Thursday, April 17, 2008

We Commited a Carnal Sin (an "experiment" with knock-offs)

Shhh... don't tell anyone.

We bought a knock-off. Two, actually.

Now before you start sending me flaming hate mail, let me put forth my... erm, excuses.

We've been looking for a Saarinen Tulip table and chairs for the kitchen nook as long as we've lived in our sweet-ass, 1955 Colorado Ranch. A lot of our stuff we kind of get a general idea or feeling for, and then when we find a piece that fits the requirements, we snag it.

However, with the kitchen nook, we knew we wanted two Tulip Chairs and a 30" Tulip dining table (which it turns out they don't make), no questions. We would've settled for vintage Burke as well, but not the x-base. The "trumpet" pedestal was specifically what we were after.

We've been to the Knoll dealers, DWR and I've been culling E-bay and Craigslist for months. At one point, we almost "went for it" and bid on a huge, oval dining table and 12 chairs for the dining room instead of the nook. It actually would've been a great deal, but sanity kicked in and we held on to our $5,500 right before the auction ended (it really was a super-fantastic deal for an original Knoll set of that magnitude). A "re-sizable" table will be much better for our dining space though.

Anyway, over the search period, we scored an original Saarinen Tulip coffee table (Craigslist, $150: nicks on edges, mild scratches to the surface) and an original Tulip Table base that somebody desecrated with a can of spray paint (I'll be taking it to an auto finishing garage for a proper new coat of love).

However, it seemed impossible to find a good deal on two chairs. We actually found quite a few original captain's chairs (with the arms), but our nook area won't accommodate the extra size, not to mention I'm not a fan of how the arm chairs and swivel bases work with a table... too much arm/back curve to table edge bashing.

Now let me point something out: at DWR, a Saarinen Tulip side chair costs at least $1200.

For a freaking dining chair.

Your standard kitchen chair at Target or Ikea will run you around $40 to $150. I'm not saying a Saarinen Tulip chair is comparable to a Chinese-made, piece of bent steel with a poly-vinyl seat, but since this blog is called "Real Mod" and tries to address the issue of modern for people in a "realistic" (I'm not rich) situation, I am pointing out what "normal" people pay for a place to plant their backsides while eating.

Yes a high price tag insures all kinds of things... consistency going back 50 years, precision, quality, etc... but surely these things can be delivered for a more down to earth price.

During my E-bay searches, I'd been seeing the $150 Tulip knock-offs. Understand, I realize the problems with knock-offs: little to no quality control in the product, polluting the pool, imperfections, slight differences in lines and function, even the issue of sub-par items that will cause modern newbies to think the real-deal are not of good quality (because those people wouldn't know the difference between real and fake and thus think the real product was not good product, one of the very problems that this blog seeks to combat).

But two chairs for $374.98 delivered vs. nearly $3k? Argh. The dilemma.

Ultimately I didn't listen to Jimminy Cricket, and I went for it. I clicked buy and sent payment via PayPal.

After some problems with our Fed Ex guy (don't get me started), we finally received our chairs.

They were packaged unbelievably well, and it was like Xmas tearing apart the crate and removing the chairs. The seats were not attached to the base, so there was some assembly required, basically a rod that threaded into the seat and then ran through the base and affixed at the bottom by a bolt. There was a ball-bearing ring recessed in the top of the base that facilitated smooth rotation and everything seemed great.

They look fantastic. Great paint job, good looking cushion (more on that later), the shape and curves of the seat are right, and they feel just like the real thing when you're sitting in them. The only visual difference is that the base (the flared, trumpet part) has a bit of a falling cascade to the edge instead of really tapering out to almost flat like the actual Knoll (and even Burke) bases do (see comparison below). But for our purposes, I could forgive this slight design imperfection, and the average person was not going to be able to tell the difference.

correct base edge
(this is a knock-off; note the vinyl cushion -wtf?)

cascade base edge
(these are definitely knock-off, and the table base is actually quite bad -proportions are too thick)

Both my chairs look the same, but looking at the E-bay photos, it seems it would be fairly likely that you might receive two chairs that were not the same, especially in light of some of the other issues with my pair.

For instance:

One chair has a squarish cushion with rounded edges like a real Knoll cushion. The other chair, however, has a completely round, flying saucer shaped cushion that's not even close. Not a really big issue, as we can make new cushions easy enough (buying a "real" one from Knoll/DWR/Hive/etc. isn't really an option; see former post).

Second problem: the first chair I put together rotates very nicely. I was extremely pleased with how smooth it was. Again with the "however," though... the second chair grinds and stutters while rotating. It's quite annoying.

