weekly feature | Jun 30, 2021 |
A mysterious Instagram account is targeting knockoffs. Is that good?

Late last year, Brooklyn furniture designer Aaron Poritz got some good news from a gallery that represents his work. An interior designer, Jessica Gersten, had inquired about purchasing one of his desks, the Kaplan. She wanted samples of the white oak he would use to make it, which Poritz happily provided. Time passed, and he checked in on the potential sale. Bad news this time—Gersten had decided not to buy.

In May, Poritz says he got another email from his gallery asking if he wound up working with Jessica after all. She had posted images on Instagram that seemed to feature the Kaplan, but the transaction hadn’t come through the gallery. Poritz checked Gersten’s feed and saw an almost exact replica of his desk. He hadn’t built it. It appeared to be made from white oak.

Knockoffs are everywhere in the home industry. At this moment, somewhere there’s a containership full of look-alike Hans Wegner Wishbone chairs plodding steadily across a distant ocean toward a fulfillment center near you. Every day, workrooms produce near-identical replicas of existing pieces—sometimes unknowingly, sometimes looking the other way. And it goes without saying that the floors of retail chains are stocked with pieces that borrow heavily from classics and indie breakouts alike.

Copycatting in design is frowned upon, but it’s rarely called out in public. That may be changing.

A month ago, an anonymous account appeared on Instagram, @DesignWithinCopy. It debuted with a post pointing out the striking similarity between a side table posted by Spanish studio madFaber and an existing piece by Brooklyn-based designer Fernando Mastrangelo. The same day, the account posted Poritz’s table side by side with Gersten’s. The caption: “@jessicagersteninteriors built her Instagram following off of posting other interior designer’s work. Is it any surprise she would knock off @poritzandstudio’s desk? #designwithincopy.” (Gersten did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

In the following weeks, the account continued to post accusations of copycatting—each time sharing seemingly damning juxtaposed imagery labeled “Copy” and “Original.” Christian Siriano was accused of borrowing from Pierre Yovanovitch. A Los Angeles–based furniture company called Olivya Stone was accused of lifting eight different designs. Recently, Design Within Copy has focused on marquee industry names: Some of the latest posts have targeted Jonathan Adler and Kelly Wearstler.

With each accusation, the account’s audience has grown, starting from a several hundred followers to now topping 8,000. Just as important as the number of followers is who follows the account. Editors at Architectural Digest, Elle Decor and House Beautiful follow @DesignWithinCopy. So does Hem founder and CEO Petrus Palmer and Sandow CEO Adam Sandow.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations with designers, showroom reps, PR agents and retail executives, all of whom knew about the account. Some love it. Others hate it. All are talking about @DesignWithinCopy. Now that there’s someone saying out loud what has mostly been kept to a whisper, what does it mean?

The first thing everyone wants to know is: Who is it lobbing these accusations from the shadows of digital anonymity? Via email, the poster behind the account simply said they had been formally trained in design, and that they work in the design industry.

“I don’t remember which instance [of copycatting] came first,” they wrote, discussing the origins of the account. “I guess it was just an accumulation of frustration after seeing copy after copy over time, … and none of these cases were being documented/publicized. I’m sure many of the official design media outlets avoid reporting on these copycattisms due to fear of losing (ad) relationships with designers, companies, and/or getting sued for slander. Which is why it’s important for me to stay anonymous.”

Maybe just as important as the identity of Design Within Copy is the culture that has birthed the account. While knockoffs have always been a part of the industry, we’re in a unique historical moment, as the rise of social media has created a particularly fertile environment for copycatting to thrive.

“I think that we’re at a bit of an inflection point,” says Coleman Gutshall, the president of Be Original Americas, an industry group dedicated to combating intellectual theft in the design industry. “As everything moved online, it’s become a lot easier to be divorced from the product. When you get away from being able to physically experience a product, it’s easier to get trapped in this world of knockoffs—whether intentionally or not.”

