Q+A – Eames Demetrios

So how about Knoll’s victory?

I thought it was great. When people think they’re getting a Mies experience they shouldn’t be getting a low-rent, pseudo Mies experience.

Last year, Herman Miller, the authorized manufacturer of your grandfather’s furniture in the U.S., won a similar battle regarding the Eames lounge chair and ottoman. This must have given Knoll encouragement. But where did you and the Miller company look for hope?

We looked at Coca-Cola, where the shape of the bottle is part of the mark. There was also the case of a Mexican-themed restaurant in the Southwest whose interior decor was pink and orange and had distinctive columns. Another restaurant copied it completely, and the first restaurant sued and won. In short, we looked at anything where visual cues had been used to confuse customers about authenticity.

How do you rank the ethics of knocking off furniture on a scale from despicable to punishable by death?

I always say, nobody ever brags they copied all the answers on a math test. Cheating’s not illegal, but everyone knows it’s not okay. Trade dress offers a tool to enforce that commonsense interpretation.

But does the tool have teeth? What, technically, can you do if unauthorized Eames pieces role off an assembly line in China?

They can be destroyed as contraband when they come off the ship.

What do you say to people who don’t know Eames from Adam and just want a nice- looking chair?

I say, I know nothing about wine, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to bring me an inferior bottle if I ordered something else. And what does “nice-looking” mean in this case? Charles said, “The details are not the details. The details make the product.” The knockoff chair sometimes is nice-looking from a distance, but never close up.

And yet, people may get really close and still find the chair pleasing.

Whether it’s wine or furniture, the company selling a product should tell the truth. You should never be duped into thinking you’ve gotten something authentic when it isn’t. In fact, knockoff companies use code words to try to persuade consumers they’re buying the real thing. I think people may notice a difference. In the absence of any experience they may not be able to articulate it, but if they were taken on the journey…

If your grandfather could commune from the beyond, what do you think he would say about intellectual property rights?

Designers like Charles, Ray, and Mies weren’t designing vintage furniture. They were trying to produce a system that would reliably re-create a certain guest/host experience long after they were gone. They could have said, “The moment I die, my authentic furniture dies with me,” but that wasn’t what they were about. Noguchi set up the Noguchi Foundation to police rights. Mies identified the Museum of Modern Art as arbiter of authenticity. My mom [Lucia Eames] asked our generation to work with Herman Miller and Vitra to maintain standards. My whole theory on authenticity is that there is a triangle: consumer, manufacturer, and designer. If there’s no consumer, there’s no market and therefore no reason to knock off creative property. If there’s no manufacturer, there’s no production run: You own a one-off Nakashima table, which is beautiful, but not what people like the Eameses, who designed for mass production, were after. Now, what happens if there’s no designer in the triangle?

Too often, knockoff manufacturers feel they have the right to make decisions because they say we don’t know the designer’s intentions. But actually, the designer has personally designated someone to take over, and we know exactly what was wanted. Besides, if there are 10 things wrong with a chair, the knockoff folks will fix only five of them, and the five cheapest at that. The authorized manufacturer must listen to the designer’s advocate.

There are some design-literate people who consider knockoffs appropriate for folks who can’t afford the real thing.

If manufacturers believe that a chair is overpriced and there’s a need for a new chair, they should design a new chair. But being a parasite on the goodwill of others is wrong. As for reproductions, I would encourage any authorized manufacturer to make them as price-competitive as possible. Unfortunately, in this day and age, the only way to save money is to skimp on details. That’s where the savings for the knockoff people are-not in design royalties, which, appropriately, are very small. Authorization doesn’t add to the cost; it’s doing everything to the required specifications. But that is what you are buying: the real thing.

Julie Lasky is the editor-in-chief of I.D.

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