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Posted in Design Stories

Fake vs Real Part I: The Capital Complex

Capitol Complex Chair Chandigarh Pierre Jeannert
A Chandi­garh resi­dent seated in a Capitol Complex armchair.

On the surface, there is a certain absur­dity in drawing a distinc­tion between real and fake furni­ture. As phys­i­cal items we sit and lie on, work at and eat from, our bodily rela­tion­ship with furni­ture renders it more mate­r­ial, more real than almost anything else in our lives. So what do we mean by a real piece of furni­ture, and by contrast, what is a fake?

In the begin­ning, before an orig­i­nal piece of furni­ture or design object takes phys­i­cal shape, there is a partic­u­lar moti­va­tion; a driving force. Most designed objects are responses to the specific condi­tions of a place, or to the func­tional require­ments of a partic­u­lar prac­tice. Some­times, an idea simply grows from curios­ity and joy in making.

Chandigarh Collective
Chandi­garh Capitol Project Team with Pierre Jeanneret

In 1951, Swiss archi­tect Pierre Jean­neret took on the chal­lenge of design­ing a furnish­ing collec­tion for the project he was working on at the time with his cousin, archi­tect Le Corbusier. Together, they were devel­op­ing the archi­tec­tural and urban design for the Capitol Complex in the city of Chandi­garh in India. Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, the project needed furni­ture made en-masse that would be locally appro­pri­ate, able to be locally manu­fac­tured, and climate and bug-resis­tant. Respond­ing to these require­ments, Jean­neret designed a suite of sturdy teak and cane chairs, tables and benches for the formal, geomet­ric inte­ri­ors. Thou­sands of these furni­ture pieces were then hand-made by local arti­sans, and installed into the vast concrete cham­bers of the new complex.

Capitol complex le corbusier chandigarh india benjamin hosking dezeen 936 0
Capitol Complex Palace of Assem­bly in Chandi­garh designed by Le Corbusier. Photo: Benjamin Hosking
Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in Chandigarh India
Le Corbusier, in the Capitol Complex chair, and Pierre Jeanneret

Decades later, when parts of the Capitol Complex fell into disuse or disre­pair, thou­sands of the chairs were left as reminders of the once lively occu­pa­tion. Discarded, they landed in garbage tips, dispersed across the Indian coun­try­side, far from those orig­i­nal moti­va­tions. Being alerted to what was happen­ing from afar, inter­na­tional design connois­seurs made trips to locate, collect and purchase the orig­i­nal pieces. In testa­ment to the dura­bil­ity of the design, many of the discarded chairs remained intact despite their age, requir­ing only minor restora­tion to bring them back to original condition.

Capitol Complex Chair Chandigarh
Discarded Capitol Complex chairs

Since the first exhi­bi­tions of these refur­bished collec­tions in 2009, the Capitol Complex furni­ture has had a second life: revered, cele­brated and sought-after. The simplic­ity and honesty of mate­r­ial and form resonate with contem­po­rary design values. And, with their distinc­tive pres­ence, the hand-crafted chairs seem at home in inte­ri­ors around the world. In addi­tion to the orig­i­nal teak struc­ture, license-holder Cassina has reis­sued the collec­tion with new stained and natural oak finishes. Today, some seventy years on from the orig­i­nal incep­tion, it is nearly impos­si­ble to browse inte­rior maga­zines or social media without seeing a cluster of Pierre Jean­neret Capitol Complex chairs.

But there is an under­cur­rent to this story of renais­sance; a dark side to the hyper-popu­lar­ity of the Capitol Complex chairs. Popu­lar­ity indi­cates wide­spread desire, and capi­tal­iz­ing on that desire is an oppor­tu­nity for profit. And so, much like in the world of fast-fashion, furni­ture and object design is increas­ingly the victim of knock-offs, with a prolif­er­a­tion of fake designer pieces appear­ing on the market. Fakes are para­sitic; their value depends completely on the real pieces. They live off the orig­i­nal design, cling to the aesthetic and brand, and ride the marketing waves.

Capitol complex chair Pierre Jeanneret for Cassina
The modern Capitol Complex armchair and bench as a part of Cassina’s Hommage á Pierre Jeanneret collection

The preva­lence of fakes is a growing issue for the design indus­try. The replica furni­ture indus­try began in earnest in the mid-2000s, as a way to repro­duce the many iconic mid-century designs that were no longer protected by the copy­rights that had ceased years after their design­ers’ deaths. But changes in how we notice, iden­tify with and acquire objects for our homes have extended the role that fakes play in the global design land­scape. As our lives have shifted online, visual sharing plat­forms such as pinter­est and insta­gram have accel­er­ated not just the visi­bil­ity, but also the desir­abil­ity of specific objects and pieces. Suddenly, every­thing feels attain­able. If a certain chair reap­pears frequently on social media feeds, there is a sense that every­one else owns one — and that by asso­ci­a­tion, you should, and can, too. While vintage orig­i­nals from the Corbu­sian city at the base of the Himalayas might be in limited supply, an online search yields multi­ple dealers offer­ing prod­ucts that appear to have the same names, shapes and spec­i­fi­ca­tions. Clever market­ing makes the rela­tion­ship of these manu­fac­tur­ers to the orig­i­nal design and licensed repro­duc­ers even murkier. The growing preva­lence means many people are buying fakes without real­iz­ing it, unaware of the hidden costs and impacts.