Any designer can identify with Gutshall’s point. The dominance of platforms like Pinterest and Instagram have led to some obvious benefits—more and more people are exposed to the appeal of great design. But at the same time, the mechanics of these platforms often strip original works of their context.

By the time an inspiration image arrives in an interior designer’s inbox, it has often been pinned, reposted, screenshotted and filtered to the point that it’s no longer clear who created the original piece or who took the photo, or even when the image was created. We’re rich in inspiration but comparatively poor in design education. The result is a visual culture in which a well-curated aesthetic is often valued over historical rigor or proper crediting.

This, too, is a familiar phenomenon to most interior designers. Clients often fall in love with a look on social media, but it’s relatively rare that they’ll get obsessed with who Jean Royère was, or the difference between Pierre Yovanovitch and Christian Liaigre. Given that, is it any surprise that copycatting is everywhere?

However, just as social media is fertile ground for copycats, it is also the perfect medium for catching them. In an age where everything is documented, archived and time-stamped, there’s plenty of evidence lying around for anyone who cares to piece it together. Historically, design copycats would only be found out by chance. Now, they're documenting their own plagiarism and posting it online. Receipts are bountiful.

The mechanics of the internet also provide the power to supercharge to a public shaming. Particularly salty accusations can go viral, drawing enough attention to lead to real change. That dynamic has fueled the rise of an Instagram account like Diet Prada (@diet_prada), which was founded by anonymous fashion industry insiders in 2014 and monitors copycatting and general malfeasance in the fashion world. (The duo behind the account were identified in 2017.) In discussions about Design Within Copy, comparisons between the two inevitably come up. The poster behind the latter acknowledged the similarity but drew a distinction: “[Diet Prada] focuses on politics, which I have no interest in providing a platform,” they wrote.

Another factor fueling the appetite for an account like @DesignWithinCopy is the fact that the legal system doesn’t protect designers particularly well. U.S. intellectual property law is set up to defend companies that make technical innovations (via patents) or develop recognizable brands (via trademarks), and artists who produce unique creative works (via copyrights). Furniture and home decor often falls into an uncomfortable middle ground that satisfies all three conditions partially, but none of them fully. Simply put: Many knockoffs are not, technically speaking, illegal.

Even if a company has been aggressive about securing proper legal classification for its designs, it still has to go to the trouble of defending its claim in court, an arduous and expensive proposition. Often, the emotional and financial cost of pursuing a lawsuit outweighs the potential benefits. Most small studios simply give up and move on. The reality is that defending intellectual property is usually restricted to the well-funded.

That’s not to say no one cares. Be Original Americas, founded in 2012 for the express purpose of pushing back against fake furniture, has notched up some impressive victories in the fight against copycatting. By training U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to recognize fakes, Be Original has helped the agency stop millions in counterfeit furniture from being sold. According to an article published in Fast Company this year, Ligne Roset alone was able to prevent $1.5 million worth of counterfeit Togo sofas from entering the country.

Gutshall told me that, outside of its work with Customs and Border Protection, most of his organization’s efforts go toward educating people about the value of original design as opposed to tackling individual copycat cases. “You’re more likely to win people over if you’re being positive and talking about the virtues of originality rather than putting someone on the defense by calling them out,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of success with major platforms, partnering with them to identify counterfeit products on their sites and work with them to take them down.”

These are noble efforts, and many in the industry praise the nonprofit’s work. But Gutshall acknowledged that much of the conversation around knockoffs tends to be focused on industrial-scale copying of design icons—Barcelona chairs, Tulip tables and the like. For independent design studios, there’s rarely the same legal recourse or institutional support. To many, an anonymous account that names and shames offenders offers some welcome vigilante justice outside of a system that has largely failed them.

"I am extremely grateful for all of the positive responses I’ve received," wrote the anonymous poster. "Most people have shared stories of how they’ve been ripped off, how the platform makes them feel protected, and that they are glad something like this is finally being done."

