F is for FAKE FURNITURE

It appears nothing is immune to the simulation. Knockoffs are knockoffs are knockoffs.

Words Jonathan Mahon-Heap source index issue nº01; buy it here now

In Peter Weir’s 1998 drama The Truman Show, Truman Burbank’s quest for truth leads him to the outer limits of his knowledge. The mast of his ship penetrates the walls of the set, and on breaking the limits of experience, he can at last speak to God (a beret-sporting, mononymous director). Nineteen-nineties pop culture dealt a lot in authenticity — what were The Matrix, The Truman Show and phenomena like JT LeRoy querying if not whether a fake world can be better than the real one?

But in the 2020s, the counterfeit reigns supreme (and Supreme reigns in most counterfeits). The millennial aesthetic that we have come to know, and tolerate, absorbs influences from other eras of design, creating an illusion of access afforded to a generation otherwise set up for failure. It is an aesthetic cribbed from designers and funnelled through IKEA to the masses. This creates a tension between a millennial generation who prize authenticity, and a market that favours a fake. As taste becomes less a matter of aesthetics than of politics, interference-free living may be the promise of design itself, but problematic-free design is the new must-have.

Nood, Freedom Furniture, Kmart and Farmers blur together, creating copies, of copies, of copies. Their chaise lounges, iPhone apparel and floor lamps fall into an uncanny valley. They have the not-quite-real appeal of a Robert Zemeckis CGI film, of a Peter Jackson Te Papa exhibit, of a catfish Tinder profile. The space between what we see and what we believe we deserve has shrivelled; Instagram lays out shoppable apartment spaces, ‘curated’ by your next-door neighbour with a fond eye for thrift shops. Within, they make a nudge in the direction of the Bauhaus, a wink towards the realm of modernity, a flirting gesture at the spectre of modernity; it leans to all of these things, and encapsulates approximately none of them. ‘That’s so Bauhaus’, I gesture in the direction of an IKEA rug lamp set-up, hoping the wingspan of my arm touches something to match this catchall synonym in the process.

What does the millennial aesthetic look like? Peppy copy that addresses you like a zesty therapist, soft colours (think lots of amber, lilac), and exaggerated still-lifes often transforming everyday items into luxury appeal (think Eckhaus Latta’s coronavirus warning sign, the Prada fire extinguisher, the Miu Miu USB stick). Think Glossier, mattress brands, The Ordinary. Brands speak like customers, in GIFs, in Instagram stickers, in curse words winkingly asterisked out on billboards. It abounds in the polyphonic symphony of Auckland eateries, all named as though within the circle of a millennial Sex and the City reboot — Billy, Lilian, Bestie, and Celeste. Think gratuitous amounts of fruit, and houseplants, and millennial pink.

“What’s wrong with Freedom Furniture’s simulacrum of an Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair residing in the stale confines of my therapist’s waiting room? What’s wrong with my nephew’s primary school having a Nood knockoff of the Wishbone chair? For one, it’s illegal.”

Above
Isamu Noguchi crouches before his most well-known design — the ‘Noguchi’ coffee table.

below
Arne Jacobsen and his ‘Egg’ Chair for Fritz Hansen.

But what’s so wrong with using them as a template? What’s wrong with Freedom Furniture’s simulacrum of an Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair residing in the stale confines of my therapist’s waiting room? What’s wrong with my nephew’s primary school having a Nood knockoff of the Wishbone Chair? For one, it’s illegal. Just this year, Norwegian customs seized the delivery of 100 replicas of Danish designer Hans J. Wegner’s Round Chair. “The Scandinavians do things so well,” your aunt might mutter, pushing a hardback on Hygge on you each Christmas — Yes, Carol, because reproducing classic design there isn’t an homage, it’s a crime.

