Exhibition "The myth of the original – on copies, duplicates and reproductions" in Berlin.

Only the copy makes the original

It is well known that copycat versions of design objects cause high economic losses. That said, at universities copying is still considered a practical principle in learning. The upshot of this may be surprising – even pirate copies can sometimes lead to new insights.
by Thomas Edelmann | 7/8/2011

It seems that the days are over when we looked to China with indignation, because there the Western principle of copyright was ignored, evaded and (for economic reasons) declared settled even more than here in the West. The Cologne Institute for Economic Research recently reported a drastic increase in German patent registrations – in China. In 2009 alone more than 8,600 German patents were registered there. The background: Chinese companies are allowed to use know-how from other countries on home ground as long as it is not patented in China. Moreover, in China even patent fees for international registrations are extremely cheap.

Involuntary source of inspiration

Wasn't there something else? Didn't German businessmen in the 19th century also try to use e.g. British technology and know-how without paying the copyright holders? Indeed, once upon a time the label "Made in Germany" branded bad copies ... but that was a long time ago.

There are many layers to the current debate surrounding originals and copies, which is complicated and offers no results in the way of guidelines. Yet it is important that it remains laid back and relaxed. For example: one of the topics addressed by the International Design Festival (DMY) in Berlin at the beginning of June was the subject of "Copy Culture". And yet in this context an awkward-looking imitation of "Rover Chair", designed by Ron Arad 30 years ago does not seem bold, only clueless.

Centuries ago, Asian cultures influenced Western civilization through trade and the exchange of ideas. In Asia, recreating a masterpiece is seen as an appreciative method of recognition. This is of no comfort to designers, companies and manufacturers who have been stolen from. And yet, it is only by following the master's example, analyzing his work, dissecting it, attempting to understand it and copying it that it is possible to get closer to the way he thinks and acts; then it may even be a possibility, after numerous attempts, for the copier to produce his own masterpiece. Is this idea really so foreign to the Western way of thinking as we see it today? It is for good reasons that today we demand that the process of understanding should be followed by independent conclusions. The objective of analysis should be to create something new, an evolutionary improvement on what is already there. Anyone not capable of adding anything crucial and better but only of imitating an existing product is no more than a copycat.

Imitation of “Rover Chair”, designed by Ron Arad 30 years ago.

Plagiarisms that fight back

Copies are ambivalent beasts – something to be learnt not only by "copying & pasting" ostensibly anonymous texts from the Internet, texts that can be rapidly inserted into academic efforts but that can be traced almost just as quickly. Sometimes rapid success, including commercial success, can lead to extremely public humiliation.

It is only in modern times that the idea of a creative, original author has assumed important dimensions, even in architecture and product design. Prior to this, imitation was considered a downright duty. It was part of both the training for the job and of design practice. 19th-century eclecticism? Unthinkable without a marked culture of copying. Even at the beginning of the 1920s, as an architecture student at the Charlottenburg Technical College, it was Julius Posener's experience that professes insisted that up until their preliminary examinations in structural design, statics and architecture, he and all his fellow students had to produce a "certain number of drawings – pen and ink on white paper". What was worse, the motifs were "the same for all students". What was demanded was for them to produce as identical an imitation of their examples as possible.

Practicing the unchanging

Something that was intended as practice was perceived, not only by Posener, as a pointless exercise. Moreover, it was an aspect of the way academic life functioned that this blind copying had to be performed as an individual creative act and not, under any circumstances, by tracing. It was not until the modern age of design that this tradition was broken with, replacing the copying of ancient examples with basic training that was meant to consist of a far more complex process of appropriating structures, shapes and colors. At least in theory. However, here too, in professional practice, the masters made their reappearance and pupils were expected to follow their ideas. Only consider Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's pupils in the USA. Because, for them, Mies represented the ultimate designer, they attempted to adapt their architecture to his example, right down to the smallest detail.

Exhibition "The myth of the original – on copies, duplicates and reproductions" in Berlin.
"Mayday" by Flos.

Carefully observing the original

What Johann Wolfgang Goethe was aiming at in 1788 was not to crib from anybody else but to credit such persons with recognition by imitating them when, still under the impression of his first trip to Italy, he wrote the essay "Einfache Nachahmung der Natur, Manier, Stil" (Simple imitation of nature, manner, style), a text superficially on painting nature and landscapes but also containing further-reaching statements: "simple imitation operates (...), so to speak, on style's front porch. The more faithfully, carefully, purely it conducts itself, the more calmly it perceives what it sees, the more composure that it possess in imitating it, the more it accustoms itself to thinking whilst so doing, the more it learns to compare what is similar, separate what is dissimilar and to categorize individual objects under general terms, the more worthy it will make itself of crossing the threshold to the sanctum itself." In other words, Goethe recommended clever imitation. And is thus a kind of guide to the latest trends in design.

Learning from the copy

The subject of "copy culture" that was looked into by the DMY within the framework of a symposium was addressed by the Berlin Colleges of Design, the Berlin University of the Arts and the KHB Weissensee College of Art in highly different ways, with the copy seen as a process of approaching and recognizing things.

