Walmart, a company built on its lower price guarantee, made many budget-conscious shoppers happy when it announced it would be launching a home shopping site for furniture and decor in February, including affordable “midcentury modern”-style pieces.
But if some of the deals seem too good to be true, well—they may just be. Among other offerings with an uncanny resemblance to midcentury design icons (like Hans Wegner’s Wishbone chair, or the Eames Office molded plastic chair), the Poly and Bark Sculpture Coffee Table for $309.99 has raised a few discerning eyebrows.
The piece is eerily similar to the famous wood-and-glass coffee table designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1947 for Zeeland, Michigan-based Herman Miller. Called the Noguchi Table, this hallmark of Noguchi’s modern, organic style is far from unknown—so far from unknown, it even spawned a viral Tumblr that documents tropes in interior design. Widely considered one of the most famous tables of the 20th century, a new version costs between $1,795 (black or natural cherry base) and $1,895 (walnut or white ash base) via Herman Miller’s retail branch, Design Within Reach.
Walmart has not yet responded to requests for comment, and Curbed has not examined in person the goods being sold on Walmart’s website (described as a “gorgeous Sculpture Coffee table at once timeless and modern. It features a curved Tempered glass tabletop that reveals a sculptural interlocking wood base that’s a marvel of both complexity and simplicity.”).
But we did send the listing to Brett Littman, director of the Isamu Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, which grants the exclusive license to Herman Miller to manufacture the table. Littman identified Walmart’s version as a copy, adding in a statement:
This is a copy of Isamu Noguchi’s Coffee Table, dating from 1944, which has endured as one of his greatest designs and one of the most popular pieces of furniture in the canon of mid-century modernism. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum is the owner of all rights, title, and interest in and to the artist’s works, and has registered trademark and trade dress rights in the design of his iconic coffee table.
Additionally, the table’s original manufacturer, Herman Miller, is the only party authorized and licensed to manufacture and sell the table in North America, and others have rights elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, unauthorized copies of the Noguchi coffee table like the one being offered at Walmart do appear from time-to-time. We are naturally unhappy to learn that Walmart is selling these copies and will contact them to request that they cease doing so immediately. We will also work to identify the manufacturer to request that it cease fabricating the knockoff table as it is an infringement of our trademark and trade dress rights.
Additionally, Herman Miller told Curbed that it believed the table was a counterfeit, and its legal team is “looking into it.”
“What Walmart is doing is ridiculous,” says John Edelman, CEO of both of Herman Miller Consumer and Design Within Reach. “They could be innovators in design, and this is just a cheap shortcut.”
Knockoff and counterfeit designer furniture has become a problem for domestic furniture manufacturers, one of many challenges the industry faces in an era of globalization and digital sales.
“It’s important for consumers to understand that although these products may look similar, there are many important differences beyond the aesthetics,” says Ben Watson, Herman Miller’s chief creative officer. “When buying authentic certified goods from Herman Miller, consumers can have the confidence that they are buying fully warrantied, high-quality products that are produced sustainably by skilled craftspeople who are all paid a fair, living wage. Sadly, this is not always the case in the counterfeit industry where ethics are often compromised throughout the supply chain, and those odious practices are passed along to the consumer in the form of an inferior—even unsafe—product.”
Since many unauthorized items arrive in the U.S. from overseas manufacturers, increased action at the border can help keep these items from reaching consumers. An industry group called BeOriginal Americas has been active in raising awareness within the design industry about the proliferation of knockoff designs, the value of authenticity, and efforts to protect designers and creators.
Walmart isn’t the only retailer selling coffee tables that look similar to the Herman Miller original. A simple Google search finds a number of sub-$400 tables from retailers Houzz and Modern in Designs that trade off the Noguchi name in the search results.
Curbed has reached out to Walmart for comment, and will update this story when we hear back.