Third, after about two days of mild swiveling, the "nice glider" unscrewed itself. I tightened it back up, and it happened again. I added another nut for a locknut, but it still happens. So you have to tighten the chair every two days or so. At first it wasn't that big a deal, but after weeks of having to tighten the damn thing every couple of days, it's gotten really annoying.

So having gone through the whole ordeal, I have this to say: yeah $349 delivered is waaaaaaay better than $2,500 for two kitchen nook chairs. They look pretty darn good, and there are no nicks and scuffs like would come with vintage stuff. However, I probably should have kept looking for vintage until I found a real pair of Knoll or Burke and paid a little more, perhaps even ponied up for a good sand and automobile-finish with a beat up pair of vintage chairs.

So to recap...

I don't recommend knock-offs at all. I felt pretty strongly about this from the beginning, but after dipping into the fray, I now believe it even more firmly. If you decide you must buy a knock-off, realize there will almost certainly be inconsistencies from piece to piece (so getting a matching pair is really difficult), there will be slight to major differences between what you buy and the real deal, and there will likely be imperfections not only in the finish, but in the accessories and mechanics as well.

[April 22, 2008]
To add to the "reasons against," I just noticed a crack in the base of one of the chairs (while I was doing the bi-daily tightening).



  1. How I found your blog was because I Googled Tulip Chair Knock Off. I laughed my ass off when I read your headline "We Commited A Carnal Sin"... I can think of a lot of sins, but I don't think this happens to be one of them! And yes, I can completely agree with your rational which lead you to purchase the knock offs. Hell, you've got a wife, so possibly you've got a dual income situation going. I myself, am footing the bill alone for my own Modern Ranch House Fantasy! Yes, I read Atomic Ranch and check out all the books I can from the Library. But the price tags on some of these items just seems out of control!

    Case in Point: I was looking at those fabulous Bullet Planters. But wait, $160 dollars to hold a plant? A plant? Oh hell no! I'd throw a party and everyone would have to stand around and praise it. For the entire evening. No seriously.

    What I would like to see, just for the point of argument, is someone construct their entire home furnishings from knock offs. What would it look like? What would be the cost? We already know what the drawbacks are...

    But I'd love to see it done...

  2. Oh and by the way, that seat cushion from DWR is now up to $300!

  3. I hear you on costs, Sniffdar, but know: while I am sitting on one of the two knock-off chairs as I type this, it is cracked and creaky, and the second chair is almost completely unusable. If cash is an issue, keeping an eye on Ebay and Craigslist and then restoring a real Saarinen Tulip is definitely the way to go. With the knock-offs you're just throwing away your money.

  4. I'm not sure if you still have your chairs or not considering this was written in 2008, but if so, I have some advice that you might be interested in.

    I recently bought two knock-off tulip arms chairs to modify (paint and recover the cushions), made by West End Imports. I figured the quality would probably not be so great, but I got the pair brand new for $85 (!), so I didn't mind them being a bit rough. The appearance of the chairs surpassed my expectations -- they are very nice. However, the mechanical parts are not so great. I too had the problem with the nut coming loose every day.

    I was able to fix it by replacing the stock lock washer with a higher-quality lock washer, and adding thread locker to the existing nut. The thread locker is crucial, and definitely works. No more loose tulip chairs!

    I recommend using a thread locker that is not permanent, just in case you need to take them apart. I use Loctite Blue 242, cleaning the parts with mineral spirits before applying the Loctite. I also recommend lubing all of the bearings and any moving metal-on-metal part. In their stock form, the chairs were grinding when swivelled because there was not enough lube. I used a thick anti-seize lube that is silver.

    There is one more thing I plan on doing to my chairs. I noticed that after I had my chairs back together, there are still rough spots when being swivelled. Not a big deal, but it's not perfectly smooth the way it should be. I thought I had not applied enough lube, however it turns out the ball bearing rings on mine are slightly bent. They appear to be very cheap ball bearings. The next time I have my chairs apart, I am going to measure the rings and look for replacements. I think they might actually be from a bicycle, but I won't be sure until I measure them.

    Either way, putting $25-35 into a paid of $85 chairs is much better than spending $6000, especially considering I only bought them to rip them apart and modify them.

    Hope this helps.

  5. Thanks so much for your detailed post, King Ankylosaurus. Hopefully it can help other readers. I have actually thought about addressing the mechanics of our chairs (shouldn't be too hard: threaded rod, bearing & rings, nuts), however, the plastic (fiberglass?) bases of our chairs are so cracked that I don't think it would be worth it. I believe Knoll chair bases are actually metal, cast aluminum if I recollect correctly. Had I known that these chairs did not have a metal base, I certainly would not have purchased them. Once there's a little extra cash in the coffer, we'll be looking for vintage tulip side chairs again.