That’s especially true given that @DesignWithinCopy has delivered tangible, real-world results. Earlier this month, the account posted several instances in which Los Angeles designer Ryan Saghian appeared to have closely copied other designers’ work. Two, in particular, jumped out: A stool and a chair that Saghian had produced for his collection with Moss Studio that seemed to be near-identical copies of pieces by L.A. studio Atelier de Troupe and international designer Yabu Pushelberg.

After a several days of back-and-forth, Saghian posted a mea culpa to Instagram and announced that he was removing both pieces from his collection. Through a few well-sourced Instagram posts, Design Within Copy had declared a victory.

It’s easy to see why independent designers have flocked to the account and why onlookers have applauded each new post. However, while Design Within Copy offers a compelling narrative and a damning indictment of creative theft in the design industry, things get more complicated when you start digging into the posts.

For one, the account tends to group all forms of borrowing under the same umbrella, no matter who is allegedly doing the copying, or what is being copied. Some of the posts point to a contemporary designer making a clear knockoff of another contemporary designer—an obvious example of financial harm. But the account also takes pains to name and shame designers for referencing vintage pieces without clear attribution—a practice that, to some, feels like a lesser sin.

For example, designer Lisa Bowles of Roark Modern was called out for producing a close look-alike of a 1980s lamp originally produced by Casual Lamps of California—a company no longer in business. When I brought up the example with the person behind @DesignWithinCopy, they defended the post in the name of valuing originality. “The harm in this case financially is minimal, however, I perceive this in terms of ethical harm in the creative industry,” they wrote. “It’s about the principle for me.”

The account takes pains to go back even farther, calling out designers for referencing without clear attribution pieces that date to as early as 1942. “In the context of companies knocking off pieces by deceased designers, there are several furniture companies who produce classic pieces in an honorable fashion,” the poster wrote via email. “They’ve made agreements with the families of the designers to manufacture the furniture and pay royalties to them as standard practice in the furniture industry.”

Leaving aside the complexity of copyright law, and the fact that often these deals are intricate in their own right (a small example: the work of midcentury designer Paul McCobb is controlled by a Danish holding company, not the designer’s devoted grandchildren), this has the feel of common sense, but actually, it’s only one vision of an equitable design industry. Would it really be a better world if anyone who wanted to play “Ode to Joy” had to pay a royalty to Beethoven’s descendants?

For its other examples of alleged copying, @DesignWithinCopy pitches the likeness as obvious, but they left me wondering. One post pointed out the similarity between a detail on a chair by San Miguel de Allende, Mexico–based Zonddi Designs (the “Copy”) and a lounge by New York–based studio Vonnegut/Kraft (the “Original”). The detail in question—a crescent-moon-shaped support—is similar. But there are only so many shapes that can reasonably be arranged to create a functional chair.

In an email, Zonddi said that the support detail was not a copy of Vonnegut/Kraft’s piece but instead a reference to a popular Mexican slingshot toy called a resortera. However, even if the detail were an uncredited nod to Vonnegut/Kraft’s work, it would be a small one.

Another post called out Kelly Wearstler for copying a Sputnik-style lamp by Los Angeles brand Jean de Merry. A source with knowledge of the situation told Business of Home that in fact, Wearstler had originally designed the lamp for the restaurant at the Bergdorf Goodman and had contracted Jean de Merry to manufacture the piece. After the project, Jean de Merry continued to produce it as part of its own collection. In essence, @DesignWithinCopy was accusing Wearstler of copying herself. (Jean de Merry declined to comment for this article).

The point is not so much that @DesignWithinCopy is riddled with transparently false claims—it’s not. But the account flattens a variety of complicated situations into easily digestible nuggets of outrage. Some feel like slam dunks. Others are more nebulous, and raise questions about the difference between copying and inspiration, how much attribution should be required for historical references, and the ephemeral nature of creative inspiration. Despite the grab-bag nature of the accusations, ultimately, all are painted with the same uniquely online version of public shame.