Tony Ash, managing director of design brand Vitra, puts it well. “A copyist, by their very nature, exists to make products as cheaply as possible. In essence they are saying ‘let’s try and make this worse than the designer intended.’” The cost to designers of lawyers fighting these cases and time spent challenging them pulls them away from making the next piece to be replicated. Why should these designers bother working anymore if their designs aren’t even going to be protected? And if the designers lose their motivation, then where will the firms get their talent from? Indeed, where the likes of Diet Prada polices fashion’s fakes, off-brand Noguchis and Kartells abound in high-street furniture stores unabated.
Yet, central to the agenda of modernism was tackling economic equality.

When designers decry an Eames knockoff, are they merely signalling their taste level, or does it speak to an earnest desire to attain the Platonic ideal of the thing? We could now stack fake Tolix stools taller than Babel — but if we reached God to complain about this, would She simply send us toppling back down? While the democratisation of good design is appealing, the tension is this — replicas are not cheap, replacing them isn’t either. They cannot be made cheaply to the same tenets and standards of design. Living cheaply is expensive, and good design is hard-won. In the unfettered industry of fakes, that thrives on euphemisms like ‘inspired by’ and ‘in the style of’, the discount is an illusion, and the cost of repairing the product, very real. The clean lines are not as pure as the buyers’ conscience, the smooth surfaces wear quickly, the disruptive brands have given us a vague modernist aesthetic, and are bereft of a moral one.

To reduce the number of fakes, the industry needs to increase the number of affordable, ethical designer alternatives. Platforms such as Opendesk now look to democratise design — plans are shared openly by designers, and buyers receive their locally made furniture direct from a preferred maker. This is a cure-all for smaller markets, who lie vulnerable to knock-off mass production (aka, us), setting an accessible price point that still allows you the real thing.

Sustainable furniture design is where our best-laid plans often go awry. Bioplastics make water more acidic. Vegan leather creates landfill. Becoming carbon neutral appears unachievable when alternatives to our existing processes seem to be doing more harm than good. Many design leaders take active measures that go far beyond mere corporate greenwashing to effect change. Like Kvadrat, of Denmark, who opt for a top-down approach, with headquarters 100 per cent-fuelled by renewable energy, as well as upcycling wool and cotton for textiles, and stripping toxic fluorocarbon from its fabrics. Swedish flooring manufacturer Tarkett has a cradle-to-cradle policy, collecting not only its own flooring, but also flooring from its competitors — off-cuts and used vinyl are recycled back into its own products. Norwegian sustainable furniture brand Vestre runs on renewable solar energy, aims to have zero emissions for certain lines by the end of 2020, and donates at least 10 per cent of its annual profits every year to sustainable projects worldwide. Sustainable options abound, and they await your wallet.

Skincare, rocket engines, and Nutella jars — A.I.-driven design presents a creative new challenge for designers. What, then, is the future of furniture? Last year, Philippe Starck, Kartell and Autodesk unveiled the “world’s first production chair designed with artificial intelligence.” Autodesk developed a prototype generative design that Starck worked closely with, if that is the phrase, to create something that was consistent with their aesthetic principles and, importantly, comfortable to sit on.

The limitations of A.I.-biases, nuances and creating original content demand the input of a creator. In The Truman Show, the code of Truman’s world is written by a corporation, and he abides by it for decades, accepting the artificial. It’s only when he leaves the world of fakes that his real life begins. As director Michel Gondry, speaking on the film for Vanity Fair, said: “When that false life is given up, when what everybody else wants from you and of you is given up, then you walk into the everything. You become the everything. There’s no limitations anymore.”

Above
The often-aped ‘Egg’ Chair by Arne Jacobsen for Fritz Hansen.

Below
Designed by Philippe Starck, ‘Louis Ghost’ Chairs knockoffs are a dime a dozen.

“The Scandinavians do things so well,” your aunt might mutter, pushing a hardback on Hygge on you each Christmas — Yes, Carol, because reproducing classic design there isn’t an homage, it’s a crime.”

Below
Philippe Starck, Kartell and Autodesk create the world’s first chair designed with artificial intelligence.

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