Knockoffs, Because “The client can’t afford the real thing”

Guest blog by Ross Taylor, Owner of Gabriel Ross

Take a minute to think about this: what is the best project you’ve ever made or seen? That restaurant or bar, that amazing home, workspace or retail store. The one project that you are most proud of and is featured all over your website, or the one you saved on Instagram for inspiration.

Now imagine you’re relaxing one Sunday morning, coffee in hand, browsing your favorite design magazine and there it is. Yup, there’s a bar being featured that is exactly the same as the one that you designed for your client, or exactly the same as the project by your favorite designer. The exact same floor plan, the same flooring, the paint, the seating, the tables, every single light fixture as far as the eye can see. It is an exact replica of what you created and it is already the most popular bar in the country. A raving success.

“Wow! How dare they! Those were my ideas. I spent weeks working on that concept. What kind of a person would do that?” thinks the original designer.

And so it goes. The client can’t afford to pay an interior designer, so they hired someone to copy the ideas in a fraction of the time, at a fraction of the cost.

Now, imagine you are a designer working with a client and they can’t afford that real Eames shell chair, Noguchi table, Saarinen table. They like the look of a Tom Dixon Beat Light and the Moooi Random light fixture, but it just isn’t in the budget. What do you do? I’m going to suggest that you steer them towards something that is both unique and affordable, but not a blatant knockoff of something that they are not authorized to reproduce. There is an endless selection of amazing products that are affordable, well-made and designed by talented people who would love to have your business.

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How to Protect Yourself as a Small Company: Lessons learned from a designer/entrepreneur

Guest blog by Matthew McCormick, Principal & Owner, Matthew McCormick Studio

As a young designer starting out and building my company, I’d say that I ventured into manufacturing without a great deal of knowledge. In hindsight, it was perhaps with a very naive approach that has since turned into one of the most valuable learning experiences in my career to date.

From knockoffs to patents, from manufacturing to marketing, there is a lot that young designers have to learn. So how to successfully navigate these industry challenges? Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

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Debunking the Myth: Original Design Is Too Expensive

Guest blog by Mark Daniel, Creative Director, m.a.d. Furniture Design

Up until recently, modern design had been perceived as both a luxury and an elitist endeavor — it wasn’t widely available or accessibly priced. The irony of this longstanding stigma is that modern design began as a movement to make original design more democratic and affordable. The discrepancy between the initial leveling intention and actual practice is partly the reason why m.a.d. Furniture Design was founded. We want to return to those roots and remedy the gap, as we believe original design should be attainable for all.

To bring authentic designs to the wider public, we’ve streamlined the process of manufacturing and design, combining the two so that they complement each other. It’s about managing the design, development, and manufacturing of each design component to ensure they all come together harmoniously on the assembly line. Balancing each part of the process is like conducting an orchestra at times.

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Original Design from a Student Perspective: A Day at RISD

“Our school does a great job at teaching us how to design a product, but…” is a common statement we hear from our fellows each year during the Be Original Americas Student Design Fellowship. So when the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) invited us to participate in their Internship Connect fair, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to speak one-on-one with students looking to further their education in the world of design.

Table covering: Pixel by Designtex

Up-and-coming designers from all disciplines are looking to gain knowledge they can’t learn in school. The fellowship gives hands-on experiences that go beyond the curriculum and prepare them for the next steps in their careers. Professors do an impeccable job at teaching their students how to design, but budgeting, marketing, mass manufacturing, distribution, and promotion are often topics that can only be taught in “real-life” settings — it is this setting that students crave, and which Be Original Americas creates.

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Reflections from Design Week Mexico

After a lively, thought-provoking experience at Design Week Mexico, moderator Beth Dickstein reflects on her experience. 

Don’t do it in 26 hours! That was the mistake I made. There is so much to see and it’s really well organized. I missed so much. But I was there on a mission.


The Mission: to present a Be Original Americas talk about how creativity means originality in crisis situations. Luckily, I had a truly impressive panel – who had the experience, both locally and internationally with natural disasters and the response.

