Protecting America’s Mid-century Modern Masterpieces
Sunlight illuminates architect Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Collection at the Glass House, designed by architect Philip Johnson in 1949 as his personal residence in New Canaan, Connecticut. The Barcelona Collection, which debuted in 1929, at the second World’s Fair in Barcelona, Spain, is manufactured by U.S. furniture manufacturer, Knoll Inc. Now a museum, the Glass House is a National Trust for Historic Preservation site. Photo by Erik Johnson
After years of litigating intellectual property infringements, Michael Pollner had had enough. As the senior vice president chief administrative officer and general counsel of U.S. furniture manufacturer, Knoll, Inc., based in East Greenville, Pennsylvania, Pollner had been fighting nearly a decade to protect the company’s domestically manufactured, iconic mid-century modern furniture collections. But the strategy wasn’t working.
“Litigation is so expensive. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars litigating one company, and at the end of the day, there’s all of these other companies that are still selling knockoffs,” said Pollner. “It feels like one of those whack-a-mole games, where you knock one down and five others pop up. It’s counterproductive from a cost perspective.”
As e-commerce evolved, the problem grew worse. “Twenty-five to 30 years ago, counterfeiters didn’t have the same impact on us because they needed brick and mortar stores. With the Internet, they can sell their products all over the world,” said Pollner.
Knoll’s distinctive mid-century furniture is tantalizing for counterfeiters. Designed by legendary architects and artists such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, and the company’s heart and soul, Florence Knoll, a pioneer in interiors and textiles who died a year ago January at the age of 101, the pieces are sleek, clean-lined, and timeless. Not only are the designs illegally copied and sold, causing the company’s profits to suffer, but the knockoffs are culturally degrading. Many of the pieces, representative of the best American designs of the 1930s-1960s, are so treasured they are part of permanent design collections at museums throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Frustrated, Pollner turned to his outside counsel for help. The attorney suggested that Knoll work more closely with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “We had recorded our trademarks with CBP, but they weren’t getting a lot of attention,” said Pollner. The attorney told him that wasn’t enough. “He explained that there are millions of products coming over the border every day. We have to do our part to educate CBP. We can’t expect them to know about Knoll’s products on their own,” said Pollner.
In December 2014, Knoll decided to reach out to CBP. “We shared some of the intelligence that we had gathered from our enforcement efforts over the years regarding companies that were knocking off Knoll products and importing them into the U.S.,” said Pollner.
Lisa Fong, an international trade specialist with CBP’s Los Angeles National Threats Analysis Center, was assigned to work with Knoll. When Fong learned about Knoll’s alleged trademark infringements, she was shocked. “I had been working with customs exclusively on IPR enforcement for 25 years and this issue had never come up,” said Fong. “The majority of seizures have been run-of-the-mill—wearing apparel, handbags, watches, shoes, and electronics. It wasn’t until Knoll came along that furniture designs were on our radar.”
CBP and industry work in close partnership to enhance enforcement efforts. Here, CBP International Trade Specialist Lisa Fong, right, and Phoebe Bower, associate general counsel for Herman Miller, discuss how to protect Herman Miller’s mid-century modern furniture and other product lines at the company’s headquarters in Michigan. Photo by Donna Burton
As CBP delved into Knoll’s allegation, it became apparent that the problem was more pervasive. A threat assessment concluded that the industry was being victimized as a whole. “We started to see there was a lot to what was being alleged,” said Fong. “Not only was Knoll being knocked off, but other rights holders of mid-century furniture appeared to have problems as well.” By partnering with industry, CBP strengthened its enforcement efforts, helping U.S. manufacturers save millions of dollars and protect thousands of jobs.
Fong moved on the problem quickly, telling Knoll steps to take to ramp up its anti-counterfeiting efforts to increase its protection at the border. She suggested the company update its product guides to help CBP officers identify characteristics of genuine and suspect products. She also recommended that Knoll embark on a port training program, so that officers and import specialists would be familiar with Knoll’s designs and recognize fakes.
Based on Knoll’s input and CBP’s analysis, Fong set up a number of port training sessions. The first two were held in November 2015, in Chicago and St. Louis. The impact of the training was stunning. Within weeks, the port of St. Louis targeted and seized a number of suspect shipments. All contained furniture that infringed on the recorded and registered designs in Knoll’s Barcelona Collection, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, the second World’s Fair, held in Barcelona, Spain. The total manufacturer’s suggested retail price of the seizures was more than $1.5 million.
“Most people think that counterfeits are shipped through the West Coast from China, which is where they are predominantly made,” said Fong. “But you can’t just think of the predictable places. We have to look everywhere.”
