As long as there have been beautiful, expensive products, there have been cheaper lookalikes. Why buy a full-price, authentic Gucci handbag when you can go to a Canal Street back alley and get a nearly identical fake for a fraction of the cost? Knockoffs are a scourge in the design industry (not to mention a bad influence on our psyche); they hurt the bottom line of manufacturers that invest in research and development to bring prototypes to market.
To protest the proliferation of copycats, 26 Australian designers brutalized and bastardized Hal chairs–a famous molded plastic side chair by British designer Jasper Morrison for Vitra–as a physical symbol of their frustration with fakes.
“The prevalence of replica furniture in Australia raises serious issues pertaining to respecting design authorship, valuing creative practice and competing in a commercial market that is often hostile to the designer,” the exhibition’s curators, Dale Hardiman and Tom Skeehan, wrote in the show’s description.
Morrison originally designed the Hal in 2011 and it has become one of the most successful contemporary chairs in Vitra’s repertoire. Because of the complexity with intellectual property rights and trademark law in Australia, it’s legal to produce replicas. Hal is an especially popular one to imitate.
Design protection laws vary from place to place. The United Kingdom, for example, recently made it illegal to copy a handful of classic furniture pieces. Designers and manufacturers have banded together in advocacy groups, like Be Original, to have a more organized approach to tackling the problem. Some are calling for stricter design protection laws, too. The position Hardiman and Skeehan take is that design is not purely about aesthetics–it’s about innovation and creating something that works well for a long time.
A quote from Morrison, who gave the exhibition his blessing, guided the artistic responses:
Designs that are only concerned with aesthetics usually fail in the everyday, long-term sense. They are not much more than food for the endless exchange of creative ego and selling magazines.
The designers took creative liberties with their submissions. Matt Woods covered a Hal chair in clay and glitter and named it You Can Polish a Turd as a nod to replicas’ emphasis on appearance, not substance. Daast Design, a studio in Sydney, carved a letter into a Hal chair expressing frustration with the Australian government’s lax IP laws. (The note, hypothetically sent from the Australian Government to Morrison reads: “We allow ‘replica’ furniture to be produced and profited from without the consent of the designer.Nevertheless, we’ve decided to send you some ‘replica’ royalties as a token of appreciation.) Studio Gram, which is based in a suburb of Adelaide, compared the damage of knockoffs to the tobacco industry by melting a chair.
While these individual chairs won’t stop the knockoff machine, they make the problem more visible. Perhaps the exhibition will make consumers (who can afford authentic design) grab their wallet and shell out for the real thing. See highlights from the exhibition in the slideshow above.