That, too, is a complicating factor. Internet shaming is a potentially powerful tool, but an imprecise one. Saghian is one of the few designers (if not the only one) called out on the account who has publicly pulled the offending pieces from his collection. Still, he had come in for some of the heaviest criticism, both from the account itself and from strangers through DM (Saghian says that some of the messages he received have been anti-Semetic and otherwise abusive). Meanwhile, many of the other accused offenders have simply blocked @DesignWithinCopy and carried on as though nothing had happened. You can only shame those who are willing to engage.

Several people in the industry have told me they’re happy that the account exists but wish that it would take more of a Robin Hood approach, pointing out examples of theft by large corporate brands from indie designers. (Thus far, only one post has targeted a retailer—Anthropologie—and the victim of the alleged theft, Jean Royère, has been dead for 40 years.)

By email, the poster behind the account said they intended to target retail brands in the near future. However, at least in practice, up until now, he or she seemed as motivated by pure principles of originality (and puncturing the inflated egos of hypocritical designers) as by the power dynamics of creative theft. “We all get inspired by others,” they wrote. “But taking something and then claiming it is 100 percent conceived from your own brilliance and originality is something I find incredibly ridiculous and egotistical.”

That’s fair enough. There are plenty of egos to pop in the design industry, and there’s nothing wrong with diving into the history books and setting the record straight about who’s referencing whom. But it’s worth pointing out that the account is not a council handing down judgments from on high. It’s a person, making personal decisions about what version of copycatting most deserves our attention. That should come as no surprise. Vigilante justice tends to be doled out according to the preferences of the vigilante.

While researching this article, I reached out to people on either side of a @DesignWithinCopy shaming. Among the accused, many didn’t reply. Some did and defended themselves, but declined to go on the record. Most had decided that it was better to take the hit and move on. I had assumed that designers on the other side of the equation—the “Originals” whose work was allegedly being stolen—would be eager to talk about the scourge of theft in the design world. Interestingly, that wasn’t necessarily the case. On @DesignWithinCopy’s account, Stephen Antonson, whose work was allegedly copied by a Los Angeles lighting store, said: “I try to ignore the copies. As my father once said to me, in this world, there are givers and there are takers.” (Another commenter, not seeming to grasp who Antonson was, replied: “Not Cool.”)

When I connected with Katrina Vonnegut of Vonnegut/Kraft, whose lounge chair was allegedly referenced by Zonddi designs, she expressed some uncertainty about whether the detail in question was really a copy, and if so, how much harm had been caused.

Interestingly, Vonnegut told me her studio had been embroiled in another copycatting fiasco in the recent past, in which a designer had much more blatantly replicated their work. After reaching out directly and getting the brushoff, Vonnegut and her partner had taken the issue to social media. Lawyers were involved, and it got messy. The situation was eventually resolved, but Vonnegut described the experience as emotionally bruising. “It doesn’t feel good to be on either side of a public shaming,” she said. “Our protocol is a little different now. Usually, I’ll reach out to [the maker of the knockoff] personally and start a dialogue."

The longer we spoke, the more Vonnegut grappled with the complexity of knockoffs. On the one hand, it would be nice if designers more transparently credited their inspirations. On the other, she acknowledged, “Even when you’re developing new details, there’s always a historical precedent. Nobody designs in a vacuum.” For small design studios like Vonnegut/Kraft, it could feel like a painful betrayal when designers commission look-alikes, but she also wrestled with issues of economic inequality at play. “I’m so conflicted,” she said. “When you think about art and class—who can afford what, and if you can’t, can you reproduce it? I think it’s important that there are gray areas.”

As for the poster behind @DesignWithinCopy? “My DMs are definitely flooded,” they wrote, an indication that there is much more to come. “There have been so many submissions, I honestly have a tough time getting through all of them.”

Updated: July 7, 2021
This story has been updated to reflect new information that came to light around the origin of Kelly Wearstler's Strada Chandelier.

Homepage photo: ©peshkov/Adobe Stock

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