Last year, Eames Demetrios gave me a tour of his late grandparents' home in Pacific Palisades. They designed the steel-beam-and-glass structure in 1949 and lived there for the rest of their lives. Today it's a private museum, viewed by appointment only. If you're lucky enough to get in, you'll walk past the windows in the main room that open to meadow and ocean views and into a small living area off the kitchen. And there, opposite the cluttered bookshelves, you'll see what is arguably Modernism's most famous chair, its black hide cracking in the sun. A chair that, Demetrios told me, "comes by its wrinkles honestly."
Charles and Ray Eames designed the Eames Lounge Chair 50 years ago. You know it: It's the one with a five-footed metal base supporting wood shells that are cushily upholstered in button-dimpled leather. Originally priced at $650 to attract middle-class consumers, today it sells with a matching ottoman for $3,000 and up. It has huge snob appeal and is often rendered in New Yorker cartoons depicting the apartments of stuffy Upper East Siders. And, unlike most pieces of furniture, it's protected by law from knockoff profiteers.
Under what's known as trade-dress protection, only the chair's exclusive U.S. licensee, the Michigan furniture company Herman Miller, can make and sell the Eames Lounge in this country. No other company can legally peddle a chair by any name that even looks like an Eames Lounge for as long as Herman Miller continues to market it. A design patent is good for 14 years, but trade dress never expires. Trade dress guards a handful of design icons--the Coke bottle, the Hershey's Kiss, the Volkswagen Beetle--that function on their own merit as trademarks. If another product looks "confusingly similar" (the term used in trade-dress cases to describe a close facsimile) the original maker can argue that the copycat is trading on its good name and reputation for an unearned benefit.