That included the Pacific Northwest on the U.S.-Canadian Border. In December 2015, Fong reached out to the port of Blaine in Washington State. She had been doing research on companies that had prior counterfeit furniture seizures. “Lisa realized the importers are located in Vancouver and we are the closest U.S. port to where these companies ship through,” said Tiffany McKay, a CBP officer at the port of Blaine. McKay and her partner, CBP Officer Matt Lankford, started researching the companies and all of the furniture shipments that were crossing through Blaine.
In January 2016, the officers saw a shipment was coming from one of the importers and detained it. Sure enough, it contained suspect counterfeits. “There was a variety of different kinds of furniture, but only the Knoll Barcelona Collection pieces, a chair, table, sofa, and stool, were recorded with CBP,” said McKay, who contacted Knoll to confirm they were knockoffs. “The other pieces were released. Even though they were reproductions of famous mid-century modern furniture, we could not seize them because the companies had not recorded the designs with CBP, so we were unable to enforce their trademarks. It was frustrating.”
Fong reached out to other mid-century furniture manufacturers. Knoll was supportive. “It’s better if the whole industry works together,” said Pollner. “We were all suffering the same pain and the same infringement.”
One of the companies Fong contacted was Herman Miller. In February 2016, another suspect furniture shipment was detained at the port of Blaine. This one contained a potential knockoff of a classic mid-century Eames Lounge Chair, designed in 1956 by visionary husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames. U.S. furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, based in Zeeland, Michigan, was the rights holder and Fong wanted the company’s help to authenticate the chair. From there, a relationship was launched. “I educated them on our legal authority and how they could better help us so we could better help them,” said Fong.
Similar to Knoll, Herman Miller has a rich history of working with illustrious designers whose work is revered worldwide. Together the companies have the largest collections of mid-century modern classics, which are all manufactured domestically in the U.S. Herman Miller is twice the size of Knoll with nearly 4,900 U.S. employees compared to Knoll’s 2,400 U.S. employees. In terms of revenue, which includes office and residential sales worldwide, during fiscal year 2018, Herman Miller and Knoll generated $2.4 billion and $1.3 billion respectively. Both companies’ designs also have been plagued by counterfeiters.
“All of the classic products are knocked off in one way or another. Isamu Noguchi’s signature glass top coffee table is probably the most knocked off coffee table of all time. The Eames plastic chairs are also knocked off incessantly, and it creates a lot of market confusion,” said Amy Auscherman, Herman Miller’s archivist. “A lot of the designs that Herman Miller generated since the 1950s have become so ubiquitous in our visual culture that we recognize the designs, but don’t know who the designer is. Consumers who aren’t design savvy are usually fleeced by these knockoff companies that are counterfeiting the designs unethically or using materials that are not up to Herman Miller’s standards.”
The allure of mid-century furniture had a resurgence too. “All of these designs, which were influential decades ago, still endure. They’re very much part of our popular culture, so they’re seen everywhere,” said Fong, noting that TV shows such as Mad Men and Frazier have propelled the trend.
Fong also forged relationships with smaller furniture manufacturers. With Knoll’s help, she was introduced to Emeco, a 50-person company based in Hanover, Pennsylvania, that manufactures chairs. Fong noticed that Emeco had recently recorded its trademark for a chair design known as the “1006 Navy Chair.” A simple, clean-lined, utilitarian chair, handcrafted from recycled aluminum, the Navy Chair was designed in 1944 for the U.S. Navy to be used on submarines and warships. Known for its durability, the Navy Chair undergoes a 77-step process that, like all Emeco’s products, is entirely done by American craftsmen and has been passed on for generations.
Counterfeiting started to become a problem for Emeco in the early 2000s. “It became lucrative for companies to make knockoffs. The first for us was the Navy Chair. It was our most famous product and 15 years ago the knockoffs started to show up,” said Emeco’s Chairman and CEO Gregg Buchbinder. “It’s hard for a small business to survive when companies knock off your products. We fight for every dollar we make. We struggle and it’s not easy, so any loss of business has an impact on us.”
Fong also tried to find a trade association that represented manufacturers of mid-century modern furniture. “I thought it would be the most efficient way to communicate with the industry,” said Fong. She discovered Be Original Americas, a nonprofit that represented the manufacturers’ interests and more. “Be Original Americas was instrumental in reaching the industry,” said Fong. “In addition to having members who might have problems with mid-century designs, the organization included a lot of new companies with living designers whose work might be infringed later on.”
At the port of Savannah, CBP officers, from left, Josh Spano, Sonna McWilliams, and Monique Ford, examine office furniture for potential trademark infringement. Photo by Joseph Trevathan
As CBP officers learned about the problem with counterfeit furniture, they started to seize infringing goods. “We had a remarkable series of seizures over the course of a year,” said Fong. During fiscal year 2016, CBP seized 42 shipments of counterfeit furniture nationwide, valued at $4.2 million.
