The Anxiety of Influence | Frame Magazine #91


Copying is rife in the design world, yet we are so obsessed with originality that we persist in seeing it as a sin – a direct result of the amnesia infesting our discipline.
Words Will Wiles

Education has removed design history too far from studio practice

It made quite a rogues' gallery. A show of shame. Designer after designer caught indulging in shady practices, and the evidence of wrongdoing plain for all to see. The crime: copying. Cribbing. Plagiarism.
Well, you could have said that about the content of Déjà-Vu: An Exploration of Design A iliations, an exhibition at the Interieur Biennale in Kortrijk, Belgium, in October 2012. It was a display of almost identical twins: pieces of furniture that bore a strong resemblance to each other. So strong that you had to wonder where the designer of each later piece had got their inspiration. But the tone couldn't have been more di erent. There was no shame, no blame, no condemnation. ‘We are not questioning the legitimacy of the objects,’ wrote
Moniek Bucquoye, the show's curator, in a text explaining the strategy. ‘This is not a hunt for inferior copies, nor does it concern legal questions about copyright issues. The purpose of the research is not to play judge and jury, or to confront “good” and “bad”. Its aim is to enhance understanding of the various aspects of the creative design process and of di erent interpretations of the concept of “design innovation”.’
‘Naoto Fukasawa brought out a chair called Déjà-Vu in 2007, and a year after Jasper Morrison made a similar chair in another material for Vitra, and he called it the Basel chair,’ says Bucquoye. ‘If you see them they are the same, the same shape, but one is in aluminium and the other is in wood. And this was the start of my research.’

Bucquoye feels there is too much opprobrium attached to copying, to the extent that designers are now reluctant to admit to perfectly legitimate influence to avoid an appearance of plagiarism. ‘If you interview young designers and say, “This looks like [something from] the 1950s . . .” they say, “What! You think I’m copying?” Anxiety over copies and intellectual property has become one of
the defining features of our age, with industries such asmusic and cinema being violently transformed by new technologies that make reproduction of their products instantaneous and near-free. In design, there is rising concern about the tide of knock-o furniture and products from the Far East. The law in the UK is being changed to crack down on the sale of inexpensive, unlicensed reproductions of classic designs by Eames and others. 

So is there too much concern surrounding copying? Professor David Crowley of the Royal College of Art in London suggests that an obsession with originality might be holding back design. ‘Fine art over the past 20 or 30 years has put the idea of the original under intense scrutiny, to the point where making a sharp claim around originality is seen as just irrelevant,’ says Crowley, ‘whereas the implicit discourse in design is that you have to do something di erent, something original.’
  This has made design neglectful of its heritage and curiously dishonest about its methods. ‘I sometimes see it as a kind of amnesia, because it’s quite important to be able to say something is a new object, and there might be legal and structural reasons why that’s necessary,’ says Crowley. ‘But somehow within design discourse this emphasis on originality or novelty means that designers
obscure their relationship to the past, or have this amnesiac quality, are willing to forget – where if you’re in a crit with a fine-art student, they’re very well informed about prior practice in the same space and are able to say why the thing in front of us in the discussion is di erent, [and to make a] comment on some past process.’

The situation is faintly absurd, because design is built on copying. The number of original archetypes, Bucquoye says, is very low, and beyond those everyone is merely refining and adapting the designs of others. ‘Of all the areas of human activity, you would imagine design should recognize its sense of being an accretion of layers of knowledge, and yet it still seems very addicted to claims of the new,’ Crowley says. Education might have contributed to the present state of a airs by removing design history too far from studio practice. And online discourse may be making matters worse, serving up an audience of judgmental commenters who put innovation above anything else and are quick to jump up and down on perceived cribbing. ‘You only have to look at comments on Dezeen to see how obsessed people are with originality,’ says Sam Jacob, partner at architecture firm Fashion Architecture Taste (FAT).
Plagiarism is real, and wrong, of course, and there are lazy or deceitful designers and manufacturers who copy to cut corners or profit from the work of others. Bucquoye calls these ‘copy-paste’ tactics and acknowledges they are as widespread as ever. But is another, more relaxed attitude to copying possible? Sam Jacob and his colleagues at FAT have been working for the past couple of years to challenge perceptions, teaching an intermediate undergraduate course at the Architectural Association School of Architecture on the practice of copying and re-enactment in architecture and design. FAT also created an installation for the Venice Biennale called The Museum of Copying.
‘We were interested in saying that if you reverse the design ideology of originality and have this incredible constraint – you're only allowed to copy – what happens then?’ says Jacob. ‘I think what we found is that the act of copying is not as simple as it sounds – it's almost impossible to make a facsimile. In the act of copying, something else gets told, and that something is not the history of the object and its own intrinsic value – it’s much more marinated in the intentions of the person making
the copy.’

It may simply be that designers should examine the extent of copying within their own work and resolve to be more articulate about acknowledging it where it exists and showing where their intervention has altered and improved the piece. Bucquoye cites Philippe Starck’s Masters chair
for Kartell as a piece that wears its multiple forebears on its sleeve, flaunting its borrowings from Saarinen and Eames. And she cites Jasper Morrison as a designer with a mature approach to copying: ‘Morrison said, “Why shouldn't you copy? Just copy a little better.”’ _

Source: Frame Magazine #91


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