The ugly side of design in Australia

First published in New Zealand Herald 28 April 2015

Several times a year Australia plays hosts to trade shows many New Zealand businesses use to launch their brand here.

In the design world, the calendar includes Melbourne International Design Week and Indesign. They can be a great platform for New Zealand designers to showcase their work and form partnerships with retailers, distributors and media.

Like many of you, I love great design and could spend many-a-happy-day wandering around these shows picturing how much better my living room would be with a hand-carved chair from Milan or hand-beaten copper light out of Denmark.

It may have been at one of these shows that I came across the work of New Zealand-based David Trubridge. His distinctive, kitset wooden lights and curved furniture pieces have graced many Australian magazine pages.

But it appears being distinctive doesn’t protect you from being copied, with Australian Intellectual Property laws more lenient than those of Europe and the US.

I have to admit that I was fairly naïve to this issue until very recently. With so many Australian retailers peddling replica furniture, advertising in the design magazines, winning business awards and sponsoring TV design shows, it somehow legitimised the industry.

Even the word ‘replica’ suggests tutelage and support from the original designer or patent holder. But as the somewhat rare articles on this issue have said (Australia’s BRW had a good piece) and from my conversation with Trubridge, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of people about this,” Trubridge says. “On one hand you don’t want to sound anti-business and anti-competition or denounced as whinging but the gist of it is that Australia is totally out of step with the rest of the world. Australia is in fact a laughing stock to the rest of the world.”

In Australia, there are apparently no real repercussions to selling fake furniture designs. I have to say, the retailers who do so – Matt Blatt, Sokol, Clickon Furniture, Milan Direct, Replica Furniture – enjoy a reputation almost on par with original designers. I always assumed the designs were out of copyright and reproductions permitted – how else could they sell this stuff? In most cases, the prices of reproductions are not even that cheap.

Just type David Trubridge Replica into Google and you’d be forgive for thinking Trubridge himself signed off on his copies, it’s that blatant. A cheap Chinese knockoff of a 400mm Trubridge Coral light will set you back $289 compared to $402 for the original. There’s not that much in it dollar wise, but according to Trubridge and his team the quality is incomparable.

“Australia is the only country in the world where you can say ‘David Trubridge’ when marketing the fake version,” he says. “What people don’t realise is that we use environmentally sound processes and constantly improve on our designs and production techniques, whereas the Chinese fakes make them in factories with no filtration, no air cleaning, cheap materials. The air in China is unbreathable because of this and the Australian mavericks buy into it. We’re constantly trying to get these brazen fakes off the market through Chinese lawyers and they keep signing documents that they’ll stop, but doing it again and again.”

Trubridge says there are two main courses of action available to designers. One is to send cease and desist letters to people who have stolen the designs. The second is to educate people to make informed decisions.

Despite the negative experience, Australia accounts for 21 per cent of Trubridge’s global sales with equal representation in residential and contract markets. The company has long-standing relationships with distributors Studio Italia and Lumen 8, in particular the lighting due to ease of shipping in kitset form. All manufacturing is in New Zealand.

His advice for young designers considering a launch into Australia? Think again.

“I’d seriously question designers wanting to go into Australia first. You may just be better off going into the US or Europe first. While there’s awareness in the Australian media about this issue, it has to come from the government; they have to change the rules. Australia used to be our biggest market, but America and Europe have overtaken.”

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