I first made a presentation about the Be Original Americas organization to Gensler Mexico City. This office was incredibly active with both local and international companies and sees how Mexico City is gaining prominence as a truly cosmopolitan city.

The team was welcoming and interested. The consensus was that it truly takes educating the client and all involved on the value of original design…for their own brand, for environmental concerns and true economics.

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Guest Blog: Inspiration Vs. Copy by Bend Goods

In any creative field, pulling inspiration from those before you is a part of creating new and original designs. Being inspired by the greats of your industry can allow you to create something that is updated and fully unique. But, you must remember, there is a thin line between inspiration and duplication. Copying past designs is a dangerous path to take that can lead to detrimental effects on your company’s sales, development, and most importantly, reputation.

We have all seen them: fakes of the great Mid-century modern furniture designs sprinkled all over the internet. These rip-offs are exact replicas of classic designs made of cheaper materials and made using even cheaper production practices. Even more often you will see pieces that aren’t exact copies, but rather partial copies. This kind of replication is where many begin to excuse the practice of duplicating others’ designs. Is it a copy of an Eames Chair if it doesn’t have the exact same legs? Let me answer that for you: it is.

This is where inspiration and duplication begin to blend together. The rule of thumb is that if one part of a design is identical to a part of a past design, you are no longer using the piece as inspiration but rather as a model. Stepping over this line leads you into dangerous territory that drains the originality from your design. Finding inspiration from past pieces is a different story all together.

A perfect example of inspired design: Bend Goods Black Lucy Chair embraces the Bertoia Chair’s use of wire, but with a contemporary twist.

When a designer pulls ‘inspiration’ they are not copying a piece, rather they are implementing the principles of a past design to their own. Observing the shapes, styling, and lines allows you to create a variation of the original that then produces a fully unique new product. Applying this tactic avoids creating a carbon copy and instead produces a piece that references the past while looking forward to the future. Overall, when looking for inspiration always remember one thing: your design must evolve past what the original was and must not steal from its predecessor.

Bend Goods is a Los Angeles based design and manufacturing company that designs functional products for the home and public spaces. The company makes furniture, lighting, and other goods, with a commitment to being innovative and playful. Founded in 2010 by Gaurav Nanda, a sculptor and designer from Michigan, Bend is based on Nanda’s passion for making functional yet sculptural objects. 

The quality of their products is in the details: the inviting shapes, the sparks of color, the ease of assembly and the packaging. Each element embodies Bend’s drive for making iconic, sustainable, and authentic products.

That’s a Wrap: The 2017 Student Design Fellowship

That’s a wrap! The second annual Be Original Americas Student Design Fellowship has officially ended.

Check out the final presentation Tom and Irene gave to board members to recap their experience:

Did you have a chance to follow along with this year’s fellows, Tom and Irene? Get a behind the scenes look at what the Fellows experienced week by week here.


Q+A with Judy Smilow of Smilow Design

Smilow Design was founded by Judy Smilow to reintroduce the designs of Mel Smilow (1922-2002), a champion of affordable, well crafted, modern design and her father.

The company is a proud member of Be Original Americas and we invited Judy’s daughter, Maia Schoenfelder, to interview her about the challenges of reintroducing the original Smilow designs, what is was like to grow up in Frank Lloyd Wright’s cooperative community Usonia, and what she thinks of knockoffs.

Maia Schoenfelder: Did growing up in Usonia affect your family’s interest in design and your own interest in your dad’s business?
Judy Smilow: Living in Usonia was inspiring for my father and the culmination of a dream come true for a depression era kid from Brooklyn. We moved to Usonia in 1962, which coincided with a burst of creative energy and Mel’s most prolific period. He designed furniture, ran a business, painted, sculpted, was politically active all while finding time to be an involved father and community member—in a community that he considered to be heaven. I naturally absorbed my surroundings and his voice. It’s what made it so easy for me to understand, interpret, and reintroduce the brand.

