations that have become the guardians of their work. It makes no sense.

Initially, it was Italian manufacturers who copied these products – primarily the popular models and best sellers such as the Eames Aluminium Group Chair and Eames Lounge Chair. However, having successfully challenged these rogue Italian manufacturers in court we ended up facing a newer, and far tougher, battle with Chinese manufacturers.

Over the last five to eight years we have seen huge amounts of unauthorised copies flooding the market from China and sold via myriad websites, lower end dealers, very famous supermarkets and even the odd design-led retailer who fancies that the margins on copies are greater than those on authorised originals, which they may well be.

The problem is a simple one. There are only three countries in the EU which do not adhere to EU Intellectual Property (IP) law. Romania, Estonia and... the UK. In France, as in the rest of the EU, furniture designs are protected for 70 years plus the life of the author. So, in the case of Ray Eames, who passed away in 1988, her designs are protected in EU countries until 2058. However, travel 22 miles over the channel to the UK and Ray's designs are protected for just 25 years. Thus the 1956 Eames Lounge Chair ran out of IP protection in 1981.

For a number of years, Vitra's only defence was to have our lawyers ask the copyists not to use our registered trademarks and our photographs, of our own products, to promote their Chinese copies. Often this worked. Copyists started using phrases like "inspired by", "reproduction" and "in the style of" to describe their fakes. This helped, as did the poor quality of a great many of the fakes and the fact that lead-times were often very long and warranties non-existent.

However, we still faced stores such as Dwell offering identical 1:1 Chinese copies of Vitra Eames chairs – right next door to Heal's on Tottenham Court Road, who sold the authorised originals – quite legally and at a quarter of the price. A quarter of the price? Perhaps these copies are a good thing? Maybe Vitra is ripping off the consumer? Neither is the case, thankfully.

Of course, Vitra is a company like any other – we exist to make a profit. That said, our profits are not outrageous and part of that profit goes to the designer, or their heirs, in the form of a royalty, a fixed percentage of our selling price that compensates the designer for their work.

In the case of a living designer, such as Jasper Morrison, Ed Barber or Jay Osgerby, this funds their personal and business overheads. In the case of a deceased designer the royalty goes to their spouse, as is the case with Verner Panton, or the foundation set up to protect and promote their work and heritage, as is the case with the George Nelson Foundation and the Eames Office.

As for the cost, Vitra works closely with all of the designers, and their representatives, to manufacture their designs to not only the highest standard possible, some Vitra products come with a 30-year warranty, but to the quality levels originally envisaged by the designers. A copyist, by their very nature, exists to make products as cheaply as possible. In essence they are saying "let's try and make this worse than the designer intended".

Vitra is fortunate in one respect, as we have the resources and determination to fight for proper copyright protection. This is an industry-wide problem however, that impacts far more on smaller companies and designers who do not have these resources to take expensive legal proceedings against often quite well-funded copyists. It also does not take a genius to guess what might happen to the royalties for designers working for smaller furniture companies whose margins are being eroded.

Why should these designers bother working anymore if their designs aren't even going to be protected? And if the designers lose their motivation, then where will the firms get their talent from? The copyists are eating away at the very creativity of our industry, not just selling shoddy knock-offs of existing designs.

The British government has passed a law, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, that seeks to address this problem. Yet it has also proposed – two years after the passage of this law – a far-too-long three-year transition period before the loophole is finally closed, as well as indefinite sell-through of existing stock. This will effectively create a five-year transition period that favours the copyists. The law that will protect the intellectual property of some of the world's most famous designers is on the statute book: it should now be bought into effect at the earliest opportunity.

Tony Ash is the managing director of Vitra in the UK, USA, India, Middle East and Far East.

  • Factor

    So Vitra, for every Eames chair you sell, what percentage of profit goes to Eames, and what percentage goes into your pocket?

    • Joggl

      My guess is 2-3% of the wholesale price, which is much less than what you pay in store. It is hard to feel pity for Vitra (or, their established designers), but the case is well made for smaller companies and lesser-known designers.

      • James McBennett

        There are really good copies and really bad copies, that have different budgets for material quality and details. But Vitra is ten times the cost of a well-made copy. I do not understand why?

    • Jeff Snavely

      The amount they legally agreed to pay. Exactly as it should be. That amount, whether 1% or 75%, does not justify theft of the design by anyone else.

  • mario fernandez

    There is an argument to be made in favour of copycats, that they help the industry. Like fashion, the designs need to be reinvented to keep a company ahead of the competition. This is similar to the fashion industry in that new designs come, become popular, are copied, and then these businesses need to come up with new things to keep making money.