Here, students of KHB took their orientation from current design projects, partly from the kind of projects that are most familiar to insiders. A shift in perspective, since normally copies are only made of what is relevant to a particular market. For example, Josefina Schlie used the method of burning furniture that is in the process of being tested for years now by Dutch designer Maarten Baas in cooperation with a New York-based retailer, Murray Moss. For his "Smoke" collection, Baas has, since 2004, been torching specific items from the history of design and then preserving the remains with epoxy resin. As Schlie is now learning in her project, the preservation phase is more complicated than the actual torching.

A fellow student of hers, Johanna Keimeyer, has also copied somebody else's method, recreating a wax vase that is now quite well-known, originally designed by Tomás Libertiny, she produced new ones exactly following the original. As with the original she was helped by a swarm of bees. A process of realization takes place in the viewer: it is not always the case that an ingredient added by the copier is a good ingredient. Keimeyer complemented her furniture ruins in their elegant shade of black with agreeable green plastic belts that added a freshness and cheerfulness with a somewhat out-of-place feel to them. No improvement at all on the consistent morbidity of the original. What Keimeyer actually intended by this was to take her design "one step further"; presumably on the advice of her professor, she "has transferred the wax honeycombs to metal." Aha!

Arne Jacobsen's "Ameise".

Replicas of serial objects made by hand

A number of student projects on show at Berlin University of the Arts' designtransfer gallery was something of a completely different kind. These were also concerned with the relationship between a copy and the original. A number of the five projects on display, entitled "snapshot UdK – the myth of the original – on copies, duplicates and reproductions" kept particularly close to the question of originality and imitation.

One example of this is "Le Double", devoted to the subject of replicas as a method of learning. Students in their first semester were given a slip of paper showing a silhouette of a well-known design product. The first step was for them to find out just what object this was, when and by whom it had been manufactured, who designed it and what was special about it in terms of manufacture and choice of material. The examples used ranged from Peter Raacke's cutlery "mono-a" to the "Hardoy Chair", the Borsalino, a pair of Levi's jeans and Konstantin Grcic's luminaire "Mayday". Finding out that it just would not be possible to produce an identical replicas right down to the smallest detail was part of the learning process. The reason: the examples used, to be seen at the exhibition next to the replicas, were industrial serial products and not hand-made one-offs.

In the "PaperLab", another project for new students, the objective was to understand a specific shoe model and to get to grips with it in several stages. Here, the students worked exclusively with paper, a material that has completely different qualities and requirements from the materials used in shoe production. In other words, this was another process of finding out furthered by actually making the product in question.

"Hang it all" wardrobe by Vitra.

A game with reproductions

Something not very impressive, on the other hand, was an animation of Caspar David Friedrich's painting "Chalk Cliffs on Rügen" by Visual Communications students. The aim: to "bring [this picture] to life" through manipulation, overlapping and deleting some elements of the picture and by adding a sound dimension. A great deal of effort for small returns. It is quite possible that the original, which the viewer can see without further details and frills, is more vivid than a largely meaningless animation, after all. The topic "Open Design" is also dealt with by an independent project. However, one particular highlight of the exhibition is where six Chinese reproduction of chairs by Panton, Eames, Bertoia, Grcic, Starck and Jacobsen are contrasted with current examples of the original furniture. The question "what's the difference?", rhetorically posed by the organizers, headed by outgoing professor of basics at UdK, Egon Chemaitis, is less easy to answer than expected. A number of the replicas are quite easy to recognize as being illegitimately related to the originals. But in other cases, at least the visual quality is frighteningly good (that is, for those who are prepared to be frightened by such things).

At the opening, Cologne-based design theoretician Michael Erlhoff spoke, making a number of "speculative remarks", that made it clear, in very precise terms, what the whole thing was about, asking "are fakes no more than an economic problem" or are they not "also a psychological one and one concerning critical observation?" Why do we get so uptight about originals and fakes? As for the supposed original, the items in question could, as Erlhoff put it, taking up Walter Benjamin's idea of an "aura", be tempted to rediscover their own uniqueness and indivisibility. If the original is called into question "then my originality also becomes a matter of doubt." Erlhoff quoted Werner Jäger's collection, recently revealed to be a fake, one which even experienced art experts were fooled by, he referred to the importance of reproductions, since the 17th century, for disseminating art, as well as to artistic concepts that have involved copying, for example, the cooperation by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein with Elaine Sturtevant, whose works consists solely of copies. As he sees it, as far as designers are concerned, the question of originality takes another form. "What is, in fact, the original, because it is, after all, manufactured under serial production?" Perhaps this could be a reason to become more strongly aware of the meaning of the concept?

A glance at the six copies brings to light quite surprising things. With the real "Chair One" by Konstantin Grcic, when the tools were made, a fault somehow occurred regarding the shape of the seat. Instead of soft lines there are, at two points, comparatively sharp edges that were not intended by the designer. Because of the costs of the tools, this can no longer be rectified. But it can be done by the copier in China. As Egon Chemaitis said, concisely and dryly, "the copies copy so as to have another original."

Mythos Original – über Kopien, Duplikate und Reproduktionen
The myth of the original – on copies, duplicates and reproductions
From June 1 through July 16, 2011
Designtransfer, Berlin

Tableware by Hans "Nick" Roericht for Rosenthal, copy by Sarah Dudda and Roberto Bascone, Universität der Künste.