Faux Pas

Buying knockoff and counterfeit goods hurts more than the original manufacturer—it weakens the entire state of design.

09.02.2014 by Erika Templeton

Having ideas stolen, copied, and hawked for profit is a reality that all designers face. It is such a relentless problem, in fact, that many manufacturers dedicate entire teams to fighting knock-offs. They are the lucky ones. Younger, smaller businesses with less time and fewer resources resort to commiserating, and sharing strategies to stem the problem when they can.

Fortunately, interior product designers and manufacturers of all shapes and sizes now have Be Original Americas, a nonprofit organization focused strictly on fighting the proliferation of counterfeit goods and knocked-off ideas. Founded in 2012, Be Original is a growing platform for dialogue and education, and we at I&S are proud to count ourselves among their ranks of supporters.

We will be kicking off our relationship with a panel at the Ligne Roset showroom in Chicago on October 7, called “Make the Future an Original.” In preparation, we spoke with a few Be Original members to gain a better understanding of the nuanced challenges producers face, and hopefully identify new ways for the design community to band together and protect intellectual property.

First, we must all agree on the danger that counterfeiting presents—not only to individual designers, but to the health of our entire industry.

“In simple terms it prevents designers and the companies that develop their work from continuing to do so in the future. If the companies cannot recover their investments and the designers are not paid for their work, the entire process falls apart,” said Jerry Helling, president of both Be Original Americas and Bernhardt Design. “Whose products will the copiers knock-off in the future, if investment in new, original design disappears?”

Counterfeit goods are theft, plain and simple. But the ripple effects of these stolen ideas are far more sweeping than might be immediately apparent.

“As an industry we spend a great deal of money striving to be environmentally responsible and producing in the best possible manner with the most responsible materials. With knockoffs all that effort goes out the window,” Helling said. “Strength and durability testing, which ensures a certain performance standard and protects designers and their clients from liability issues, goes out the window. The human element of how goods are ethically produced goes out the window.”

Counterfeiting stymies industry through a process of replacement: replacing innovative ideas with reused ones, replacing a workforce of young designers with a band of IP pirates, and replacing carefully crafted, sustainable products with toxic, flimsy, landfill-bound consumerist waste. But above all, it replaces a payment of respect for the work of the designer with a monetary reward for thievery.

Every time we buy a counterfeit product, we are telling designers that we don’t value the work that they do, or understand why it is different than what a machine in China can do.

To those who think the rise in counterfeit products is a positive sign of the democratization of design: you are missing the point. The definition of good design is not “cheaply and quickly made with profit margin in mind,” but that is exactly the message knockoffs are spreading to the masses.

To those who think they love good design, but can only achieve it with replicated goods that match their budget: you are sorely mistaken. True lovers of design know that there are plenty of great designers at lower price points who are creating high-quality products born of good ideas and careful practice. They know that finding a philosophical match in a skilled designer is more important than finding an aesthetic match in a low-quality copycat.

And to those who think they’ve got a clean conscious: you might want to take a closer look, according to Helling.

“My favorite telephone calls are from highly respected American companies who phone our offices and say, ‘Come out and look at your chairs; they are falling apart after six months,’” he said. “Invariably when we arrive for the inspection, they are a knockoff version of our products. You would be shocked how often this happens and the stature of the companies that are guilty of this practice.”

How can this be? Root causes range from the morally corrupt to the blissfully unaware, and designers need a wide net of solutions to address them effectively. Many times, the counterfeit war rages on in private—mano-a-mano, lawyer-a-lawyer. But there is as much if not more to be gained from a public battle, waged through education. For starters, turn the page to hear from four members of Be Original, who provide four very different perspectives on where and how we can spread our message about the dangers of living in a counterfeit culture.


Any company that wants to compete with Amazon, wants to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange … These are the people that promote an incredible amount of knockoffs.

Abhinand Lath, founder, Sensitile Systems

One thing that we can do is to have a good conversation with people who specify, to inform the people who are buying.

Sandy Chilewich, founder and creative director, Chilewich Sultan LLC

The big companies have designers working for them. These designers are graduates of one program or another. They want to go to the better brands, but they’re not hiring.

Barbara Politi, CEO, FontanaArte

Here in Italy the production of furniture, lighting, and anything related to lifestyle design is two percent of our GDP. That’s no peanuts.