What is an original in design?
Two important names in the industrial design sector shed light on the original-copy relationship.
The design has always dealt with the authorship of the term, original and copies in a conflictive way because it takes them from a field that is inevitably close but ultimately alien, such as the arts. "In the visual arts, it is clear what the terms' original and copy mean. In the world of design, however, this relationship needs to be redefined," says Rolf Fehlbaum, president of Vitra, one of the major companies that worship signature design in the field of furniture.
In art, what is not original is false or, at least, not very relevant and has hardly any market value. Design, however, is materialized in mass-produced objects in an industrial and virtually unlimited way, hence the need for that redefinition that Fehlbaum points out and partly resolved in commercial terms: industrial property, exploitation rights.
Fehlbaum is rightly saying that the designer shares authorship with the manufacturer, whose involvement in product development goes far beyond mere investment and productive resources. It all seems straightforward, but it is not so clear.
Things get complicated when the classics appear on the scene. Pieces designed in the late 1920s, like the furniture of Perriand-Le Corbusier; in the 1930s, like a good part of Alvar Aalto's, and even in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, like those of the Eames, Arne Jacobsen or Verner Panton, present very different cases that the companies that produce them approach with other strategies.
Here, their condition as modern fetishes weighs more than their mere response to a functional demand, and, in that sense, they are closer to the sphere of the artistic object.
However, as designs go, many of these pieces are not fossilized objects that have been mimetically reproduced since they were first produced but have been adapted in the light of new demands or technological innovations. This is most evident in the family of Aluminum Chairs, by Charles and Ray Eames, born as garden furniture with textile seating in the late 1950s and redirected by the designers and their manufacturers (Herman Miller and Vitra) towards the office and domestic spaces with upholstered leather bodies.
Which is more original, the Panton Classic in rigid polyurethane foam, which maintains the weight and satin texture of the chair from the mid-1960s, or the lighter and cheaper version in polypropylene that has been distributed since 1999, both in Vitra's current catalog? It is clear that the question makes no sense if we think in terms of design; both simply cover different demands: one satisfies a collector and iconic drive, and the other seeks its place among the seating offer of the 21st century without renouncing its baggage.
Most manufacturers of classics are closer to the Panton Classic strategy, in some cases with an almost archeological fidelity, such as the Dutch Originals of the Dutch company Gispen, whose cantilevered metal tube chairs have the same bakelite reinforcements as those of the thirties or the Eileen Gray pieces produced by ClassiCon. In other words, they prioritize the satisfaction of a cultural and collector's desire by providing rigorously produced reports that can function as objects of effective use without losing their halo of authenticity.
Beyond that is the actual collecting of period pieces, not unlike art collecting, in which the use-value of the work is of secondary importance. Even in these cases, it is enough to compare a 1929 Grand Confort armchair by Perriand-Le Corbusier with those Cassina currently produces under license to perceive the differences in proportions or upholstery technique. The company guarantees precisely rigor and legitimacy from a design point of view of these adaptations. Also their usability and their material and functional quality, which in no case guarantee the pirate copies that deceitfully evade the expanded condition of authorship and originality of the design. They are cheaper because they are worse, and they are so because they elude precisely what design provides. Although superficially, they may seem to be, they are not what they say they are.
Ramón Úbeda, the Spanish art director par excellence, responsible for the Bd catalog and whose imprint is also on brands such as Camper or Metalarte, explains it with crystal clarity: in the case of copies, "the price reduction is the result of savings in research, investment, and design. We must defend the right to intellectual and industrial property because it is immoral and a crime to follow in the footsteps of those who risk innovating to do business by copying. If we all copied, it would be the end of creation". The value of the original is therefore proclaimed; that of the copy is hidden: "I don't remember having seen any design with a label saying that it is a copy." Of course.
But the question of originality in design is not limited to the issue of classics. The design industry has been plunged into inflation of novelties that do not necessarily mean innovation, which is afflicted by the catwalk syndrome. Design for the habitat reproduces strategies typical of the fashion industry without considering that its cycles are different. With the change of season we change our clothes, but not our chairs.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a modern pioneer like Adolf Loos proclaimed that "the best form is always already made, and that no one is afraid to make it, even if it is the work of others in its fundamental elements. We have enough of the original genius!
Loos understood the affinities between art, fashion, and design, so he knew their different natures equally well. Ramón Úbeda, who has studied the subject of copies in-depth, explains it well in the form of a paradox:
"To be original, you have to go back to the origin. Antoni Gaudí said it, a guy who knew how to be original. He invited us to imitate the forms of nature. Because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this is what Charles Caleb Colton said. And what is not imitation is plagiarism, said Eugeni d'Ors. (...) The defense of innovation in design is still as difficult as it is necessary today. As Fernando Amat says, there is a lot of copying and a lot of bad copying. Originality is within reach of very few, if it exists at all. As Mark Twain wrote, the human brain is made so that it cannot create anything at all; it can only use existing material. The same as Gaudí said but explained differently. This same text is an example".