For a few dollars less.
This is a story about a chair. It could just as easily be a story about design icons, copyright theft, globalisation or even the democratisation of luxury goods through a communist system.
But let’s focus on the ingenuity and pragmatism of some unknown manufacturing engineers and the signatures they left in the chairs they made.
This is a story about the Eames DSW side chair design. Ray and Charles Eames were renowned designers in the 1940s and 50s, producing many objects, buildings and films that often have the word "iconic" attached to them. Among their most popular designs are a series of plastic † side chairs that you’ve doubtless seen, sat-in or even bought, with various bases made out of different combinations of wire and wood. The range was designed at the end of the 1940’s for a Museum of Modern Art low-cost furniture competition, and they embody the Eames’ goal of "Getting the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least" .
The "DSW plastic side chair" you see here is often referred to as a wooden eiffel, and with it’s combination of pale maple wood, comfortable curves and intricate wires, it will grace a photoshoot somewhere in any damned interior design magazine you happen to pick up. I’m not even kidding.
The patents for most Eames furniture remain with Herman Miller in the states, and Vitra in Europe, and they still distribute most of the plastic side chair range. You can buy an "original" DSW plastic side chair -- evolved from the 65 year-old design -- today for around £280/$440.
Enter the pirates #
Pricing like this gives rise to the sort of laws of supply and demand that are not often taught in business schools. A plastic side chair that costs you over a £1000 to complete even a small table, is being displayed to a hungry, decadent middle class, over and over in perfect kitchens and delightful dining rooms. The inherent design of the chair makes it easy to copy and mass produce at low cost (that was, after all, it’s purpose). Enter the pirates.
It’s not clear if it started with companies in China, but it soon became the most obvious place to produce copies. Various faceless factories started shipping copies of design classics like the DSW in huge quantities at a fraction of the original price.
The design industry is trying to clamp down on this business, with some effect. But it still hangs around for the moment.
Six years ago, I wanted a piece of this design-life to be my-life in London. I bought a "knock-off" Eames DSW as a desk chair for £60/$90. Now I’m living in Sweden, and I’ve just bought four more (shipped from the UK) for our dining table, for £30/$45 each. That’s quite a saving. Meanwhile, I can still admire the full-cost, real thing at the office of my day-job.
And with these three chairs, I can see the story behind the object.
Looking at all three, I imagine a timeline of decisions and cost-savings. They are the results of continuous feedback and market demands. And I can’t help applauding the engineers involved, who took decisions about what compromises consumers will accept, whilst shaving serious money off production costs.
Lets walk through these three chairs and see what that extra money buys you (discounting the intellectual property cost -- and I know how that sounds -- to concentrate on the production design aspect). We’ll call them Mr Vitra (£280/$440), Mr Cheap (£60/$90) and Mr Pennies (£30/$45).
The plastic shell is the first stop. The shell on Mr Pennies is not quite the nice original chalky colour, more a brilliant white -- but it’s clean and consistent across all four chairs.
Lets talk about colour fade. Mr Vitra is said to never change colour. But at least in the reproductions, it’s such a common problem that it should be considered an expectation ✢. I actually look at the cream tinted Mr cheap now and feel it has more character than the brand new Mr Pennies -- a little like leather furniture does after time. You may feel differently.
Mr Pennies has a smoother satin texture than the others, but all three have identical dimensions and shapes. To sit on, you’d never tell the difference, and the suspension effect of the base means that none of the chairs will ever be unbalanced once you sit down. And they all creak in pretty much the same way when you sit on them.
Mr Vitra has clear manufacturer stamps on the bottom with a serial and date of production, as well a faint injection moulding nub, where the plastic entered the mould. Mr Pennies has a similar nub in the same place, although rougher and much more obvious. So what we have here is production tooling designed to give large scale production, consistent quality and a quick turn-around -- inject, cool, snap-off, repeat.
Strangely, the middle cost chair has no visible nub so I can only assume it’s somehow hidden and/or machined off. Was this a case of a production engineer feeling they could improve on the original? Whatever the reason, it would inherently add extra time and an extra process so it’s unsurprising that in the later, cheaper, Mr Pennies, the nub returned to somewhere uglier, quicker and less likely to cause rejects.
All three variations have visible sink holes on the top surface where the leg joints cool at a different rate to the thin skinned shell, although they’re less visible on Mr Cheap.
it’s neat where it’s visible, and cheap and quick where it’s hidden.
The legs on Mr Vitra are nicely finished in maple with all the chamfers and slots smoothly cut. The finishing on the reproductions’ wooden legs are quite frankly close to that of the dearer cousin, but Mr Pennies is much more pink colour which is obviously not maple. In addition, both the cheaper chairs have rough cuts to fit the top brackets, which are also clearly of lower quality than Mr Vitra. Like the other parts of the reproductions, it’s neat where it’s visible, and cheap and quick where it’s hidden.