From training, the ports were able to spot red flags. For example, in June 2016, at the port of San Francisco, two shipments imported by a San Leandro furniture store were detained. “The two shipments came from different manufacturers, but they were both from China,” said CBP Import Specialist Katrina Williams.
One of the shipments contained knockoffs of a Noguchi coffee table, Cassina sofa, and furniture from the Knoll Barcelona Collection. “All three brands were shipped together in the same carton, which would never happen with authentic goods, said Williams. The second shipment contained 68 Herman Miller Eames chairs. “These designs are not imported. Moreover, the manufacturer in China was known for producing counterfeits.”
More recently, in July 2018, at the port of Savannah, a shipment from China containing a mismatch of different Eames chair designs was detained. “The design of the chair was similar to an authentic Eames chair, but there were differences,” said CBP Officer Sonna McWilliams. “The top of the chair was one design and the bottom was another.” The other red flag was the importer was a motorsport body shop that typically brought in auto and motorcycle parts. “When the shipment of 1,620 chairs came in, it was really odd,” said McWilliams. The chairs, which had a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of nearly $560,000, were seized.
“When CBP seizes shipments at the ports before they go to market, it’s critical because then we don’t have to deal with the people who are selling the fakes. The product never enters the market,” said Jennifer Lorch, the deputy director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York. “As a nonprofit, it’s very difficult for us to litigate. It’s very costly.”
Keeping counterfeits out of the country also saves jobs. “We rely on a large network of suppliers and vendors who make parts and pieces for our goods. Approximately 85 percent of our supply chain partners are based in the U.S. So it’s not just the jobs at Herman Miller that are affected, but the scale of our entire supply chain,” said Ben Watson, Herman Miller’s chief creative officer. “On a conservative estimate, our suppliers employ approximately 100,000 individuals in the U.S. So it’s safe to say, the ripple effect on employment is significant beyond just those folks carrying a Herman Miller ID.”
But it’s not just losing jobs. The artisanship would be lost too. “These are skilled jobs that require craftsmanship. People will say, ‘Oh, what’s the craftsmanship of a plastic chair?’ Well, we sell a heck of a lot of upholstered plastic chairs and those are done by hand. We need to protect and value that. If we don’t, certain kinds of knowledge will be lost, and that knowledge is the kind of knowledge we use to make innovations,” said Eames Demetrios, the grandson of Charles and Ray Eames and the director of the Eames Office, which preserves their legacy.
America’s cultural heritage is also at stake. “Authenticity of the design is vital to preserving these designers’ legacies and their ideas,” said Lorch. “If the design is not authentic, we have no idea where or how the pieces are being produced. There’s no relationship that we, the museum, or any of the designers or their estates have with these companies that are making the counterfeits, so it degrades what the artists created.”
When the furniture is not made to the exact specifications of the original design, it’s damaging for companies. “Counterfeits don’t just take away sales,” said Phoebe Bower, Herman Miller’s associate general counsel. “They degrade our brand because the products may look like they came from Herman Miller, but don’t necessarily perform the way a Herman Miller product would perform.”
Consumers are the ones who are cheated, said Demetrios. “People aren’t aware that they are being tricked and preyed upon. I have never seen a copyist say, ‘We’re making a fake. It’s cheaper. Please buy it.’ If you look carefully at their rhetoric, it’s always that it’s genuine. And even if they don’t say ‘genuine,’ phrases like ‘authentic replica’ are used,” said Demetrios.
Legally, that carries no weight, according to experts. “As long as the three-dimensional shape infringes the protected trademark, no amount of labeling the product as a ‘replica,’ ‘reproduction,’ or ‘inspired by’ would render it no longer counterfeit,” said Alaina van Horn, a CBP intellectual property rights attorney advisor.
CBP personnel visited Design Within Reach retail showrooms to learn about authentic pieces of mid-century furniture. From right, Design Within Reach Area Manager Tony Sison, teaches CBP port of San Francisco staff, Lisa Fong, Edward Guillen, Michael Moran, and Craig Thompson, how to spot fakes. Photo by Charles Csavossy
Education is key
How can consumers tell a real classic from a fake? “Educate yourself,” said Beth Dickstein, a co-founder of Be Original Americas. “Do your due diligence. If you’re going to buy an iconic product, make sure it’s the real one.”
As part of CBP’s training, in 2018, Fong arranged for CBP personnel in seven major cities to visit Design Within Reach retail showrooms that feature Herman Miller, Knoll, Emeco, and other product lines. “This was a way for our CBP personnel to actually see the authentic pieces of iconic furniture protected through the recordations,” said Donna Hart, assistant director of CBP’s Consumer Products and Mass Merchandising Center that oversees the IPR enforcement of furniture at the U.S. ports of entry. “You can’t tell high-quality merchandise necessarily by looking at a picture. You need to be able to touch it, smell it, and look at the stitching and detail. That’s why we wanted our people to see the original products.”
