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The Real Deal

The Eames design is the only chair protected by law

December 24, 2006|Eryn Brown | Eryn Brown is an editorial writer for The Times.

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.

Since establishing the Lounge's trade-dress status in a 2003 lawsuit against Palazzetti Imports & Exports, a New York firm that deployed the Eames name to sell a knockoff, Herman Miller has been fast to pounce on what it views as the most egregious predators: companies willing to risk litigation for a slice of the sizzling midcentury furniture market. A 2003 InFurniture magazine poll of the nation's 100 or so largest furniture makers found that 61% had produced and sold an unlicensed item based on another's design, and that 58% had asked a manufacturer to copy another manufacturer's design.

Personally, I think design ought to flow into the public domain. But I understood where Demetrios was coming from when, between sips of home-brewed cappuccino in his grandparents' kitchen, he denounced cheap imitations: "Charles would say: 'The details aren't details. The details make the product.' So when you see something that doesn't have that attention to detail, it's not an Eames piece."

I understood because four years ago, my husband and I inherited a 25-year-old, absolutely authentic Eames Lounge. It seemed as if it was born for our apartment, a 1950s flat with a sweeping Hollywood view. Later, when we moved to a 1929 Spanish-style house in Sherman Oaks, the chair looked at home there too, next to chunky dark-wood sideboards and a weathered tile fireplace. That's the thing about this chair. It fits in anywhere--and unlike our kitchen chairs, a set of increasingly wobbly Arne Jacobsen copies, it never squeaks.

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