Legs bolts vary massively between the chairs. As with all photography, different light can alter the apparent colour, and Mr Pennies’ legs do not generally appear as pink as they appear here.
The outside leg fixings (above) show the clearest differences between the three. Mr Vitra has black powder-coated cross head bolts that match the rest of the fixings (Herman Miller versions often use chrome instead). The bolts on Mr Cheap are different -- but not unattractive -- allen bolts in more of a dark steel colour. On Mr Pennies however, the bolts are quite clearly cheap, chromed allen bolts that don’t fill the holes as nicely as the others.
Here’s where Mr Pennies has a stroke of evil genius.
But it’s the nuts on the inside of the base (above) that tell the real story. The bolts on Mr Vitra are capped with black powder-coated locking nuts. Mr Cheap can’t stretch to the additional cost of colour, but instead has some smart stainless steel domed nuts. And as the legs are tapered, both chairs have a shorter bolt at the top where the leg is thinner, and longer bolts at the lower, thicker, anchor point.
Here’s where Mr Pennies has a stroke of evil genius. It replaces the expensive coloured or domed nut with a cheaper locking nut and a black plastic cap to make it look like a domed nut ✧. As well as costing peanuts, this has the second pay-off of allowing the bolt to be the same length top and bottom, as it hides the excess thread in the cap. Less variations of bolts used, bigger economies of scales, less buckets of different size bolts to keep track of on the shop floor and less mistakes on the production line. As an aesthetic choice, it sucks (if you look close enough). But as a production trade-off, it rocks hard.
Before you feel that these engineers are putting their profit above all morals, I’d point out that even the cheapest chair still makes some concessions to having a reasonably long life, and to sticking to the original design. The factories could make further savings by not using locking nuts, the wire trellis is still neatly welded and painted, and those nasty plastic nut covers still resemble expensive domed nuts at a distance. These are all places that further savings could be made, but are deemed to move the design too far from the purpose or reduce the usefulness -- and longevity -- one step too far.
So for £30, Mr Pennies essentially gives you crappy fixings. You could go to the shops and buy better ones -- and still be in profit -- if you cared enough. It’s worth noting that when it comes to cutting corners for profit, all three chairs have the exact same same bill-of-materials, the repros haven’t tried to fabricate the trellis in one casting, or reduce components by combining the leg bracket with the joint in the seat. It’s only the choice of components and process that differ.
The production doesn’t end at the finished chair, because at the end of any production line is where the goods are packaged. The packaging for Mr Pennies has it’s own story, which spoke of continuous feedback from distributors about what survives the journey and what doesn’t. The bolt points underneath the plastic shells came with not only plastic transit caps, but a felt pad as well -- so you could plastic wrap the shells and then quickly, loosely stack them in a box, still not risking scratching them between factory and showroom. The bases of the chairs also had just enough packaging the allow for safe stacking, boxing and transporting in shipping containers that can reach freezing or scorching temperatures on the long, slow journey to Europe.
When a box of four chairs has such a small profit margin, you know you can’t give an unboxing experience like an Apple product, but it’s also clear you can’t afford too many returns eating up your margins. All of these small packing measures mean more shopfloor bins of film and foam that could stop a production line if they ran out, and more people and processes to eat away at your bottom line. This balance of packaging quality versus returns is a finely tuned equation echoed through the whole chair.
Am I annoyed at the compromises and cheapness of my four £30 chairs? Not really. I knew how much I was paying, and and I consider the trade-offs worth making -- some people have clearly put much thought into how to make the chairs look genuine at first glance to all but the hardened aficionado, whilst shaving every cost they can. And nothing short of an original would please people that dislike repros. I totally believe in the right to buy £300 side-chairs with pedigree and quality, but I’m afraid I can’t aspire to be one of them. The good people at Vitra haven’t lost my money -- at ten times the cost, I’m sad to say I never would have been able justify buying an original.
If you tripled the price of Mr Pennies to guarantee a raise in wages, component quality, patent costs and environmental considerations, would I be less tempted by a £30 repro? Quite possibly, but as everything below a Vitra is currently tarred as a low-quality repro, I’m not sure how you could trust any claims of one chair to be "better" than the others ‡.
I think Charles and Ray Eames might secretly be giggling somewhere
If somone sold these to me as originals, or they were sold at a price in-between £100-£300, I’d be furious, although partly at myself for not researching enough. In the modern google world, it doesn’t take much time to spot a bargain from a con.
No -- I enjoy these chairs for what they are. They’re comfortable, attractive and reasonably priced. They allow me to kid myself I have some taste without the sticker shock. I’ve enjoyed seeing a glimpse of the story behind the production of the object and I like the "missing-link" feel of my £60 desk-chair. I still appreciate the quality and heritage of the Vitra "originals", but I think Charles and Ray Eames might secretly be giggling somewhere that their design is finally a genuine mass-produced chair for the people.