Faking it: Does it pay to pay more?

Last week’s trick or treating got Annie Deakin thinking about dirt-cheap, knock-off design classics.
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The Independent Online

In a world of fashion and design, the brand is king but priorities shift in times of financial trouble. Why buy the real thing when cheap copies are readily available? Sunglasses, cosmetics, watches, DVDs... "Barcelona", "Tulip", "Panton" chairs. You name it, the fakes flourish.

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Earlier this month, the much-anticipated Modern Design Auction in Chicago fared poorly as a direct result of the global market. The same day the American stock market was down 5 per cent, 157 of the 417 lots, including tables and chairs by Norman Cherner and Florence Knoll, did not meet their reserve. Coincidence? "Authentic" designs don’t depreciate over time but few can afford them. The recession means buyers pursue reproductions and counterfeit goods instead of supporting the design industry.

Don’t confuse quality repros with the dirt cheap, predominantly illegal knock-offs on eBay and market stalls. In spite of the Asian sweat shops, Italian mafia and Serbian gangsters powering the market, there’s still a certain cachet in counterfeit chic.

Last weekend, I was tempted by phony Chanel handbags in Portobello market in Notting Hill; the top fake brands were on display but crucially, without labels, making it difficult for prosecutors to act. On request, stallholders produce versions with labels. Like when a friend copies my outfit, being imitated is a little bit flattering but mostly irritating. “I used to like mirrored furniture before it was everywhere.” Lulu Guinness told me, “Once it became too easy to get, the charm goes. It’s a constant quest to be different.”

It amused me how Ex-EastEnders actress Daniella Westbrook singlehandedly annihilated Burberry with her chav-tastic head-to-toe check outfit. Brands are appalled when their label is associated outside their target market but knock-off products help the democratisation of design. Shouldn’t we all have access to classic designs? Is anything ever original anyhow?

The leather and plywood Eames lounge chair is frequently reproduced, often to a spookily high standard. Created first in 1956 by American husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames, it sells "officially" at Heal’s for £3,495. A duplicate ‘Eames-style’ lounge chair is at Go Modern for £640. If there’s no visible Herman Miller label on the underside of your Eames, you’ve been tricked with a fake. The genuine article has five legs (many copies have four), curved armrests (not flat), doesn’t recline (most fakes do) and the aluminium back braces must be die cast (not square tubular aluminium).

"An authorised version is made by trained, dedicated craftsmen and will last a lifetime. Cheap copies don’t," says Daniel Aram of Aram Store. Searching the home design website mydeco.com for the popular "Barcelona" chair, I found Ludwig Mies van de Rohe’s mid-century design masterpiece at prices ranging from £499 to £1,820. Knoll is the only licensed manufacturer of Barcelona chairs but stiff competition comes from Alphaville, Steelform, Form by Form and Euro Style. Knoll spends 28 hours to hand-stitch the cushions of one "Barcelona" chair - but so does their rival Alphaphille.

But how original is Knoll’s "Barcelona" chair? Modern Classics, who hand-make reproductions of Bauhaus and Modernist classics argue that, "Knoll speaks about how they own the rights to the ‘Barcelona chair’ or Cassina about the Le Corbusier couches. What should be made clear is they own the rights to using the name ‘Barcelona’ or have an agreement with a historical foundation to market under a particular name, but they are not making an original product design at all, just their version of it."

Created for the king and queen of Spain for the 1929 Barcelona Exposition, the "Barcelona" chair is a modern version of the scissor-like collapsible stools used by Roman and Egyptian rulers. Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe re-interpreted the form in steel and leather. So-called originals are often modified versions. Photos show that the earliest cushions on Florence Knoll’s Barcelona chair were diamond-patterned, not the squares we recognise today.

Likewise, Danish architect Verner Panton’s eponymous chair without back legs was originally made in fibreglass in 1967. It now exists in (cheaper) polypropylene. The only true originals are from the first production run. Confined to museums and private collections, these rarely come up for sale.

Last weekend, the streets were alive with groups of children dressed in menacing outfits screaming "Trick or treat?". Like their soapy sweets, cheap copies give a cheap, ghoulish thrill which wanes fast. Who wants the same sofa as their friends? Barbara Hulanicki told me, "I am sick and tired of walking into a room and knowing where everything comes from." If you can’t afford the original, hunt for cheaper, equally well-designed furniture. You never know, it could be tomorrow’s design classic. Now, that really would be a bona fide treat.

Annie Deakin is acting editor of mydeco.com