Capitol complex kitchen
Varenne by Joseph Dirand with Capitol Complex armchairs

While shop­ping online, in a virtual work, the phys­i­cal and mate­r­ial qual­i­ties of a piece fall into the back­ground. Our focus is on finding the best deal. For a real design piece, it is easy to imagine that the price tag is largely in the concept: the idea of the product, how it looks, and the famous name it carries. In reality, a large portion of the cost lies in the value of a robust, ethical devel­op­ment and produc­tion process. As phys­i­cal objects, the struc­ture, finishes and crafted mate­r­ial rela­tion­ships are funda­men­tal. What­ever the initial moti­va­tion, moving from the sketchy begin­nings of an idea towards the completed piece is a process of refine­ment. A designer can devote years to a partic­u­lar product or product line, devel­op­ing their think­ing from initial concept to market launch. The process is typi­cally iter­a­tive, working with full-scale mock-ups, with each test disclos­ing new possi­bil­i­ties. Through the produc­tion process, new tech­niques are iden­ti­fied, to be further inves­ti­gated in future pieces.

The inte­gra­tion of process with design think­ing is at the core of many design compa­nies. The inno­va­tion is not only evident in how a piece looks, but also in the phys­i­cal object itself. For indi­vid­ual furni­ture pieces, intri­cate manu­fac­tur­ing tech­niques might be devel­oped to enable slender support­ing elements without sacri­fic­ing strength, or to give the illu­sion of massive­ness without becom­ing too heavy. Quality pieces use quality mate­ri­als, ensur­ing a piece will last for gener­a­tions to come. The process also relies on paying a fair wage to each member of the produc­tion team, from those sketch­ing initial ideas, to those proto­typ­ing, testing new mate­r­ial possi­bil­i­ties or devel­op­ing the market­ing mate­r­ial. And finally, a robust design and manu­fac­tur­ing process also covers safety and strength testing, some­thing that many manu­fac­tur­ers of fakes do not spend time on. Choos­ing fake prod­ucts for a bargain price ignores these aspects that a higher price accounts for.

Le Corbusier Jeanneret 1950
Le Corbusier and Pierre Jean­neret in the Archi­tects’ office in Chandi­garh, India 1950s

Beyond finding a bargain price, purchas­ing a fake can also be driven by acces­si­bil­ity and avail­abil­ity. Orig­i­nal pieces are often care­fully produced to order, result­ing in longer lead times. In a retail land­scape where we expect imme­di­acy, real pieces demand patience. On the other hand, stores offer­ing fakes tend to be more widely and imme­di­ately avail­able, produc­ing en masse in loca­tions with cheap labor, then storing pieces prior to final ship­ping. This approach results in signif­i­cant waste, and often relies on labor that is less-likely to be adequately reim­bursed. It is often said that time, cost and quality operate in a push-pull rela­tion­ship to one another, such that it is not possi­ble to have all three at once. Produc­ers of fake goods may be able to promise lower prices or quicker deliv­ery times, but not without compro­mis­ing the quality of what they produce, or how they produce it.

As they flood the market, more methods for devel­op­ing and manu­fac­tur­ing fakes are being devel­oped. With digital drawing files of orig­i­nals being made avail­able in manu­fac­tur­ers’ online cata­logues, the increased trans­parency is a gift to copy artists. So although ques­tions of ethics and design integrity are always present, other compro­mises can be less imme­di­ately obvious. Perhaps the most visu­ally appar­ent is quality. A fake design may be overly heavy for its size, or its strength may be incor­rectly distrib­uted so that over time the rear legs of a chair warp in compar­i­son to the front. Colors lose their luster more quickly, fabrics pill or shed, and wood may mark or split. Fake pieces frequently make use of cheaper, non-sustain­ably sourced mate­ri­als, that are less likely to wear well, and in some cases include toxic glues or fibers. With both mate­ri­als and crafts­man­ship lacking longevity, a replica will rarely have the lifes­pan of an orig­i­nal. Where copies focus on repli­cat­ing the aesthetic image of a piece, the quality is often compro­mised in hidden ways.

When Pierre Jean­neret set about design­ing the Capitol Complex pieces, part of his focus was on design­ing an honest piece that would last. With the recent rein­car­na­tions, his design tran­scends the time-frame and use that he initially envis­aged. Today, real pieces and their fakes co-exist in a complex way, with the differ­ences often clouded or mini­mized. Yet the ques­tion of what consti­tutes a real or a fake is not purely theo­ret­i­cal. Each piece is evidence of a body of work, a mate­r­ial process, a phys­i­cal construc­tion process. And it is in this real, phys­i­cal world, that we engage in with our bodies as much as with our minds, that a fake quickly reveals itself. Lacking quality, a fake is often char­ac­ter­ized by poor crafts­man­ship, discom­fort and limited longevity, disre­gard­ing sustain­abil­ity or ethical produc­tion methods. The absur­dity, then, isn’t in drawing a distinc­tion between real and fake furni­ture items, but in failing to do so.

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