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Reader poll: What constitutes copycat design?

October 26, 2013|By Craig Nakano
  • West Elm recently pulled the lumberjack ornaments, left, from its holiday collection after hearing accusations that its supplier, a wholesale gift company, was copying the work of independent artists including Mimi Kirchner, the doll artist who created the lumberjack at right.
West Elm recently pulled the lumberjack ornaments, left, from its holiday… (West Elm; mimikirchner.com )

Just how much has copycat design grown in the home furnishings world? Some designers have said that cheap knockoffs can be made so quickly they often appear on store shelves within six months of the original -- sometimes faster. A designer's original work might premiere at a trade show and, as fast as photos can be emailed, an overseas factory is reproducing the look with less-costly materials and labor.

Whereas inexpensive riffs on high-priced originals were once celebrated as the democratization of design -- a way of bringing more sophisticated design to the masses -- the pendulum now appears to be swinging in the other direction. This year a consortium of high-profile companies including Alessi, Herman Miller, Kartell and Vitra launched the Be Original campaign in hopes of persuading consumers, design students, retailers and policymakers to protect original designs from copycats. As The Times' Lisa Boone reported last week, West Elm voluntarily pulled products after accusations surfaced that one of its suppliers had copied the work of an independent artist. Fab and Anthropologie followed suit.

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