It was a half-dozen years ago when I wrote On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing, complaining about how hard it was to sell designs of everything from furniture to minihomes made of safe, local materials by craftspeople who earn a decent wage and designers who get a decent commission. I updated it last year and was told that I "need treatment. Perhaps a massage." Most people in North America just don't think they should pay more for anything. That's why a store around the corner from my house can so blatantly offer knockoffs at a quarter the price of the real thing; In North America, price rules.
Jaime Gillin explains why in the June issue of Dwell. Noting that after long hard work by the designer, refinement and promotion by the manufacturer, sales by a high profile retailer,
Enter knockoffs, to blow this balanced ecosystem to bits. Some enterprising person sees a popular design and gets dollar (or euro, or yuan) signs in their eyes. It’s relatively easy to ship a piece overseas to be reverse engineered and manufactured inexpensively. Labor costs are low and it’s simple to swap cheaper materials and compromise on quality. Maybe they tweak the dimensions or add a small new flourish in order to improve their chances of getting away with it.
Alan Heller of Heller furniture blames it on North America's price-fixated culture. He is quoted in a sidebar to the Dwell article where 10 Design Insiders Sound off on Knockoffs:
Here in the U.S., there’s not a sense of proportion between quality, value, and price; it's all based upon price. So when the consumer is used to this, this [knockoff culture] is what happens. There's this aspect of disposable - you buy it, have it for a year or two, and then you get rid of it. In Europe, they buy a piece of furniture the way you buy a BMW; you're going to keep it for a long, long, long time. We in the U.S. just don’t have that cultural aspect of buying something of quality that will last a long time.
The best option for the cash-strapped design lover may be simply buying something original that you can afford. Many young designers out there create good, high-quality, less-expensive pieces; you can find them on Etsy, at local flea markets, shops, thesis exhibitions, and even in the occasional big-box store like Ikea. The designer you support today may be tomorrow’s next Eames, Panton, or Le Corbusier. Put your money behind fresh, original work and you’re not just scoring a rad piece for your home—you’re showing you care about the future of design.
H.L. Mencken wrote that "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public", but a lot of people have by overestimating it, including myself. I don't know how we change this attitude that low price is all that matters, because it isn't.