Friday, July 27, 2012

“The Real Cost of Rip-Offs”

Dwell_June12_Cover_Web_1239x1600The June Issue of Dwell has an article called “The Real Cost of Rip-Offs” that I’ve been seeing/hearing quite a few people comment on.  This notion of “real/affordable modern” was a major impetus for starting this blog several years ago.  One of the blogs I follow, The Brick House, posted regarding being quoted by Dwell on this very issue.  The author sort of condones or even encourages knock-offs in certain situations.  Sure, she lauds the common party-line of “buy authentic vintage when you can,” but she definitely says it’s OK (or even necessary) to buy knock-offs ‘cause they’re more affordable to people on a realistic budget.

I think this is an issue that most “normal” (i.e. not rich) fans of midcentury modern are torn on.  On the one hand, you want to make sure that the quality of the chair that you’re buying means it will last and that the original designer is getting the credit (and pay) he/she deserves.  However, there comes a point where the cost is simply prohibitive, and the average person is forced to either buy a knock-off (if you can’t find what you’re looking for used) or not buy at all.

Tulip-Armless-Chair-by-Knoll-International-by-Eero-Saarinen-image-1I did a post a while back regarding some Saarinen Tulip Chair knock-offs we purchased. I knew we wanted a round Saarinen table for our breakfast nook, and was fortunate enough to find one on eBay.  However, finding the chairs (armless Tulips) proved more of a challenge, and every time I searched, I found the knock-offs staring me in the face.  At $250 instead of $1,500 for the authentic Knoll, I decided to give them a shot.  You can read about the debacle that followed in my original post, but needless to say, I learned my lesson.  That said, I think there are certain items where the knock-off would serve your needs without the danger of failure (fewer moving parts, materials that are less apt to fail, etc.). [Shh… don’t tell anyone I said that].

This brings us to the argument regarding whether or not people should be “allowed” to have things they can’t afford, and how knock-offs might actually drive up the cost of the real McCoy.  The first argument is answered simply by: if you can find something to make you happy for the price, who is to say you shouldn’t be “allowed” to have it as long as any laws aren’t being broken (you’ll just have to deal with the consequences of shoddy workmanship and functionality –and this is often a hard lesson, since you’ll still be spending your hard-earned money on something that will fail after a few short years or less).  I think the second argument is nonsense.  The difference between authentic and knock-off is fairly easily discernable. In other words, knock-offs aren’t really fooling anybody (if for no other reason than the price tag), and in most cases, no one’s actually trying to pass them off as the real deal. Not to mention, people who can afford the high prices of “designer” furniture would never buy a knock-off, thus, the price of a designer item is not being affected by knock-offs, because the target market for the designer item is unaffected.  I suppose one could make an argument for an item becoming less desirable if tons and tons of “normal” people own a knock-off version (thus devaluing the original), but that’s a little like saying people won’t buy a Nelson Bubble because Ikea sells paper lanterns in similar shapes.

So let’s talk about status vs. function.  What is the purpose of the piece of furniture in question?  Most midcentury modern furniture was not intended to be a status symbol, in fact, quite the opposite.  Notable designers of the 50’s and 60’s, especially “case study” designers, were looking for ways to bring sensible and beautiful design to the masses –highest quality at a reasonable price.  This begs the question of a responsibility that manufacturers/sellers/studios have not only to the consumer, but also to the intentions of the original designers.  As much as the word “Ikea” is dreaded in many design circles, I don’t think there’s any question that if Ikea had been around in 1958, Charles and Ray Eames would have gladly been working with them.

Before people start sending fiery hate-mail regarding this notion, I will qualify that we are talking about an age where affordable manufacturing was still possible in the United States and quality did not suffer for cost of manufacturing; you didn’t have to build things in China and Malaysia with underpaid labor to make them accessible.

imagesThis also isn’t to say there aren’t instances where “high design” items, or at least iconic pieces, aren’t still sometimes priced “appropriately” (at least somewhat affordably).  I did another post on the Nelson Bubble Lamp.  At $300, adjusted for inflation, it costs the exact same as the first day it rolled off the line in 1947 (for $35).

There are also times where an item is really expensive, but probably should be. I am TOTALLY in love with the Corvo chair by corvo_130410_36-200x200Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance for Bernhardt Design. It’s gorgeous, hand-crafted from Walnut (in North Carolina, no less), and costs $1,500. If someone is creating a chair out of hardwood by hand (not to mention advertising it and taking it to market), $1,500 probably isn’t out of the question. Can I afford it? No. Can I buy a knock off? No (nor would I).  But I would suggest that there are no knock-offs because the price-point is appropriate… it actually costs that much to make and market the chair.  (by the way, check out the great series of Corvo photos on The Contemporist)

I think this is an important notion to consider.  If a knock-off can be made for much, MUCH less than what the “real” item is going for, either the materials and manufacturing in the knock-off are so shoddy that no one will buy the knock-off, or the “real” item is overpriced (shame on the design house/supplier).  Saarinen’s Womb Chair when purchased from Knoll is $3,500.  You can get a pretty good looking (I have no personal experience with the actual functional quality) knock-off for around $800.  Will it last as long as the Knoll?  Probably not, but the price difference between the two is SO VAST that it really makes you question Knoll’s price point, especially when you think about what the chair consists of… molded fiberglass with glued foam covered in fabric with four metal legs (should a chair of those materials really be pushing $4k?).

In this internet age, there is definitely a danger of people being tricked into buying something they think is similar to the original, when in fact it is nowhere near.  As such, I think it’s pretty safe to say that buying a knock-off sight-unseen is just asking for trouble.  If you’re going to buy a knock off… make sure you sit in it and touch it first.  The “shadiness” of people selling knock-offs proliferates in the online arena, and the issues become more about deceiving people than about people knowingly purchasing a lower quality item because they want the look and lower quality is all they can afford.

What’s even more shameful than the proliferation of knock-offs is the wildly expensive “high design” pieces which are notorious for being ludicrously low quality.  In these instances, the “high design costs more to make because of quality control and the materials used” argument is total b.s.  Take Roche Bobois for instance.  Their furniture is extremely expensive, considered “high end” modern (though I would say, in more instances it’s more “contemporary” than modern), and is most often total crap as far as build quality and longevity is involved.  img_4988I have a friend who’s family has been in the business of building, restoring, and reupholstering furniture for more than 100 years.  He turns red in the face and sweats with rage whenever he hears the name “Roche Bobois.” (“$10,000 for a couch that won’t last 10 years?!” –and yes, he’s not being hyperbolic, these things often cost more than $10k …and they are total crap)

So anyway, I don’t think a single Knoll Tulip side chair should cost $1,500.  Should I not be allowed to have one (let alone a set) in my house because I can’t spend an entire month’s mortgage on a single chair?  Should I buy a knock-off instead (in this case, I’d say “no!” but that’s mostly because the Tulip Chair knock offs are really poorly manufactured)?  Must I force myself to be happy with something else?  Who’s fault is it that a “normal” person can’t possibly afford a set of Knoll Tulip chairs?  Is it my fault that I want pretty things (even if I can’t afford the “real deal”)?  Lot’s of questions… and all the answers seem to be highly subjective.

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