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Fake vs Real Part II: The Camaleonda

Mario Bellini Camaleonda Sofa Context Gallery 9
Cama­le­onda in Cali­for­nia. Photo: Richard Stapleton

One of the most recog­niz­able pieces of furni­ture today, the Mario Bellini designed Cama­le­onda Sofa appears in the living rooms of tastemak­ers across the globe.

Gener­ous in form and mate­r­ial, the Cama­le­onda comes in rich shades such as cham­pagne velvet, glowing cognac leather or deep green corduroy. It is a strik­ing, unmiss­able center piece. But with its distinc­tive pres­ence across the real and fake furni­ture markets, the Cama­le­onda is an unas­sum­ing poster­piece for deeper ques­tions around the ethics and values at play in the furniture industry. 

Like the Capitol Complex chairs, and other recently refound’ design pieces, the Cama­le­onda is not just a sofa of the moment. It has a signif­i­cant history. Bellini debuted his Cama­le­onda design to the New York design world in the summer of 1972, as part of an exhi­bi­tion of Italian design at the Museum of Modern Art, enti­tled Italy: The New Domes­tic Land­scape.” The exhi­bi­tion presented the work of a new wave of Italian design­ers, each inves­ti­gat­ing new ways of living through inno­v­a­tive mate­ri­als and production methods. 

Follow­ing that auspi­cious debut, the Cama­le­onda became almost imme­di­ately iconic. The sofa has a sprawl­ing sense of freedom, and could be added to over time. The easy modular form, combined with a limited edition produc­tion-run quickly propelled the sofa to the status of collec­tors-item. Mixing the Italian words cama­le­onte (chameleon) and onda (wave), Bellini captured the radical freedom and adapt­abil­ity the sofa offered in its name. But today, that adapt­abil­ity is not limited to recon­fig­u­ra­tions of the sofa modules within a room. Like the Capitol Complex chairs, the Cama­le­onda is subject to dupli­ca­tions and adap­ta­tions of the sofa itself. Illicit repro­duc­tions and deriva­tions are now readily avail­able through online stores for a slither of the price of a real piece. 

Mario Bellini Camaleonda Sofa Context Gallery 3
Two-piece green Cama­le­onda Sofa. Photo: 1st Dibs 

Described by license holder B&B Italia as a contem­po­rary classic, the Cama­le­onda was reis­sued in 2020. For the first time since 1979, it is once again avail­able for purchase new, rather than via limited access to vintage list­ings. Compa­nies licensed to produce real repro­duc­tions, such as B&B Italia, typi­cally estab­lish rela­tion­ships with the foun­da­tions that support the orig­i­nal design­ers. Together, they develop a shared vision for how the design pieces can continue to be manu­fac­tured, marketed, and protected. But even in the case of real prod­ucts, it is not simply a matter of repro­duc­ing the orig­i­nal in its exact form. These compa­nies, with support and guid­ance from the design­ers’ foun­da­tions, continue to invest in research and devel­op­ment around the mate­ri­als and manu­fac­tur­ing tech­nolo­gies, enabling them to produce historic design pieces while contin­u­ally increas­ing stan­dards. The relaunch of the Cama­le­onda is an example of this. While the dimen­sions and aesthetic are unchanged from the orig­i­nal to the relaunch — which was over­seen by Bellini himself — the inner body has been redesigned to use recy­cled or recy­clable mate­ri­als, with the seat, back­rest, and base recon­fig­ured from wooden panels, while the remov­able foam covers are now produced from recy­cled PET plastic. These updates respect the orig­i­nal design and intent while bring­ing the sofa in line with contem­po­rary sustainable thinking. 

The relaunch of the Cama­le­onda brought renewed inter­est in the bulbous piece, which suddenly appeared every­where from insta­gram feeds to the homes of celebri­ties. But, typi­cally, the most desir­able prod­ucts also become the most repro­duced. The market flooded with fake Cama­le­onda sofas. Consumers play a central, if silent role in this process. From the comfort and anonymity of our homes we browse online, privately place items in our check­out carts, enter our card details and await deliv­ery. Our brows­ing and purchase history data is collected, becom­ing evidence of our collec­tive desires and demands. With this evidence in hand, compa­nies refocus their offer­ings on the objects most likely to sell and gener­ate profit. So while it might not seem prob­lem­atic for each of us to indi­vid­u­ally buy one fake sofa, or one knock-off chair, our actions as indi­vid­u­als collect together to create an aggre­gate demand. The result­ing impact is felt deeply across the wider design industry. 

In response, legal protec­tions around fakes have been under recon­sid­er­a­tion in many parts of the world. Yet, in coun­tries where legal protec­tion for orig­i­nals exists, knock-off compa­nies simply morph their designs, adding details or chang­ing propor­tions just enough to no longer be consid­ered a copy. The result­ing pieces are distorted franken­steins, seeming to both come from the orig­i­nals and be completely differ­ent at the same time. These fakes are more aesthet­i­cally obvious, losing all sense of propor­tion, display of mate­r­ial knowl­edge or under­stand­ing of how the human body moves and relaxes. 

So as the prolif­er­a­tion of fake prod­ucts contin­ues, concerns for the future of the design indus­try only grow. The more power we give to fakes, the more the role of design­ers becomes increas­ingly unten­able. Without confirm­ing the value of their work by support­ing it through purchases, the ability for design­ers to invest time and craft in new pieces is limited. To be able to build a life around their prac­tice, vision, and craft, the support of consumers who purchase and share their designs is para­mount. If we consider each of our purchases as a kind of commit­ment, then purchas­ing a real, orig­i­nal design is a way of making a commit­ment to people. It is an acknowl­edge­ment of skill, wisdom and craft. It is a recog­ni­tion of the value of the people that drive and enable the produc­tion of design. 

To buy a fake, then, is a commit­ment to having, at the expense of support­ing. It is a confir­ma­tion that the look of the thing is more impor­tant than its phys­i­cal mate­ri­al­ity, struc­ture or quality. That being able to share a snap of your­self loung­ing on your new Cama­le­onda’ on social media is more valu­able than the lives of those who poured hours into the real piece. It is a denial of crafts­man­ship, of the time and patience, research, testing and reso­lu­tion that goes into devel­op­ing a design product.

Mario Bellini Camaleonda Sofa Context Gallery 6
1971B&B Italia adver­tis­ing campaign. Photo: Falchi & Salvador

Perhaps it is simply that in our world of imagery and desire, speed and judge­ment, we don’t talk about the ethics of design enough. And while conver­sa­tions about sustain­abil­ity are increas­ingly common, these are only part of the picture. By iden­ti­fy­ing and support­ing real design, we give value to creativ­ity and testing, to quality and longevity, to work and time. Within the current system, buying real pieces is the only true way to acknowl­edge the design­ers of the past, and support the design­ers of the future. 

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