There’s a trillion dollar black market in fake chairs

Last year, US customs officers seized over $4 million worth of fake chairs. It was the first year that the agency had ever seized containers-full ofsuch unauthorized reproductions, thanks in part to a novel new training that’s turning port inspectors into design connoisseurs.

Over the past 18 months, a five-year-old consortium of furniture manufacturers and design firms called BeOriginal Americas has been training US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers to distinguish real Eames, Starck, and van der Rohe designs from fakes, among others. It’s working: According to CBP’s Intellectual Property Rights Seizure Statistics report (pdf, p.5), in 2016, customs officials confiscated 42 shipments of unauthorized replicas worth an estimated $4.2 million. In the same report, the CBP claimed that their “furniture enforcement efforts have helped to protect over 8,000 American jobs” a figure calculated according to workforce data provided to them by US furniture manufacturers.

But they’re up against a vast knock-off industry. Labeled with nice-sounding terms like “reproduction,”replica,” or “homage,” many designer chairs in offices, hotel lobbies, airports, restaurants and even big furniture stores are actually unauthorized copies. And while a knock-off Eames or Barcelona chair might seem like a harmless, budget-friendly addition to your living room, these illegal knockoffs threaten the economy and the environment, and erode the very meaning of design.

Imitating Eames

The iconic Eames lounge chair is among the most copied pieces of furniture. Its history provides an illuminating illustration about how and why the global counterfeit furniture industry thrives to the tune of $1.7 trillion, according to BeOriginal America’s estimate.

Designed by husband-and-wife team Charles and Ray Eames for the luxury furniture market, the leather and bent plywood recliner has become symbolic of good design taste and affluence. The recliner was originally conceived as a napping-and-reading perch for Hollywood director Billy Wilder, who wanted a handsome English club chair with the feel of “warm, receptive look of a well-worn first baseman’s mitt.”

Today, the Eames lounge is still assembled by hand in a Zeeland, Michigan factory following the same meticulous process that the Eameses took four years to perfect. The mid-century modern classic often appears on celebrity photographs, TV shows, magazine covers, and enshrined in MoMA’s permanent collection.

It was a sensation from the moment it was unveiled it on live television in 1956. But not everyone watching the Arlene Francis Home show could afford to shell out $310 (around $2,800 today). Inevitably, knockoffs surfaced in the market.

Read more at GQ.