Lounge life: Take a seat...and then copy it

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Samantha Cameron may have thought her 'fake' Arco lamp was a bargain, but she's set the design world talking. Should you buy a reproduction or invest in the real thing?

When it comes to high design, can a cheap copy ever match up to the real deal? In fashion, forget it, faking it is completely unacceptable. But in furniture design there is a special word for a fake or a copy. It is "replica", and retailers up and down the country sell such products proudly and legally to a growing customer base.

You could, for example, pick up a replica Mies Van Der Rohe Barcelona chair – that distinctive leather bivalve design gracing so many office reception areas – for £445 from Vita Interiors (vita-interiors.com) in Bath. At The Conran Shop (conranshop.co.uk) , which describes the Barcelona chair as "one of the most imitated designs of all time", an authentic example from the Knoll factory will leave you little change from £5,000.

Neither chair is cheap. What you might find unusual is that those places selling the copies are doing nothing to disguise the fact that they are reproducing some of the most popular and revered furniture designs of the 20th century. You would never catch M&S or John Lewis crunching out fake Chanel handbags and displaying them in shop windows. Nor would you see Topshop or Zara, well known for the speed with which they interpretcatwalk trends for the high street, advertising garments under the name of the original designer.

There is a reason for this. In the UK, the copyright of industrial designs expires 25 years after it is issued, whereas in most of the rest of Europe the protection of this intellectual property lasts until 70 years after a designer's death. This has made Britain the ideal market to build a culture of replica furniture.

"The word 'replica' sounds like it might be a legit copy," says Michelle Ogundehin, the editor of interiors magazine ELLE Decoraton . "This is sugar coating. It is not illegal, but it is the theft of intellectual property."

Ogundehin's argument is that the UK's lax laws regarding design copyright are damaging to the industry and disrespectful to the original designer. "Why are the copyright laws for design so poor? They have been changed recently for music and art. Design is treated as the poor cousin. The presumption in the UK seems to be that we're good at design so we don't need to do anything about it, and the industry suffers."

The strange thing is, many people who would never admit to owning a fake Prada bag are quite happy to boast about how much they saved on a knock- off designer armchair. Who today has the resources to spend thousands of pounds on one item of furniture?

The Prime Minister and his wife decided they didn't when they bought a replica Arco light for £250 from Iconic Lights, instead of paying more than £1,500 for the original. Ogundehin criticised the purchase, calling SamCam "cheap, hypocritical and fake" for supporting the "faux-furniture" industry.

Samantha Cameron, as a former creative director of luxury goods brand Smythson and a member of the British Fashion Council, is a leading figure in the UK's creative industries. Her purchase of the replica lamp suggests that she doesn't see her responsibility stretching to furniture.

No doubt the Camerons would have been vilified had they spent £1,500 on a single lamp, and Ogundehin herself has since become the target of critics for her snobbery. "[My critics] missed the point entirely," she says. "The real issue is the hidden cost of these fakes. They are not environmentally friendly, and the labour costs are unclear."

On its website, Iconic Lights states "there is almost no difference between our reproduction and an original". Paul Middlemiss, buying director for The Conran Shop, says that if you put a replica and an original in a line-up, the fake is obvious.

David Gutfreund, managing director of Iconic Lights, says that even the modern classics sold by The Conran Shop, Heal's and others are not exactly the same as the originals, because the methods of production and materials used have changed. He says the issue is one of economics rather than respect for the design and manufacture process: "Both sides want to make money. If I come up with an original piece of art or invent paracetamol, I want to make money out of that for as long as possible. Yet someone invented the wheel at one point, and we no longer expect to be paying for that. We're not selling anyone's latest designs, but you can get your iconic classics here."

Colin Bloomfield, of Vita Interiors, agrees. "There is a difference between buying 'rip-offs' of current in-patent designs or brands and buying reproductions of old historical designs allowed under UK law. We are totally honest and open about the fact that our furniture is made in China and always impart the information that our pieces are in reproduction."

Twenty-five years of protection seems very little. "It's a bit like the music industry," says Middlemiss, echoing Ogundehin. "If you don't support the people that design it, why will those people keep designing?"

According to Middlemiss, the market for classic originals is growing, just as the replica market is. Arne Jacobsen's popular Swan chairs (£2,385 at Conran) are now being manufactured with microchips because they are so prized on the black market. Middlemiss bought his first designer item, an Eero Saarinen table, "for something ridiculous like £5,000, but I will get back at auction more than I paid for it".

But neither Middlemiss nor Ogundehin are suggesting we collectively default on our mortgage and debt repayments to buy exorbitantly priced furniture. "If you can't afford classic originals then there are a plethora of great, affordable and well-designed alternatives out there," says Ogundehin. "Buy what you can afford, but buy an original design," says Middlemiss, who emphasises the manufacturing process is intrinsic to an original design.

Justin Pratt, manager of Knoll Studio UK, which manufactures a number of classic furniture designs, told ELLE Decoration: "I'd like an Aston Martin. It is an elitist expensive car, but I can't afford it, so what do I do... stick an Aston Martin badge on my Volvo? Design should not be elitist. In fact Ikea do a beautiful watering can for 79p."

Ogundehin wonders if originals could be a little cheaper, to protect the market. Upcoming sales suggest there is some margin for this. London's Aram Store, for example, will offer up to 75 per cent off design classics in its January sale, with Arne Jacobsen's Swan chair down from £6,555 to £1,638, and the Eames Lounge chair and Ottoman down from £5,565 to £1,391.

But few can afford to splurge on the fakes, never mind the originals. This doesn't mean you can't value good design and desire to protect it. Ogundehin says design is woefully under-represented at an official level, and that Britain trains good designers, who then flee to Italy where their talents are rewarded. "Fashion moves so quickly, but design is much slower," she says. "You expect some longevity from it."

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