Maia: What were some challenges you encountered while re-introducing the collection?
Judy: Smilow-Thielle filled a void that existed in quality-made modern furniture. It was available direct-to-consumers at a moderate price point at a time when modern furniture was mostly available “to the trade” only. Today, making furniture of this quality in America has proved to be a much more costly proposition. Repositioning the brand as a luxury line has been a challenge, and sadly has made the furniture out of reach for some. Most importantly for us though, we’ve been able to maintain the high standards, integrity and quality of these authentic designs.

Maia: Was it difficult to stick to the brand values and continue the legacy of Smilow Furniture in 2013 when you decided to reintroduce the collection?
Judy: The Smilow brand was founded on values concerned with integrity both in terms of design/quality as well as social integrity. Today we try to both continue and expand on those same values. Our integrity as a company is based on excellent personal customer service and standing behind our furniture 100%. We proudly make our furniture in family run factories that are as sustainable as possible. We are a member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council and also proudly support this terrific and vital organization, Be Original Americas.

Maia: What liberties have you needed to take (if any) in reissuing, expanding and growing the brand while still honoring the original designs?
Judy: My father was brilliant with his sense of proportion and design, so I have stayed very close to his drawings and original intent. Occasionally I have expanded or filled out a collection with pieces the market demands or offered a new finish or rush color. Our finishes have changed for the better, due to newer and environmentally friendlier offerings. All the choices I have made are in keeping with the original intent of the design.


Maia: How has the vintage marketplace impacted the re-introduction of the line?
Judy: Because my father rarely signed or branded any of his furniture, he was a well-kept secret, not widely known outside of this circle. It was only after I started reintroducing the collection that I was called upon to authenticate what were and were not Smilow-Thielle pieces in the marketplace. The vintage market has been a boon to the reintroduction in that it has helped propel the name and the enduring quality of his designs.

Maia: What were the challenges you faced in reintroducing the brand in terms of originality.
Judy: Inexpensive mid-century modern knockoffs (of our designs or others) contribute to a throw-away culture that we don’t endorse and that hurts our ethos that enduring and modern furniture lasts a lifetime—not a few years. Communicating the value of authentic design and quality construction of our furniture is an important part of our job. We belong to Be Original Americas because we share that mission and set of values. Investing in original design pays off. It keeps its value, is more durable and ages with beauty.

Check out more guest blogs from Be Original Americas members here.

Week 7: NYC Studio Visits and RBW

The second annual Be Original Americas Student Design Fellowship is winding down. Have you been following along on their adventures? Get a behind the scenes look at what Tom and Irene been learning via our weekly recaps here.

In their final week, the Fellows visited local NYC showrooms, including Suzanne Tick, Studio Dror, Fritz Hansen and Luceplan. Then, Tom and Irene spent the day with Rich Brilliant Willing to tour both their showroom and studio.

How was visiting showrooms in week 7 different than in week 1?

Irene: Walking into the showroom during week 7, I definitely felt more comfortable and open to ask questions. Before the fellowship, I would visit showrooms but rarely sit in the chairs or look under them for a glance at their constructions. The many showroom visits in New York gave me the opportunity to interact with Marketing Directors, PR & Communications Coordinators, and Managing Directors and learn about their roles within the company. In addition, every visit included both sitting in the chairs, examining fixtures, and exploring collections to learn about each company’s story.

Tom: It was really good to get back to New York and get to visit some more showrooms. Since the beginning of the experience, I feel I have gained a lot of confidence and have been able to deal with an “imposter syndrome” which I definitely felt I had before my experience with Be Original Americas. I have come to realize that people who work in design, even those in showrooms, love design and that given the chance they’ll chew your ear off about their favorite pieces. This confidence has extended to many other areas including talking about the industry as a whole, and it was great to get the chance to speak to some designers (like Suzanne Tick and Dror Benshetrit) in the final week and hear about their professional experiences and their personal development through their careers.

What did you take away about the creative process from the tour of RBW’s studio?

Irene: There were small scale foam models, 1:1 cardboard models, and 3D printed models lined up along the bench and hanging from the ceiling in RBW’s studio. There were also sketches pinned up to the walls to pair with the models. Everything seemed very hands-on and seeing the prototypes develop into the final product was amazing. Theo’s narratives on the reasons for adjustments in designs, methods in making fasteners invisible to the eye, and preferences in certain materialities were insightful and exciting to hear about. My impression of the studio very much reminded me of my own studio space in school and definitely gave me a push of desire to go back to school and start creating.

