Flickr Widget

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

You look so familiar...again

Just when I thought I'd put the You look so familiar series of posts to bed, I ran across another set of photos that point out once more the fact that there's nothing new under the sun in the design world.

I was on Pinterest (Need I say more?) and followed several links back to an Australian site called Tongue & Groove Interiors. It had an interesting vintage archive section of chairs by Australian designers. I couldn't help but notice similarities between some of the pieces and those of other mid-century designers from around the world. Again, it led to questions of who copied whom, and more research ensued.

Take for example this 1949 chair, attributed by Tongue & Groove to the Australian designer Douglas Snelling. Adding arms and a stretcher doesn't really disguise that it's almost identical to the lounge chair designed by Jens Risom in 1941.

Douglas Snelling lounge chair, 1949
Jens Risom lounge chair, 1941

Then there's the Kone chair by Roger McLay which Tongue & Groove says was designed in 1947.  The Museum of Modern Art in New York says the side chair by Donald Knorr was designed for Knoll in 1948, and it this is substantiated by its appearance in the catalog for "Prize Designs for Modern Furniture," an exhibition at the MoMA in 1948. The competition was juried by Rene d'Harnoncourt, Hugh Lawson and Mies van der Rohe, among others, and Knorr's design won first prize. This one may be too close to call, but if Tongue & Groove's date is correct,  McLay may have won by a nose.

Kone chair by Roger McLay, 1949
Side chair for Knoll by Donald Knorr, 1949

And how about the similarities between the R160 Contour chair by Australian Grant Featherston and the Papa Bear chair by Hans Wegner. Both designed in 1951, they don't share as many common features as the Risom and Snelling lounge chairs, but it's clear they share some DNA. Maybe Wegner and Featherston were pen pals?

R160 Contour chair by Grant Featherston, 1951
Papa Bear chair by Hans Wegner, 1951

The 1969 Stem chair by Grant Featherston looks like the offspring of a 1956 Eero Saarinen Tulip chair and a 1958 Verner Panton Cone parent's feet and the other's torso. The influence is undeniable.

Grant Featherston's Stem chair, 1969

Tulip chairs for Knoll by Eero Saarinen, 1956
Vitra Cone chair by Verner Panton

Australian Grant Featherston designed the Scape chair in 1960. Three years later Hans Wegner made  drastic changes to his 1948 shell chair design, squaring the back and putting a much more noticeable upswing on the seat. The 1963 version of Wegner's shell chair was too much like Featherston's to have been mere coincidence.

Grant Featherston's Scape chair, 1960
Hans Wegner's three-legged shell chair, 1963

In the years before computers connected every point on the globe, designers no doubt still kept up with what other designers were doing by reading trade magazines and attending exhibitions around the world. The lack of international patent laws made it possible to "borrow" the intellectual property of others, often without the average consumer in their own countries having any way of knowing. I continue to be amazed when I research the origins of well-known pieces, as so often the ideas behind their design were not as original as I believed.


  1. OK cats out of the bag, yes we are an island colonised with the UK's riff raff but it was nice to see we were in front sometimes! Great post Dana, love it! :)

    1. Most people consider Wegner the quintessential chair designer, so I found his obvious reproduction of Featherston's earlier design to be the most interesting.

  2. Well, well, Pippa. Original mid100 design in Australia was almost certainly, I recon, non-existent in originality. Australia was then (it's getting better here now - I'm thinking of Mark Newson and Caroline Casey, etc.) bit of a design wasteland. I remember stories of my designer friend him being busy in the 70's and 80's London standing outside furniture stores with his sketchbook busily copying the latest in furniture to bring back home... Good post, though, Dana!

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. I find it surprising that a designer would admit to copying someone else's work. I figured they would rationalize copying by saying they added an arm here or a different leg style there. Do you think, because of the relative isolation of countries, that they simply felt they wouldn't be found out, or did the lack of international patent laws make them not care?

  3. I don't think getting caught worried them much since there was no general awareness about design at the time; nobody cared. I'm not saying that the most famous of Australian designers, Grant Featherston, was a fake, but I do have to say that I almost brought him to your attention when you were doing the original 'You look so familiar' posts. By the way, even when I arrived here in the mid-eighties from Finland, and had to furnish my new apartment, I was quite upset about the low level of furniture design that I could see around, and had to settle for IKEA! What a relief it was for me find their store in Melbourne though!

  4. What puzzles me most is why a piece like Douglas Snelling's web chair would still be considered exemplary design, since it's so blatantly a knockoff of the Risom design. In my cursory search, I haven't been able to find a body of work by Snelling. It seems that chair, and derivatives thereof, were his claim to fame. If that's true (and you Australian readers correct me if I'm wrong), does he deserve to be considered an important designer?

  5. From my knowledge it's just the web type chairs and your right Esa, we have some great new talent to forge Aussie design forward! Dana, I think many Snelling owners wouldn't question it as they have become "must haves" for the design conscious! Must have a Snelling, Featherston etc in their homes! The geographic isolation of Australia to Europe in the 50's may have played a part?

  6. I'll elaborate on this further on my blog ( at some stage. There are countless examples of us Australians putting selected people (visual artists, architects, designers, sportmen and women) on a pedestal for political/cultural/sociological/etc. reasons, not for the inherent qualities of their work or achievements, but to enhance the collective reason for the existence of our country. I'll have to thread carefully on this, since I might be upsetting many people in the process. Of course, this problem is not to do with just 'colonial' countries, but applies to the big and powerful as well. I'm not going there, but for example for the U.S. selecting to cherish a mediocre author such as Henry James as their fine classic writer amongst the best proves my point (I'm not trying to offend anybody, though).

  7. Hey Dana, I stumbled upon this post by chance as I saw the snelling chair. It most definitely looks like a copy. Snelling was actually an architect and furniture was a side project from what I can gather. There is some research about him being conducted but I don't think it has been published yet. It sounds like he was quite an interesting figure in Australian architecture. xx

    1. I have so enjoyed hearing from you and Pippa and Esa on this topic. Getting opinions about Australian architects and designers from Australians gives me such a different perspective from which to look at the designs and the times in which they were produced.