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Thursday, March 3, 2011

According to an Heir: Is it real?

This is the third and final post about the Jet Set Modern article entitled "Is It Real?" The third segment of that article is from the point of view of an heir of a famous designer...Eames Demetrios of the Eames Office, who is the grandson of Charles and Ray Eames.  (First post: According to a Collector; second post: According to a Manufacturer)

Demetrios points out that most designers want to see their designs made in the way they intended, which is why they choose a family member, a company or a foundation to protect their trademark and name-and-likeness rights after they're gone. He talks about the "legitimate protection of designers and their successors" but sidesteps the subject of design patents specifically. From an analogy he uses, it's clear he knows that manufacturers of reproductions are not breaking any law, as long as they don't use a protected trademark or a likeness of a famous person, but he nevertheless questions their ethics.

He agrees that one of the core values of the modern design movement was affordability, but he points out that quality was a core value as well. He calls making an inferior product and passing it off as an original "a form of looting." While I wholeheartedly agree with what he's saying about passing off a shoddy product as genuine, I couldn't help but notice that he avoids addressing the manufacturer who is making an extremely high quality reproduction and selling it at an affordable price. I get the impression that would not receive his approval either. Reading between the lines, I get the sense that he'd be happier if American patent laws granted family members or their assigns exclusive rights in perpetuity. Frankly, I'm sure I'd feel the same way if I were the descendant of a famous designer.

In fairness to Demetrios, I got overall impressions from the previous two articles. I took from McLendon's article that the primary motivation of most collectors is the desire to have the "bragging rights" that come with owning an original, more than to protect the designer's legacy or even to protect their own investment. (We bloggers point with pride to our "real" pieces all the time, even if we don't have a significant amount of money invested in them.) Berg's point seemed to be that what he's doing is legal, so buy his product if you like it...and if you don't, stop complaining.

Ultimately, there may be no clear right or wrong in this debate. It all comes down to individual preferences and needs, and that's probably why patent and trademark laws were written as they allow American consumers freedom to choose what they buy, with the caveat that you generally get what you pay for.

Original Eames fiberglass rocker ($1,200)

Herman Miller molded plastic chair ($349)

Case Study fiberglass shell chair by Modernica ($435)

(It is probably pertinent to point out here that Demetrios wrote a letter to Dwell magazine in 2008, condemning them for running Modernica ads and criticizing Modernica for continuing to produce fiberglass chairs after the Eames Office, Herman Miller and Vitra decided to cease production of fiberglass chairs and make molded plastic chairs instead. That's a another debate of its own.)

Molded plastic chair from Inmod ($328)


  1. The orange rocker is fun. Too much for me to spend tho.

  2. We had fiberglass chairs as a kid, but never one's this cool!

  3. Sorry, I've been meaning to comment on these for days,and now I'm doing it all at once.

    I think this issue is so tough. I can understand where the heir is coming from, and I agree that cheap knock-offs are not honoring the original integrity of the design, but not everyone is lucky enough to be able to afford even the high quality reproductions! I bought my Eames shell chairs off of eBay and it was a stretch and a half for us to afford them. They were slightly cheaper than others because they were in rough shape, so I refurbished them a few months after they came. I love the chairs. They are perfect for my home, and worth the money/effort, and for me personally, I'd rather have these than repros (even the "real" plastic repros. These have already withstood fifty or so years of use and look worn, but wonderful. My young family loves their sense of history and integrity. And I view them as an investment. Some day I'll resand and apply Penetrol again (after my kids are done spilling and grinding sticky things into them) and SOMEDAY get wooden dowel bases for them. But in the mean time, it's like sitting on sculpture every time we eat.