Over the course of three years, a number of furniture manufacturers made a commitment to invest in enforcement programs with CBP. By the end of fiscal year 2019, CBP had seized approximately 17,835 pieces of counterfeit furniture nationwide, valued at $30.3 million, at some of the largest U.S. seaports including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Savannah, and Tacoma. The enforcement efforts helped protect more than 8,000 American jobs.
For some companies such as Emeco, the impact has been felt greatly. “I’ve never felt I had any power against the bad guys, the counterfeiters,” said Buchbinder. “But CBP has given me the power to shut the door on them and say, ‘You can’t do this anymore.’ It’s so powerful.”
Ben Husted, who has been working in furniture manufacturing for 31 years, sprays a clear top coat on the back of an Eames lounge chair. Husted worries that mid-century modern furniture craftsmanship could be lost in the U.S. because of counterfeits. Photo by Donna Burton
Mid-Century Craftspeople Take Pride in their Work
Counterfeits are a sore subject for the craftspeople who make mid-century modern furniture. For Ben Husted, who has been working in furniture manufacturing for 31 years, it’s a scary topic. “I decided to go to trade school instead of college because that’s what I wanted to do,” said Husted, who has been spraying stain and topcoat finish on Herman Miller products at the Davidson Plyforms factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for nearly 16 years.
Husted’s first job was at a 100-year-old manufacturing company that suffered because of counterfeits from China. “The company was bought out and changed its name. It still exists, but it’s not the same as it used to be. The knockoffs hurt them a great deal. The craftsmanship was lost,” said Husted, who worries the same could happen again.
“That situation is scary for someone like me. I’ll be 50 pretty soon and it would be hard to start over. This is the best company I’ve worked for.,” he said.
According to Husted, making mid-century furniture isn’t easy. “There’s an art to it, there’s a skill, and if it’s done in a cheap manner, you would hope that someone would be able to see that,” he said. “But a lot of people just see the price. It might be a thousand dollars less. Someone is going to lean towards that, but there’s a lot of history and a lot of craftsmanship that goes into something that’s made by people who have been doing this their whole lives.”
Mid-century modern furniture is a source of pride for the craftspeople who make it. Nderim Kupe, a press operator who molds plywood to make Herman Miller Eames Lounge Chairs, designed by husband and wife Charles and Ray Eames, has been perfecting his craft for 16 years at the Grand Rapids factory. “I love what I do. When I see the finished product, I am so proud,” said Kupe, who emigrated from Albania 29 years ago. “If I lost my job, I don’t know what I would do.”
Kupe finds counterfeits distressing. “It’s heartbreaking he said. “The fakes aren’t quality products. Yes, you can buy them a little cheaper, but people will be disappointed. When you buy an authentic chair, it’s beautiful. The fake chairs aren’t made well and the specs are off.”
Knowing that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is trying to stop counterfeits is a source of comfort. “I heard about it and I’m really happy with what CBP is trying to do,” said Kupe. “We work really hard. I am on my feet 10 hours every day. We inspect the chairs so many times to make sure we get the product right and the quality that a customer expects.”
Julie Denton, who repairs Herman Miller’s mid-century modern furniture, has worked at the factory for 24 years. “When a chair is broken, normally someone might trash it, but these chairs have history,” said Denton. “They’re handed down from generations so people want to preserve them. They’re family treasures.”
The hardest part of Denton’s job is when she runs across a knockoff. “People think they have an original, iconic piece, and then find out they have a dime store replica,” said Denton. “It’s a work of art that’s been completely degraded. It’s very disheartening.”
Some of the craftspeople are family members. Such is the case for father and son, Jerry and Scott Hill, who work together in the factory’s tool room. The two have worked on Herman Miller and Knoll products during their careers at the plant. “We build the dies, all the tooling to make the furniture,” said Scott.
Both are deeply disturbed by counterfeiting. “It’s hurting America. It just steals the jobs away from people in this country,” said Jerry. “It takes years to learn how to do this work. It’s not just one day or two weeks. I’ve been in the tool room now for probably close to 25 years and I’ve learned a lot from other generations of toolmakers—the older guys who were here before me. Each one passed on their trade to me and now I’m passing it on to Scott and the new guy, Roy, who started here this year,” he said.
“We want to keep this tradition going. It’s beautiful furniture and if consumers continue buying overseas, it’s going to kill our industry,” added Jerry. “We take pride in what we’re doing. The furniture is expensive, but the quality is good. We don’t just throw junk together. What we build, we build to last. We build it to specification, the way the architects and designers intended.”
As part of a 77-step manufacturing process, craftsman Walter Hawley gives a protective coating to an iconic Navy chair, designed in 1944 for the U.S. Navy. Hawley is one of 50 people who works for U.S. furniture manufacturer Emeco in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan for Surface Media