What’s the difference between a riff and a rip-off? When can we say that an idea has been stolen, as opposed to when it’s been changed to the point that it becomes something new? Or maybe even innovative in its own right?
In the design world, these questions are raised again and again, as new objects are produced. A specific chair, light, or table, for example, might be singled out for its noted similarities with an earlier work by another designer. Still, the line between riff and rip-off is usually drawn by the eye of the beholder. And the forum for such debates today take place not in a courtroom or a lawyer’s office, but rather in a fiery Facebook thread, perhaps ignited by a blog post calling out an offending designer.
Entwined with these subjective determinations are major retailers, like CB2, West Elm, Ikea, and Target, which have been accused in the past of stealing and mass-producing the designs of independent designers, smaller studios, and at times even vintage design. As such, questions of economic power, financial sustainability, and creativity arise.
There’s no shortage of these controversies—ask anyone who works in design and they’ll more than likely have a case they found particularly irksome. Take for example the similarity between a 2016 Flos light by Vincent van Duysen and a cement Le Corbusier lamp, which was originally designed in 1952; or Michael Anastassiades’s IC lights and West Elm’s Sphere and Stem lamp. And while the riff versus rip-off debate could arise around these comparisons, other instances are clear-cut copies. One website, subtly titled replicalights.com.au, offers a Lindsey Adelman chandelier—and goes so far as to cite the original designer on its sales listing page for the replica.
“It’s just a reality of the industry,” says Gregory Buntain, who co-founded contemporary design studio Fort Standard with Ian Collings. Buntain recalls that at one point he kept a folder of all the knock-off designs he came across. In the early days of Fort Standard, CB2 produced pieces similar to their very first product, geometric wooden balancing blocks. “It was a total blatant knockoff. Not an ‘inspired by,’ a straight knockoff,” Buntain tells me. “They painted them a different color and I think they were slightly larger, but in a photograph you couldn’t tell the difference.” But the average customer walking into an Ikea or CB2 would most likely never think to do the research to determine a product’s originality.
The work of independent creators being ripped off by large companies has corollaries to the widespread plagiarism issues that artists have had with the fashion industry. But unlike the white space of a T-shirt, where literally any image could go, the tangible objects of design have more limitations that necessarily create commonalities. “It’s difficult with furniture because you have the constraints of actual functionality,” said L.A.-based independent designer Eric Trine. “With chairs, people have to sit in them. And there are just actual measurable constraints.” The line between a rip-off and an original work is essentially the sum of additions and subtractions that are made to the basic functional form.
In contrast to Fort Standard, Trine’s experience in this arena is indicative of some of the nuances that challenge the conventional narrative of big companies taking from small designers. West Elm, often the villain in these controversies, purchases work from Trine at wholesale prices; they put in large orders, link to his website, and allow his products to reach a completely different set of customers than those who walk into his boutique shop. The company reached out to him as part of a program to partner with local designers. “The running story is ‘big companies preying off independent designers,’ but there are levels of complexity there,” Trine explains. “I’ve been copied or ‘knocked off’—for lack of a better term—but the only people who have copied me are other independent designers.”
While there may not be a final authority on these issues of originality, design curators can offer guidance to help lay observers judge for themselves. “Coming at it from the museum’s perspective and thinking about our collection as well as our exhibitions, one of the things we are always focused on is obviously the beauty and the quality of the workmanship of an object but also its level of innovation,” says Andrea Lipps, a curator at the Cooper Hewitt in New York. She recognizes the difficulty of determining where, exactly, innovation lies. But there are obvious places to start, like chronology, refinement, originality of technology.
Take Ikea’s recent announcement of the PS 2017 armchair designed by Sarah Fager, which is made through 3D knitting. While it’s the first major mainstream manifestation of this technology, high-end designers have long employed this type of knitting—a notable example being the Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec designed Slow Chair of 2006. “Curatorially, I’m always interested in where the innovation lies,” Lipps says. “In this case, it was with the Bouroullec brothers applying this 3D-knitting technology to form a chair 11 years ago.” But pinpointing innovation doesn’t inherently settle the rip-off question. Some might see Ikea’s chair as copying; others may deem it a fair-game approach to making pricey design more accessible. But most people winding through the labyrinthine Ikea halls won’t think about it in this way at all. They’ll see a chair.
Social media may be a popular place to air grievances, but it’s not likely to help resolve these controversies any time soon. Still, there are certain things designers can do to make sure they’re not offenders. “Before you go producing something that you think is a great, original idea, you should do your research and know if there’s something similar out there,” Buntain advises. While there can be unintended similarities between two objects, “there is a big difference between something that happens accidentally and seeing it repetitively from these companies like CB2 and West Elm,” he adds. Buntain has even created a limited collection called Qualities of Material, which consists of objects made with materials that are difficult or near impossible to replicate (he says so far it’s working).
One might expect that the endless concerns over others stealing your work would be enough motivation for a person to get out of the design game altogether. But for Buntain, it serves as motivation. “It’s what keeps driving us forward,” he says, “it’s what makes us produce new work.”