THE Restoration Hardware showroom in the Flatiron district of Manhattan was a hive of activity last week, as lunchtime shoppers checked out furniture from the company's new fall collection.
Many of the pieces had familiar silhouettes. There was a stack of what looked like Series 7 chairs by the midcentury Danish designer Arne Jacobsen. Around a plain oak table sat a group of what appeared to be metal Tolix bistro chairs. And crouched like a pair of house cats were dead ringers for Mies van der Rohe's MR side chairs from the late 1920s.
Consumers familiar with these well-known pieces might have been pleasantly surprised by how cheap they were. A Series 7 chair usually sells for around $500; this one cost $79. But closer inspection revealed plastic pieces connecting the metal frame to the underside of the plywood seat. And if that weren't enough of a giveaway, a glance at the tag would have shown that the chair was called Magnus.
Magnus is, of course, a reproduction. For decades, lovers of modern furniture, balking at the cost of authorized versions, have settled for inexpensive knockoffs. And companies like Restoration Hardware have been eager to meet the demand. The showroom also carried versions of Jacobsen's Egg, Ant and Swan chairs, all with names that suggested midcentury Scandinavian origins and prices that defied them.
One ersatz classic you would not have found, however, was an aluminum chair that Restoration Hardware advertised in its catalogs and on its Web site. That piece, a copy of a 1940s chair originally designed for use on warships and submarines, was recently taken off the market, the company said. Coincidentally or not, this was around the time it became the subject of a lawsuit. (The company refused to comment for this article.)
On Oct. 1, lawyers for Emeco, a company based in Hanover, Pa., filed papers in district court in Northern California against Restoration Hardware and its former chief executive officer, Gary Friedman, for what they claimed was unauthorized reproduction of the Navy chair, which Emeco manufactures.
The aluminum chair, with its distinctive curved back supported by a trio of vertical struts, is at the core of Emeco's business. Once a utilitarian object that could be picked up for $5 at Army/Navy stores, it is now often found in chic hotels and professionally decorated homes. The chair is made by hand at the Emeco factory in Hanover with a proprietary process that gives it exceptional strength. It is guaranteed over its lifetime, which the company estimates to be 150 years.
The Emeco Navy chair costs $455, but the nearly identical chair Restoration Hardware promoted as the Naval chair was just $129.
Knockoffs are to many furniture manufacturers what lice are to the parents of elementary schoolchildren: a perennial problem, and one that is devilishly hard to eradicate. Legal protections exist in the form of trade dress and trademark rights, the design equivalent of copyright protection.
And furniture manufacturers exercise these rights routinely. One example, among many: In 2009, two furniture companies, Alan Heller and Blu Dot, independently sued Design Within Reach for the unauthorized reproduction of their designs, effectively reforming the way the retailer had been conducting business.
But the expense of taking such action is often considered counterproductive. Instead, many manufacturers simply tolerate the competition from lower-priced look-alikes and seek to educate their customers about the value of owning the authorized version of a particular design. The superior materials and construction, the thinking goes, lead to a longer product life, so spending more may be more cost-effective in the end. And, of course, original designs produced by authorized manufacturers carry the stamp of authenticity.
But tell that to the shopper with sophisticated taste, who is on a recessionary budget -- the one who isn't so concerned that the Restoration Hardware Magnus chair's wood might be a little rough, and who isn't planning to duck under the seat anytime soon to inspect those fasteners. The very consumer who has helped transform Emeco's Navy chair from military surplus to style paragon has also developed an insatiable taste for Mies or Jacobsen, even if it's low-rent Mies or Jacobsen. Emeco and Restoration Hardware are vying for the soul of the same buyer.
The stakes are high for both companies. Restoration Hardware is preparing to take the company public in the wake of internal convulsions, namely the removal of Mr. Friedman from his chief executive position in August because of a romantic relationship he was alleged to be having with an employee. (Mr. Friedman is currently identified as chairman emeritus, creator and curator of Restoration Hardware. And because he retains aesthetic direction of the company and is the owner of up to 20 percent of its equity, he was singled out in the lawsuit, the court papers stated.)
Meanwhile, for Emeco, the threat of low-priced look-alike products is not just pestilent but potentially lethal. Speaking the day after the lawsuit was filed, Gregg Buchbinder, the chairman of Emeco, anticipated the possibility of spending millions of dollars to protect his intellectual property, but saw no alternative. "The Navy chair is what we center everything around," he said. "It's the heritage of our company."
As of Oct. 5, the Naval chair was nowhere to be found on Restoration Hardware's Web site or in the showroom this reporter visited. Mr. Buchbinder said that Restoration Hardware had begun negotiations to settle the suit. But he believes that cannot undo the damage of selling a reproduction Navy chair, even briefly, because the Naval chair continues to be displayed in Restoration Hardware catalogs, and his chair will be hard to sell to buyers who have seen the price of Restoration Hardware's.
He was also concerned that the manufacturing juggernaut put in motion by Restoration Hardware may not be easy to halt. "Now that tooling is set up and production is in place in China, knockoffs will be popping up worldwide," he said.
Trade dress and intellectual property challenges are plagues visited on other industries, of course, from fashion and software to candy. But the extraordinary expense of bringing out new furniture makes it especially nettlesome for companies to see the market flooded with cheap copies of their products. The span of development, from concept through distribution, can take several years and millions of dollars. Much of that investment is spared to the copyist of proven goods, allowing for deeper discounts.
Benefits accrue even more when the product has a heritage that pushes consumers' authenticity buttons, even if the history they are buying is fraudulent. David Obel Rosenkvist, a vice president of Fritz Hansen, the Danish furniture company, which has fought many intellectual property battles, said it has been "in dialogue" with Restoration Hardware about the Jacobsen knockoffs.
"They're not only stealing the design, they're also trying to steal the design story and the background of the designers," Mr. Rosenkvist said of the cheeky references to midcentury Scandinavia.
But is expensive legal action the best solution?
The British designer Tom Dixon, whose work is routinely knocked off, questions the value of legal action against copyists. "It's almost impossible to control in the kind of environment we work in, mainly because of poor enforcement in some countries and confusion about some of the legalities and zero legislation or enforcement in most of Asia," he said.
For Mr. Dixon, hope lies in a different design trend: digital production, which allows for easy customization and distribution. Speedy manufacturing and the ability to make quick changes in products, he believes, will keep designers ahead of the knockoff artists.
Mr. Dixon is also fighting copyists with hard-to-imitate design features. His new Lustre lights, for instance, are stoneware with a proprietary metal glaze that gives a different iridescent finish to each piece. Customers will find value in the uniqueness of each light, Mr. Dixon said, and it will be some time before copyists will crack the code.
Mr. Buchbinder of Emeco is also pushing innovation by incorporating humble, recycled materials like sawdust into his chairs. Still, the Navy chair remains at the heart of his business, and he sees no other recourse to protect it than a legal one.
"If I don't fight," he said, "it kills the company."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.