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Feature Article
Is It Real?

Point of View:
A Designer's Heir Speaks

by Eames Demetrios
Eames Office
Pacific Palisades, CA

"DKR" chairs, designed by Charles & Ray Eames, manufactured by Herman Miller

The coverage of this topic puts alot of important issues on the table and eloquently captures the confusion that some consumers feel. What is fascinating is how little stress is placed on the opinion of the one link in the chain whose value would seem undeniable--the designer him (or her) self.

Most designers want to see their designs made in the way they intended. Just as writers understandably and appropriately wish to control how their text is used, most designers have come to see that protection of the name has become their best tool for preserving quality. Their designs may approach immortality but they can not. Designers know that without some way to protect the designs, no company (whether Herman Miller or Vitra or Knoll) can afford to invest in manufacturing the furniture to the standards of the designer. Therefore most designers when they die identify someone (it can be a family member, it can be a company or it can even be a foundation) to maintain the rights.

This is a conscious choice which represents the wishes of the designer. Some manufacturers seem to dismiss this as a sales ploy, presumably a result of self-interested bias on the part of the manufacturer. Such a comment is no more definitive than some else pointing out his short term self-interest in dismantling the legitimate protections of designers and their successors. The real issue is what are the ethics of the situation. If your 10th grader looked over the shoulder of another student's Math test and copied their work, your child would not be breaking a federal statute, but we would all recognize that as unethical. Similarly with designs: though there are legal remedies, they are all attempts to address this ethical point.

It's right to point out the subjectivity of the potential choices such a designated arbiter would make. But that is why a designer makes such a choice, because the marketplace is an organic and dynamic entity that requires choices to be made everyday. A designer could decide to say "Only I can make these decisions and when I am dead, it is all over." Indeed, designers who do not designate successors are consciously or unconsciously making that decision, but these days few designers ever fail to designate someone. Why is this?

Well, I once saw a lecture by the brilliant collector Michael Boyd where he showed some original Breuer chairs from his collection. They were extraordinary and tragic. Extraordinary because they showed how the original specifications of the design were integral to the vision of the piece. Tragic because he pointed out no manufacturer makes them to those specifications today because there is no protection of their investment. The term Breuer chair to most people means (if anything) a sillhouette rather than a complex series of design choices. Even if a manufacturer were making it, it would likely be a boutique reproduction rather than a part of the mainstream of the market. This is because as soon as a quality (and generally more expensive) version achieved mass-market distribution it would be up against other chairs that would also be known as Breuer chairs. Communicating the differences would be difficult. Designating an heir to use the protections of trademark and name-and-likeness rights is a powerful way to address this problem.

Sooner or later, most knockoff people can be relied upon to trot out the argument that mid-century modern included as part of its core vision affordable design. This is undeniable and a wonderful dimension of the philosophy. But quality was also part of its core vision as well and so most of those designers identified someone whom they wished to have the right and responsibility of determining what quality meant. So attempting to dismiss a trademark or the right to use the name as a marketing ploy is really wishful thinking. Instead it is a link in the chain that connects the consumer to the designer. Speaking as an Eames family member, it is personally sickening for someone to have a negative experience of a purported Eames design when they are really a victim of what might be considered a form of looting. Anyone who knew Charles and Ray will tell you how they treasured and contemplated the way people experienced their work. They were good hosts. Cost is only one dimension of the experience. Charles and Ray understood the difference between price and worth.

In connection with that, there is another dimension to cover: there is a name and likeness right. Families can be identified as successors in interest concerning the right to use the name or likeness of a famous person to promote products commercially. This is intended as a consumer protection law. I have heard it nicknamed the "3 Stooges Law" because things like the 3 Stooges Laundromat would pop up and consumers would think they were seeing an authorized venture.(Admit it: you didn't expect to see Curly, Larry, and Moe in a midcentury modern article).

We in the Eames family recognize that the rights come with responsibilities. But it is thanks to the complete constellation of rights and responsibilities that we were given that we can take care of the Eames House and continue such critical projects as getting the Eames films out to a wider public. We can only rely on our instinct, such as when Herman Miller and we agreed that because rosewood is not yet a renewable resource and therefore should no longer be used. We have used our copyright and name recently to create fabrics with Maharam based on Charles and Ray's designs. Going with our gut, we developed certain colorways for each pattern. Later we found a 50 year letter by Ray which corroborated some specific choices. It was exciting to read that because it really made us feel we have been on the right track.

Another reason designers identify successors is out of respect for the people who invested in the R&D to get them where they did. Herman Miller and Vitra are perfect examples of this. If we all believe in quality design and quality product, what incentive exists for a Herman Miller or a Vitra or a Knoll to invest in expensive tooling or to do the R&D if someone else can come along, cherry pick the home runs and get a free ride?

In this context, it is important to note that the Eames chairs made by Herman Miller and Vitra are NOT reproductions, they are still being made by the same companies Charles and Ray worked with in the mass production process they always intended. In fact, as a courtesy to collectors, Herman Miller has always made any reissues bear labels that make the time frame clear. It is meaningful that that was necessary to distinguish them from some of the vintage pieces.

As a final remark, there is a comment of Charles' that seems relevant, partly because sooner or later the knockoff folks say, "Well, at least it's out there." In a similar vein, my mother Lucia was with Charles when a newly hired staffer finally said in a last ditch attempt to justify a piece of work, "Well, something's better than nothing." And Charles responded with a pointed smile, "Not necessarily." In short, the term authorized does mean something. For us at the Eames Office, it means the confidence that you are deeply connected to the wishes of a designer with standards as tough as that.

(c) 2000 Eames Demetrios

Many design afficionados and collectors don't have the space or money required to collect the original designs they love so much. They sometimes collect child-size originals of the design. Or they turn to miniature versions of famous designs, such as these scale-model Eames chairs made by Vitra, made to original proportions and of the same type materials, but in tiny sizes just a few inches high. Herman Miller offers similar scale models of the Noguchi table. So... the question returns, in a new variation... "Hey Joe... are these REAL?"

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Eames Demetrios

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Content (c) 2000, 2001 Eames Demetrios, Joe Kunkel, and Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All Rights Reserved.

No one mentioned here in this editorial has any legal training. This article is not to be construed as rendering any legal opinion.
If you require a specific opinion concerning this subject, please contact an attorney. None of this commentary is to be considered factual. Contact an attorney for info on this subject. Mr. Demetrios' participation in this article does not indicate approval in any way or form of the work or materials of Modern Wood Works

Photo credits: Eames chairs photo by Charles Eames, courtesy of Eames Office.

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