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
lamp, which was originally designed in 1952; or ’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
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
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.