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Replica or Real Thing? Herman Miller Legal Action Looks at Misrepresentation in Furniture Biz

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Alyssa Nassner

In the world of high-end furniture, it seems like some of the big companies need to work hard to protect their turf. Michigan furniture maker Herman Miller just announced today that it's taking legal action against online retailer Madison Seating for unauthorized use of its trademarks and improper marketing and sales of Herman Miller products, including the Aeron task chair. According to Herman Miller press representative Nick Butterfield, the company filed a legal action in the Northern District of Illinois today to stop Madison Seating, which previously operated as L. Cohen Group/, from "selling Herman Miller used products without prominently identifying the products as used or pre-owned, and also from confusing the public about the company's association with Herman Miller." When contacted for a response, a representative from Madison Seating said they don't comment on pending litigation (this was after visiting a website that had Aeron Chair in the metadata and calling a phone number that mentioned Herman Miller as the first of its many designer brands). Herman Miller claims Madison Seating's manager, Levi Cohen, is in violation of a previous consent decree that prohibits him from engaging in "infringing activities."

According to the Be Original Americas campaign, a design industry coalition dedicated to promoting and protecting original design, misleading labeling and poor recreations not only damage the profits of manufacturers, but discourage independent designers.

This isn't the first time Herman Miller has taken action to protect its copyright or fight against knockoffs. In 2012, the company sued Canadian firm New American, Inc. for making imitation Eames furniture. Midcentury furniture is big business, and claims over copyright have led to other lawsuits in the industry, such as the George Nelson Foundation, which has close ties to Herman Miller, suing Modernica over the Bubble Lamp in 2013. Herman Miller also took action against the company regarding the Shell Chair. They're not the only ones; Restoration Hardware and others have gone to court to protect their designs.

According to the Wall Street Journal, companies seeking to defend against knockoff furniture often battle against weak intellectual property enforcement (since furniture is considered a "functional item") and copyright often doesn't protect the "overall design" of furniture. In the United Kingdom, a campaign backed by big names such as Vitra and Flos helped get copyright rules adjusted to provide better protection for name-brand furniture designs (which will come into effect in 2020).

·You Can Now Buy Herman Miller's Iconic Picnic Poster at the Cooper Hewitt Store [Curbed]
·Why The World Is Obsessed With Midcentury Modern Design [Curbed]
·The Colorful Career of Irving Harper, Famed Herman Miller Designer [Curbed]