    Unlike fashion I do understand that furniture is less interchangeable than clothing, but then designers need to differentiate themselves by offering something else: either a better quality product, a heritage behind them, or a better buying experience.

    I understand why the author is angry but this helps consumers by not making the companies sit in their laurels and keep innovating.

    In the case of Vitra they will not stop hiring designers, because of the fact that if they don’t produce new designs then they will have trouble differentiating from the copycats. The competition causes them to keep doing new things, not the other way around.

    In regard to smaller firms, they should market themselves as innovators and producers quality craftsmanship. Make the buyers care about the brand, and what is behind that product.

    • nocopycat

      Now think of the small company that would like to produce innovative designs—let’s say designs that would define 21st century American design—but, because of lack of resources, and IP protection, to protect from copycats, they see no point in pursuing such a venture. For the past decade or so, there has been no significant designs in furniture coming from the US, how can that be? When you have companies ripping off the Eames fibreglass chairs with impunity, why bother? Your argument doesn’t hold. Allowing copycat behaviour to begin with is deplorable.

      Also, let’s assume a company rests on their laurels and stops innovating, that forces the competition to create something better, again your argument here is weak.

      • Factor

        When someone replicates your design, it means you’ve already ‘made it’ in the business. After all no one copies design that doesn’t have mass-market financial appeal.

        The argument that budding furniture designers are put off to pursue their course because famous designers’ furniture is being ‘mass produced’ at lower costs is perhaps not such a strong one either. After all the fashion industry isn’t lack of talent just because Gucci and Prada is getting replicated every second.

        What Vitra is complaining about is the fact that because they give a small portion of profits to the designers they should have the sole rights to profit off everyone who would like to buy the designers furniture.

        Great designs should not just be enjoyed by the rich – everyone should have a form of access to it – that’s my view.

        • Dave

          When someone replicates your design, it means you’ve already ‘made it’ in the business.

          Nonsense. It would be far cheaper, for example, for me to set up a copycat firm full of accountants and marketing gurus and just copy the designs of small firms than it would be to be a small design firm and actually invent a product from scratch.

          The inventors need protection so that they can make money from their designs.

          • Robin Dee

            They have protection! In fact they are given 25 years of exclusivity to sell their designs. Another reason your comment is ill-thought out.

            Setting up a firm (of accountants ?) to copy an existing firm is actually completely illegal! The design rights have clearly not expired in a case such as that.

            Also, why are people calling them fakes? They are legally reproduced interpretations of the designs that are available now in the public domain. Vitra has not had the exclusive rights to these products since the early 80s!

        • Emma

          “When someone replicates your design, it means you’ve already ‘made it’ in the business. After all no one copies design that doesn’t have mass-market financial appeal.”


          Not only are they importing big-name copies, copy companies are ripping off small, no-name designers here in Australia on a daily basis.

        • Jeff Snavely

          “What Vitra is complaining about is the fact that because they give a small portion of profits to the designers they should have the sole rights to profit off everyone who would like to buy the designers furniture.”

          That’s EXACTLY what it means. It’s the very definition of copyright law.

          Do you work for free? If not, why do you think you have a right to a designer’s work without allowing them to get paid?

      • Robin Dee

        Hahah. What are you talking about? For a start, Tony Ash is discussing the UK and EU market. And these designs to which he refers are out of design rights, largely designed in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Tell me what that has to do with designs now?

        The reason for the decline in US design in this sector is merely co-incidental and due to may other factors – just like the fact that the US was once the car designer and manufacturer of the world and now it is not!

    • James McBennett

      Best talk about understanding fashion, copies, law etc: http://www.ted.com/talks/johanna_blakley_lessons_from_fashion_s_free_culture?language=en

      Love the Tom Ford quote that says something like “we realised that the people who buy Gucci and the people who shop in the alley aren’t the same people”.

      If a person is choosing an Eames copy, they are usually comparing whether they should buy something in Ikea or the Eames copy. The Vitra Eames version isn’t even relevant to the conversation that is wildly out their budget.

      I think it is a lack of innovation on Vitra’s part to innovate the lower end of the market. I love how Marc Newson’s designs are available at different price tags in different materials, so the person above can buy the original, whatever original actually means…

  • Peter

    And ironically, Google is delivering the ads to exactly those copycat manufacturers right below this article…

  • Matheson Harris, MD

    One big problem is that when you flood the market with lots of fakes, it drives down the value of everything – the fakes and the originals.

