What is an Original?


If there is a theme in the furniture world that seems to be always the subject of conversation is the question of originals. What is an original? Is it just a familiar form of a chair or object? Is it a brand? Or simply the respect for the work of the designer who conceived the piece?
Summarizing the story, an original is a piece that the designer (or his/her heirs) authorized a particular manufacturer to produce, be it a classic or a chair launched last year.
Vitra, a brand that produces some of the best pieces we like to use in our projects, has produced an excellent guide on the originals, an essential document for all lovers of design:

Question: What is an original?
Answer: A product can only be called an original when it has been authorised by the designer. In terms of its status as an original, it does not matter whether an authorised product was produced in large quantities or in a limited series, or if it was manufactured many years ago or only recently. The manufacturer of originals works in close cooperation with the designer or his or her legitimate heirs to ensure that the product is fabricated in accordance with the specific ideas and wishes of its author and is thus authentic. As a result, an Eames Lounge Chair from 1956 and a Lounge Chair produced today are both originals.

Question: How can I recognise an original?
Answer: It’s quite simple: check whether it was made by a legitimate manufacturer. In the case of Eames designs, products sold in Europe and the Middle East are originals if they were manufactured by Vitra. The legitimate manufacturer for other regions of the world is Herman Miller.

Question: What is a counterfeit product?
Answer: Manufacturers of counterfeit products (also known as copies, imitations, replicas or fakes) seek to superficially copy an original to create the false impression of it being an original. The trade in counterfeit products is also referred to as product piracy and frequently linked to organised crime. Fakes are offered at much lower prices. This is possible because of cheaper materials, lower wage costs, non-existent development and marketing costs, failure to compensate the authors, lack of service and warranty provisions etc. Modified designs that nevertheless still invoke the same overall look as the original and so-called homages are likewise counterfeits.

Question: What position does Vitra take with regard to counterfeit products?
Answer: Like most manufacturers of originals, Vitra is engaged in the fight against product piracy. Vitra has actively pursued the protection of originals for many years – not only on behalf of its own interests, but also together with other renowned design companies such as Artek, Cassina, Fritz Hansen, Knoll etc.

Vitra seeks to raise consumer awareness of the value of originals and make the theme more tangible and accessible to the public through its various activities and projects – the Vitra Campus, the Vitra Design Museum, the Vitra Schaudepot and the collection, as well as its publications.

Question: How can the arguments of the theme ‘original versus copies’ be presented?
Answer: Vitra’s communication activities employ the statement ‘The original comes from Vitra.’ based on the following six arguments. These are each elaborated in more detail with selected anecdotes about a specific Vitra product. For example, the Panton Chair (Investing in innovation), the Eames Aluminium Group or the Aluminium Chair (Manufacturing, quality, guarantee) or Tip Ton (The power of good design). Stories about other Vitra originals are to follow.

• Collaboration with designers and families
Over the past decades, Vitra has worked closely with some of the world’s most important designers and their descendants. These collaborations have led to the production of many classics: furnishings from another era that remain as timely and vital as ever and continue to move and inspire us.

• Cultural legacy and copyright protection
At the time of their creation, classics often broke new ground with their innovative forms and production techniques. They shaped the history of design and are protected by copyright in recognition of their unique character. Vitra works together with the heirs of deceased designers to preserve the cultural legacy of these designs and carry on the stories of the originals, sharing them with the generations to come.

• The power of good design
Following in the tradition and spirit of Charles and Ray Eames, product sustainability is central to all activities at Vitra. The family-run company believes in the power of designs that forgo stylistic trends and eliminate superfluous details.

• Manufacturing, quality, guarantee
The longevity of Vitra products is the combined result of their design, function and quality. Vitra products are designed, developed and tested in Switzerland and manufactured in Europe, using materials that are strictly tested for quality and longevity.

• Longevity for generations
Vitra develops and manufactures products that remain current and in use over decades – prized possessions which are handed down through generations and may even end up in museum collections. This not only applies to classic pieces from past decades, but also to works by contemporary designers, which have the potential to become the classics of tomorrow.

• Investing in innovation
Vitra places a high priority on investment in innovation. The company constantly strives to push and expand the boundaries of design by linking its technical and conceptual know-how with the creative talents of leading designers. At the same time, the design classics in Vitra’s portfolio are continuously updated to meet the needs of today’s users in cooperation with the designers or their legal heirs on the basis of original archival documents.

Question: What are classics?
Answer: Classics are designs that enjoy sustainable success on the market and outlive their competitors – just like nature’s ‘survival of the fittest’. These creations were often ahead of their time. They owe their capacity to stay fresh to their innovative character. The original has an aura that is missing from the copy. When first presented, designs such as the Panton Chair or the Eames Aluminium Group broke the existing mould, taking materials, design or construction in new, almost revolutionary directions. The innovative strength of these designs has made them symbols of their era, and soon went on to influence subsequent developments in the field of design. They became cultural icons. Vitra classics include designs by Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, Verner Panton, Alexander Girard, Jean Prouvé and Hans Coray.

