As more interior designers develop signature styles and product lines, protecting original design is more important than ever. Many industry leaders have honed in on this idea, and are exploring the line between inspiration and replication.
“This issue is really present in hospitality design—in hotels especially,” said Rebecca Dorris Steiger, VP of communications/treasurer of IIDA. “A hotel will find a Holly Hunt chair they love, for example, then ship it off to China and get 700 made for a cheaper price. Then they pop up in hotels across the country.”
This is a difficult battle to fight as China does not enforce U.S. copyrights and patents so companies there can produce and ship fakes to the U.S. without consequence. A group of furniture manufacturers joined together to launch the "Be Original" campaign, which goes after such companies. Founding members include Alessi, Artek, Bernhardt Design, Cassina/Poltrona, Frau/Cappellini, Emeco, Flos, Fritz Hansen, Herman Miller, Ligne Roset, and Vitra.
Earlier this year, Emeco sued and won a case against Restoration Hardware for infringement of its trademark rights with regards to its Navy Chair, which Restoration Hardware had recreated and called the Naval Chair.
From left: Emeco's Navy Chair and Restoration Hardware's Naval Chair
“Sometimes legal action is really tricky,” said Steiger. “If a company replicates a design but there’s a slight difference from the original, it makes it really tough to take legal action.”
According to attorney David M. Adler, the first and most important step in protecting one’s designs is to document everything one does as a designer. Make sure each hand sketch is copyrighted and keep a paper trail of documents and correspondence pertaining to the design. If it’s a brand-new idea, have it patented as patent laws are much more binding. Next, work with an intellectual property lawyer to determine what, if anything, is protectable and which type of protection is most practical and economically feasible.
“While you could spot a knock off of a Chanel Bag easily, sometimes its more difficult to identify copies of a product design," said interior and product designer Laura Kirar. “The time from conception to market is also a factor because it’s sometimes difficult to judge what is ‘trending’ vs. what is being copied. That is why it is essential to trademark your designs.”
“To be inspired by the work of a designer like Rhulman is not the same as replicating one of his pieces and calling it original,” said Sally Sirkin Lewis, founder of J. Robert Scott. “A true designer would create a design with his or her own interpretation, whether it is in terms of scale, or materials. We are all influenced by styles around us, time periods, and by historical examples—an exact copy of someone else’s work that you claim as your own is dishonest.”
“I do believe that design editors need to be aware of knock offs and take an active role in educating their readers about this issue,” said Michael Wollaeger, editorial director of Interiors Magazine. “It is a great disservice to the industry to promote any product that is a direct copy of an original design.”