    Someone getting into mid-century modern furniture would previously go out and save up for a nice vintage Eames chair. Now there are so many fakes on the market they’ll most likely just buy one of those instead at a much lower price.

    That person selling their original now has much less value in it. And of course the fake is virtually worthless after a few years.

  • onlineconsumer

    “I can afford and was going to buy 10 Vitra chairs, but I’m going to buy 10 knock-offs instead”: said no one ever.

    People buy copies because they can’t afford originals, and aren’t part of the actual Vitra market.

    The desire to have an original makes the original more desirable. See Gucci, Prada, etc. and the proliferation of fake handbags and the resultant increase in brand value for the real product.

    Vitra can either expand its sales by either reducing prices or by increasing demand. Killing copies is a waste of time, just like the writer’s boss told him.

    “I’m a talented designer, with great ideas, but I’m going to become an accountant because I’m afraid my future royalties won’t be high enough” said no one ever.

    Designers choose to design because they want to, and often are met with financial reward. No one is going to stop working at Vitra because copies are diluting royalties.

    Finally, does it bother anyone that a Managing Director of Vitra isn’t at all interested in going anywhere near a “customer relationship system”?

  • One thing the knock off industry does a lot better is making it easy to actually browse and buy the products. How many makers of original furniture (and I’m talking in general, not specifically Vitra) let you know where you can actually buy their work, and what the price is? I’ve torn my hair out so many times trying to find actual information on some items beyond two or three images and a one line description. Whereas these companies selling the knock offs clearly list the price, and where to go to get it. I’m not saying this is an excuse to not pay for originals, but it certainly creates an unnecessary barrier.

    • Philippe Giron

      Very good point, a case of if you have to ask you can’t afford it. I can get my head around the value of original earlier 20th century pieces, small runs and relatively rare pieces which are highly collectable, but to make vastly overpriced licensed chairs, mostly produced in the Far East (just like the copies) just smacks of blatant profiteering and elitism.

      Great if you are one of the heralded designers or their heirs, not so good for the up and coming ones or the consumer. Kee Klamp and Rover chair versus Jean Prouve, which is the knock off?

      • Markyaallen

        Vitra, Knoll, Fritz Hansen, Carl Hansen etc – they manufacture in Europe not the far east. This goes some way to explain the higher price for the licensed reproductions… Higher wages etc.

        • Robin Dee

          From where does your information come? Vitra utilizes factories in the far east! Ask Tony Ash to confirm.

          • Branov

            Vitra factories in the Far East are for a small number of products produced for the Far East. All products you buy in Europe are manufactured in Europe. And do not ask why I know that. I know it as well as Tony.

  • George Morgan

    Why should the heirs get anything? They’ve not done any work. Ripping off a living designer’s work is one thing, but I don’t think that designing fancy chairs would grind to a halt for fear of designers’ grandchildren’s unearned income being somewhat reduced.

  • Neil

    The Eames’ designed furniture for the masses. People who appreciate modern design, forward-thinking and functionality – not rich snobs whose ‘taste in furniture’ is actually the price list of an expensive showroom. I’m sure if the Eames’ had a choice between two manufacturers of equal quality, they would decide on the one that can mass-produce and sell for a tenth of the price.

    Maybe Vitra could compete with the copyists by modifying the original designs and use cheaper materials? Oh wait, they already did that. Maybe they should move production to the far-east to reduce costs? Oh wait, they already did (in part, at least)… Maybe we’re just waiting for their competitive prices.

    I’ve sat on Eames copies that are higher quality than the Vitra-produced polypropylene chairs. I’ve also sat on original fibreglass Eames chairs that are far superior. Vitra should reintroduce a fibreglass version – Herman Miller already has. They could sell for a premium price and the polypropylene version at a competitive price.

    Introducing brand loyalty to customers with various budgets is a recipe for success. Vitra could learn a thing or two from Apple. While they’re at it, perhaps they should upgrade that ‘Customer relationship management system’ from the 90s.

    • Great points, Neil. I’ve got a DSW because I like the design, but I can’t imagine how the cost is justified in terms of production and materials. Friends ask me why it cost so much and I have to say “I can’t rationalise this one, to be honest. It’s a plastic chair.”

      I want a dining set but have refused to fork out another £1000 for polypropylene, I’d rather leave it as a one-off and go to Made where the designs are original and affordable, sometimes a nod to the icons but not rip-offs.

      It would be a challenge to sway someone away from buying a copy, especially if what you say about finding higher quality copies is true. It’s snobbery, it would seem, not to offer the most basic designs at a realistic price. I don’t expect a bargain for good design, but fair would be a nice change. Knoll’s prices for Saarinen make me throw my arms up. But at least they’re still fibreglass.