Question: Why does Vitra continue to enhance classics?
Answer: Classics have tremendous power but still need to be cared for. Classics are continually updated in close collaboration with designers or their descendants. This can concern matters such as construction issues or adjustments to production conditions. One such example is the recent revision of the colour scheme and size of the Eames Plastic Chair. Classics are gently adapted in this manner to achieve sustainable market relevance without detracting from the core of the design or challenging its authenticity. As stated by Eames Demetrios, the grandson of Charles Eames: ‘For Charles and Ray Eames, the original was always the chair that would be manufactured tomorrow.’

Question: What is the relationship between a vintage object and a Vitra product manufactured today?
Answer: Both are originals, the only distinction being their date of production. In contrast to the Vitra products of today, perfected over time while still upholding the designers’ specifications, vintage objects represent the initial phases of a design’s development and the early years of production. As designers and manufacturers continuously collaborate on the further development of products, seek to remedy errors and improve the design in relation to environmental and safety standards, vintage objects show certain deviations from the later, refined versions of a classic. This is what makes them so interesting and valuable to collectors and research-based, cultural institutions such as the Vitra Design Museum.

Question: How long does it take to design and produce a piece of furniture?
Answer: The development of new products can take years and some projects are even abandoned over the course of the process. It represents a major investment for the manufacturer. Vitra’s aim is, therefore, to achieve designs that enjoy lasting relevance once launched on the market. As a rule, a new piece of furniture takes two to four years, from the first conceptual discussion to the date it goes into production.

Question: Where does Vitra manufacture its furniture?
Answer: Vitra products are designed, developed and tested in Switzerland. The furniture designs are manufactured in Europe. This is the only way to ensure that Vitra products fulfil the high standards vouched for by the brand name, from the smallest details to production methods. Certain products for markets in Asia and North America are manufactured locally.

Question: Why should customers purchase an original by Vitra when a copy is so much cheaper? Answer: Only an original can give the owner the assurance of having purchased an authentic design piece. An original always retains its worth, and its appearance and value even often enhance with age. An imitation will never be anything but a copy, a stolen idea, almost always of a far inferior quality than that of the original, and come with a customer service that is non-existent. With an original, the designer or his or her heirs get to share in the success of the products.

Question: Charles and Ray Eames wanted to create furniture for the general public. They actually described their work as ‘getting the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least’. But not everyone can afford an Eames product.
Answer: The Eames created both expensive and affordable products. The Lounge Chair of 1956, which has always been a high-priced product, is not any more expensive today than it was back then, when adjusted to inflation. And the Eames Plastic Chairs have an excellent price-performance ratio. Even in their own time, Charles and Ray Eames combatted cheap, inferior copies of their designs.

The legal situation

Question: Why are classic designs protected by copyright?
Answer: The promotion of innovation is the foundation and justification for the right to intellectual property. So-called intellectual property rights provide the legal protection that gives companies an incentive to take on the work and risk involved in the development, launch and distribution of new products. Thanks to this protection of specific content over a certain period of time, designers and manufacturers should be able to develop new products without having to fear that their innovations will be stolen.

Question: What is the legal protection for design objects in the EU?
Answer: All new Vitra products are protected under design copyright laws. In most European countries, the classics are also protected by copyright for a further 70 years after the author’s death. This regulation was recently adopted in Italy and the UK as well.

Question: How did Vitra contribute to the legal changes that recently came into effect in Great Britain?
Answer: Vitra joined together with other companies such as Artek, Cassina and Fritz Hansen to promote the changes. Moreover, well-known figures including Ron Arad, Edward Barber, Sir Terence Conran, Dame Zaha Hadid, Lord Norman Foster, Jasper Morrison, Jay Osgerby, Deyan Sudjic and Paul Thompson as well as representatives of the media expressed their support for the alignment of UK regulations with the legal protections in the rest of the EU.

Question: The legal changes in the UK have only recently been implemented. Will the Brexit decision have an effect on the new law?
Answer: No.

Question: How does Vitra support its partners in the fight against counterfeiting?
Answer: Vitra takes worldwide action against the import and sale of counterfeits or copies employing such means as customs seizures as well as civil and criminal prosecution. In the online realm, Vitra patrols marketing platforms and initiates the removal of illegal merchandise from the Web. In the case of a judicial dispute, manufacturers or dealers of unauthorised copies risk payment of substantial damages and destruction of their stocks of counterfeit products in addition to a restraining order. Product piracy is also efficiently combatted through confiscation procedures at trade fairs.

Question: Is the purchase of counterfeit products a punishable offence?
Answer: Fundamentally no, if the product is exclusively intended for personal use. However, counterfeiters and their intermediaries are liable to prosecution. Consequently, fake goods are often seized and destroyed by customs officials.