Why You Should Save for the Real Thing Instead of Buying Knock-Off Designer Furniture

CC BY 2.0. Knock-offs on the streets of Toronto/ Lloyd Alter

It has become a trillion dollar industry where nobody wins.

Anne Quito of Fast Company writes about a subject dear to this TreeHugger’s heart: There’s a trillion-dollar global black market for fake “designer” chairs. But usually when one thinks of black markets, it’s about buying off the back of a truck, semi-secret and under the table. As shown by the store around the corner from where I live, the furniture industry is totally blatant and open about it, proud that they are delivering a similar product at a much lower price.

making a chair

Molding an Eames recliner at Herman Miller/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But as Anne Quito notes, there is another price that is paid. The original Eames Chair, that is among the most copied pieces of furniture in the world, is still made in Zeeland, Michigan. It used to be made of rosewood but they changed it to a more sustainably harvested wood. It will last a lifetime (although the rubber pucks might need repair at some point). You can see a slideshow I made showing its production here.


Drying rack full of Eames Recliner parts at Herman Miller/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Contrary to the image of Eames furniture being designed to be cheap and for a larger audience, the recliner was never cheap and was knocked off almost from the start. The original is made locally out of quality materials; in most cases, nobody knows where the knockoff is made and what the working conditions are. It may not even be safe. Quito writes:

packing a completed chair at Herman Miller

Packing a completed Eames Recliner at Herman Miller/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Buying knockoffs also exposes consumers and companies to safety risks, warns Coleman Gutshall, Bernhardt Design’s director of global strategy and sourcing. Without a reputation to protect, counterfeiters can skirt product safety regulations or employ factories with questionable labor policies. Quantum, an ergonomic office chair sold by Office Depot that looks suspiciously like Herman Miller’s Aeron chair, was found to have defective backrest bolts and caused back injuries.
Cradle to cradle

Cradle to Cradle/Screen capture

The originals are often more expensive because they are designed to do many things besides just look good. Many Herman Miller chairs have Cradle to Cradle certification and have been carefully designed for disassembly so that all the materials can be recycled or reused. The factory where they make the Aeron chair is designed by Bill McDonough and the amount of waste that they send to landfill in an entire year could fit in the trunk of my Subaru. This is seriously green design and production and it has a cost. As Quito notes, design is not just just about looks.

[Emeco CEO Gregg] Buchbinder blames knock-off culture on a popular misconception of what “design” really means. “The design of the chair really starts with scientists, chemists and engineers working on the materials and the processes,” he explains. “There’s so much more to design other than the shape. I don’t think the average consumer understands that; they think they’re paying for the shape.”

All of this is even before you get to the main point, which is that designers deserve to get paid for what they design and the companies that license their designs have exactly that -- the licence, that should be exclusive. That all adds to the cost too.

knockoffs on the street

knockoffs on the street/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

When I last wrote about this subject in my post On Knowing The Price Of Everything And The Value Of Nothing, I noted that furniture used to be aspirational; you used Grandma’s sofa until you could afford what you really wanted. I waited 30 years until I found dining room chairs that I really liked, but most people won’t do that. Now it is cheaper to buy a new sofa at IKEA than it is to hire a mover to bring you your grandma’s, so most people don’t do that either. But we have to think about this differently. In her take on this subject at Apartment Therapy, Cambria Bold wrote that great green design should:

  • be beautiful, durable, and innovative.
  • be against throwawayism.
  • be able to improve your life and the planet without sacrificing style and comfort.
  • encourage thoughtful, careful purchasing.
  • celebrate both thrift AND aspiration.

That costs money and it’s worth the wait.