Tom: Charles, Alex and Theo were able to impart so much information in such a short time, it was amazing, there were definitely a few key takeaways for me. Always be making: being noticed or getting a chance to “make it” can be based totally on luck, but if it happens you had better have something to show. Get real: if you want to make something, make it practical—design it beautiful but make sure you design it for manufacturing, assembly, installation and use also. Follow your passions, but not blindly: rationalize what you want to do and whether you can afford to do it, if a market is too competitive and not where your strengths are, pivot and adjust.

That’s a wrap for the 2017 Be Original Americas Student Design Fellows! Check out their week by week recaps here on the blog and on our social channels: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Week 6: Bernhardt Design and BDE

The second annual Be Original Americas Student Design Fellowship is winding down. Have you been following along on their adventures? Get a behind the scenes look at what Tom and Irene been learning via our weekly recaps here.

Week 6 took the Fellows to North Carolina where they visited Bernhardt Design to learn about the brand and the manufacturing process, on site at their factory. Then, the Fellows traveled back to their home base in New York City to spend a day with bde to learn about public relations, social media, events and promotion overall.

Getting an intro the brand with Bernhardt Design

What was your biggest takeaway about design and manufacturing at Bernhardt Design?

Irene: At Bernhardt Design, we were able to get a very thorough look at the manufacturing facilities for wooden furniture, upholstery, and case goods. Within the construction and assembly processes, quality control is highly emphasized. There are checkpoints throughout the process to inspect seams, finishes, and materials for inconsistencies or defects. For example, skews of modular systems are staged to make sure the seams align when placed side by side. Outsourced material, such as glass and Corian, are 100% inspected to ensure pure surfaces. The craftspeople also have critical roles in maintaining the credibility Bernhardt has, especially with upholstery, in the industry. Those who make patterns and sew are experts in examining the stretch and rebound of fabrics. This is especially important for projects that involve the customer’s own material, when properties of the fabric need to be realized for proper cuts. The visits to the plants were opportunities where I was able to see Bernhardt’s dedication in pushing for the highest quality. Quality control is an art form that requires so much passion and experience and plays a huge role in the production of Bernhardt’s beautiful pieces.

Tom: It’s a small thing, but I was interested to learn that even a large company like Bernhardt can be surprised by the success of some of its own products. The design and development of a product is a long and iterative process, and manufacturing methods are strongly determined by expectations of the market, so if a product is surprisingly successful it might not end up being produced in the most efficient manner. It seems that the cost of manufacturing in some instances is a gamble, and even if the product is successful, it remains a gamble as the cost of tooling is only effective if the product continues to be in vogue and sell.

You’ve been learning a lot about how to market design along the way. What surprised you about your meeting with bde?

Irene: A common theme throughout our dialogue at bde was PR’s evolving nature due to developments in online platforms as well as the changes in how people now consume and interact. There are so many facets to PR, built up by paid, owned, and earned media, that I was not aware of. From social media to events to press releases, there is so much to be organized for successful outcomes, both in qualitative and quantitative measures. bde definitely has a method to the madness with its strategic pitches, editorial calendars, established A&D networks, and more to ultimately heighten brand awareness and the bottom line for each of its clients. It was my first time learning about PR, but the meeting was so much more valuable because I got to learn about PR in the context of design.

The 2017 Fellows at bde’s offices

Tom: It was great to spend some time at bde and get an insight into a world I know little about, but which is very important. This experience gave me a great opportunity to learn best practices in communication and have some time to speak with people who work with large brands. I hope to use some of the insights gained in this experience when trying to promote an entrepreneurial project in my final year of education. I was most struck by the discussion of the present use of social media and the potential use of VR/AR in the future to interact with consumers.

Stay tuned for more from Tom and Irene, the 2017 Be Original Americas Student Design Fellows, as they recap their experiences each week here on the blog and on our social channels: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram