Posted in Culture
Fake vs Real Part II: The Camaleonda
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.
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.
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.