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Upending chairs: protecting intellectual property in Australia


Quite literally as we go to print, the landscape of Australian design is changing. It is a truly exciting time and, three issues in, MEZZANINE is already seeing the ideas we have discussed percolate into serious and progressive realities for everyday living. There are two cornerstones of this conversation and, ironically, they share a common and controversial theme.

For most in the architecture and design industry and, hopefully, the general public, ‘replica’ is a dirty word. We may not all be aware of the flaws in Australia’s intellectual property laws, but we have certainly seen their effects. The discovery that simply adding the word ‘replica’ to the original title of a piece has opened up an enormous market in the sale of unauthorised copies, and in recent years importers of authentic furniture have been very vocal on the topic. It is fair to say that until recently the replica market has been focused on European mid-century classics, designed by people who are no longer to give voice to this discussion. Times are rapidly changing and Australian designers now need to consider the potential of their work being all too easily replicated.

To put it simply, furniture designers worldwide work with manufacturers on a royalty-based model and it is no different here. That is how they make their living, taking a small percentage from the sale of each piece. In turn, manufacturers invest heavily with the designers in developing new collections and creating the infrastructure to make, market and distribute them. A successful product can generate a substantial return on the creative and financial investments made by the designers and manufacturers but, despite common misconceptions, the royalty received by a designer for the sale of a ‘replica’ is zero percent.

“As with any discussion relating to ethics, the subject of intellectual property is nuanced.” – Trent Jansen

Of course, the discussion around this activity is not all to do with financial gain and the moral high ground, though that has been the focus for obvious reasons. Hardly the cry of a group of ‘struggling artists’, it’s only fair that the work of our leading designers be respected in the same way we would respect the work of a painter or sculptor. In speaking with members of the local design community it is refreshing to see a positive and constructive approach forming around the issue of intellectual property and the benefits of buying authentic work.

“There is a huge opportunity for hotels and cafés in using original Australian furniture,” says Adam Goodrum, whose Volley chair for Tait has quickly become an Australian design classic. “If one of my pieces is used in a project I promote it as much as I can through social media and word of mouth, and so do the manufacturers,” he says. “It is just so silly to not take advantage of this, especially if you are a business that is building a reputation driven by design.” This is an interesting viewpoint and one not constrained solely to businesses.

As a designer, Trent Jansen suggests personal investment in design is “partially to do with ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and showing those Joneses we too understand design”. It would make for awkward dinner table conversation to confess to the Joneses that they are sitting on a replica. They would be far more impressed in hearing the story behind the object, a little about the designer and even the experiences the object has encountered. As with art or photography, there is social currency in understanding and sharing the provenance of an object and the people behind it.

Registering a design in Australia can only be done if the work has not reached the public realm.

Jansen sees process as being a key to explaining, and perhaps owning, his work. Sharing this process as a product develops can be tricky, as registering a design in Australia can only be done if the work has not reached the public realm. Jansen believes that, through sharing the ideas, details and technical development of a product, there comes a greater understanding of the time and effort that goes into a piece and in a way this does more to protect intellectual property than what can be achieved through legal avenues.

“As with any discussion relating to ethics, the subject of intellectual property is nuanced,” says Jansen. “Some argue that an open source approach to intellectual property is more conducive to innovation.” The counterargument, as he points out, is, “In the context of replica furniture, why would designers and manufacturers invest the time and energy into creating new collections if the law will not protect their intellectual property and allow them to make a living from their innovation?”

There is no question it’s a complex discussion, but a group of Melbourne architects are using the open source model to create a new typology of property development. Led by Breathe Architecture and backed by some of Australia’s leading creatives, the Nightingale 1.0 development in Melbourne represents the way architects and designers can make positive social change, accessible to everyday Australians. With the goal of achieving the triple bottom line of sustainable, liveable developments that provide a modest and transparent financial return, the architects have removed many of the traditional costs associated with a development to tackle the increasing issue of housing affordability. The concept is surprisingly simple and proving very popular, with the group receiving over 800 expressions of interest for the 20 apartments the development will house. The group already has two more similar developments in progress and through its open source approach is enabling architects in Australia and New Zealand to make similar positive change.

Internationally, designers are also experimenting with new business models to encourage creative growth. Throwing the traditional royalty-based model out of the window, Swedish architects Mårten Claesson, Eero Koivisto and Ola Rune have recently launched Smaller Objects, a brand focused on rewarding designers through a new compensation model. By placing manufacture in the hands of the designers, the company acts as a marketing and sales portal with 75 percent of the sale price being returned to the designer. It is a new typology for creative business and designers that is gathering momentum globally.

These positive initiatives evolving through creative thinking are an exciting prospect for our local industry. Today’s designers and architects share a common belief in the value of authentic design and the ideas, processes and people that sit behind it.

Lead image, Adam Goodrum’s iconic – and sometimes mimicked – Volley outdoor seating range for Tait. 

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