Australian designer Trent Jansen has an introspective look at his native furniture and design market. Can 'Replica Furniture' be the answer for an isolated continent?
"Well, summer in the northern hemisphere means winter in Australia, so this diary entry was conceived just west of Sydney, on a trip to the majestic, and chilly Blue Mountains, and the Megalong Valley (yes, it is mega-long).
I am currently writing a thesis on Australian design and, as is expected, I am doing my best to understand the heritage of Australian furniture and object design and making throughout the roughly 60,000 years of Indigenous occupation, as well as the 227 years since British invasion. In the mid Twentieth Century, Modernism reached Australia and it was during some reading on this period of Australia’s material culture history that I made an encounter with design that struck me from the depths of the 1950s. This was an encounter with a series of events that continue to inflict adverse affects on the Australian design industry to this day.
According to Kirsty Grant’s Mid Century Modern : Australian Furniture Design, during the 1950s modern furniture design was becoming popular in Australia, through coverage in magazines including Australian Home Beautiful. However, because of the vast distance between Australia, Europe and the United States, where these mid- century masterpieces were designed and manufactured, importing these objects to Australia was prohibitively expen/sive.
One of Australia’s most well respected architects, Harry Seidler, was the first to specify foreign, mid century furniture in one of his buildings, bringing home some examples of Eames, Saarinen and Bertoia furniture from a trip to America for use in a house that he had designing for his mother. It seems that Seidler was so fond of these foreign mid century designs that he could not bear to see his buildings furnished with anything else. However, Seidler could not travel to the United States in order to furnish every building, and it was too expensive to import this furniture from abroad, so according to Grant, Harry Seidler established Descon Laminates in Sydney in 1951, a factory dedicated to copying these iconic designs for the Australian market.
For the eleven years between 1951 and 1962, Harry Seidler and Peter Mackeig ran Descon Laminates, copying iconic designs including Saarinen’s Grasshopper and Womb Chairs, Eames chairs in fibreglass and plywood, and Bertoia’s wire chair. Seidler and Mackeig had sought the licence for these designs, an eventuation that would have given them consent from the designers and manufacturers of these pieces to reproduce them in Australia. However, the licensing fee was deemed to be too high, so Seidler and Mackeig continued with their plans, manufacturing copies for the Australian market without the consent of their original creators.
It seems that under Australian law today, the copyright that protects a piece of furniture will be lost if the piece of furniture is produced for sale more than fifty times. The only way to protect a design of this type in Australia is to register the design, or to apply for a patent, but of course these measures can be expensive and must to be put in place before the design enters the public domain, that is, before the piece of furniture is seen by the general public. Again, according to Grant, it may have been this same set of exclusions that made it possible for Seidler and Mackeig to copy the work of some of the world’s most highly regarded mid century furniture designers without adverse legal ramifications.
I hear you say, “but that was the 1950s, surely in a contemporary society such as Australia this practise isn’t still talking place.” Unfortunately, the work of designers from all over the world is still legally copied and sold in Australia. There are stores, whose names I will not mention, that are dedicated to selling “replica furniture,” code for “unethical copy,” but as unethical as all of this seems, it is not illegal due to shortfalls in the intellectual property law in Australia.
As a furniture designer, I have always considered these laws to be utterly archaic, reducing the ability for creative people to make a living from the their intellectual property, and reducing the incentive for those same creative people to bother inventing in the first place... Why would you bother, if your ideas can be legally copied, giving someone else the government sanctioned right to make a profit from your hard-earned invention. But to learn that Harry Seidler, considered by many to be the father of modern Australian architecture, was involved in these practices is utterly heart breaking. These laws must be changed if the creative industries in Australia are to thrive, as they do in many other parts of the world."