    • DeanieWeeny F

      Neil, the one thing I would dispute is the statement that “if the Eames’ had a choice between two manufacturers of equal quality, they would decide on the one that can mass-produce and sell for a tenth of the price.”

      While none of us can surely say how they would choose, it can be noted that both Charles and Ray had a great deal of respect and empathy for humanity.

      Not exactly a philosophy held by the operators of some of those knockoff factories, with workers enduring dangerous conditions, few if any workplace rights and low pay.

      While I don’t support cheap knockoffs that soon end up as shattered scrap in landfills, I think the licensed producers do need to look at their attitudes regarding accessibility to their products.

      As far as Mr Ash claiming that these knockoffs will destroy the creativity and innovation by newer designers… that is rubbish.

      Again, I don’t support the creation of knockoffs. But I’ve never met a designer that decided to turn off their drive to experiment and create due to fear that they might be copied.

      That aspect of Mr Ash’s argument seems to belong in the landfill with the “Eames-Era Lounge” purchased for $199.

  • Robin Dee

    Mr Ash clearly states the IP ran out on the Eames Lounge Chair in 1981! That was 34 years ago.

    Kellog’s invented the corn flake and after a while their exclusivity ran out and now you can buy many brands – this is the same principle as that!

    Stop whinging Mr Ash, Charles and Ray Eames never made anything for Vitra. They made it for Herman Miller and Vitra assimilated those designs until they were granted a license from Herman Miller. I think the former CEO to whom he refers was spot on.

    • Branov

      Stop whinging Robin, how do you know all this? Vitra was developing a lot with Charles & Ray, just compare for example the legs of the Lounge Chair by HM and Vitra or mechanisms of the Aluminium Chairs and so on. Charles & Ray have been often at Vitra’s for amendments of their products.

  • steffen

    Actually, the main problem for young designers isn’t copycats.

    It’s the fact that the retailers and media won’t look twice at a product unless it is connected to a larger manufacture they already know, which actually is quite funny, if it wasn’t hurting my wallet.

    Brands like Fritz Hansen sell their products as being Danish, but their manufacturing has largely been moved to eastern Europe and their designs are made by a spaniard and people still buy it as being Danish, and the retailers and media loves it. But if you come as a younger Spanish, Brazilian etc., they won’t look at your product, until you sell the design to a big name and then everyone loves it.

    I have worked for a lot of smaller brands and designers and I experienced it first hand everyday, it’s a shame as we will lose a new generation of classics.

    • Anon

      Spain is in western Europe.

      • Steffen

        You don’t say. Still doesn’t change the fact their designer is Spanish and their factory is located in Poland.

  • joris

    Let’s say, for every 100 Vitra originals sold, there are 1000 copies sold. And let’s say you are able to ban the selling of copies. That doesn’t mean that Vitra’s sales number will rise to 1100. They will probably still sell 100.

  • Martin

    I must admit when I bought my first property, I couldn’t afford an original Eames lounge chair and Ottoman so bought a fake (which was still expensive).

    It lasted a year and a half before the arm fell off… I then bought an original Vitra Eames lounge chair and Ottoman. It has given me five years of services and still looks amazing. With the fakes, the quality isn’t there. Buy cheap, buy twice.

    • det

      As the cost of a Vitra original is around five times that of a copy, it’s more a case of buy cheap, buy four times and still save money.

  • Garo Ungaro

    Goes back to how much? Greed can be turned into more profits besides the copyrights and royalties…

  • Branov

    Vitra’s Eames plastic chairs are entirely made in Europe: Italy and Germany. Their price has been the same for decades compared to what you get for your money. But there were no IKEAs in past times and you need the money to buy furniture for a lifetime at the bank.

  • feral

    I’ve worked on the furniture supply side and have seen the mark-ups involved on designer brands. Someone is making a HUGE amount of money, so I don’t believe the claim that they are not.

  • Shall we discuss the “Eames House Bird” being sold by Vitra for $250? Itself an unauthorized “copy” of the beloved original created by folk artist Charles Perdew? Who is also given zero credit for its design? Seriously… What staggering hypocrisy.

  • Mikebr

    I can’t comment on all of the designs mentioned, but I would like to comment concerning the Eames fiberglass chairs. Modernica is reproducing these with the original equipment and original design.

    Vitra is reproducing these with a complete different technology, material and design (injection molded PP). For me, the Modernica, is the next best thing compared to an original vintage chair. The Vitra chairs, although they use the Eames name, are nothing like the original chairs.