You’ll find that many mid-century fans loathe MCM replicas, even though there is a huge market for them, and many people buy them regularly. And no, most of them are not naïve or deluded, some of them willingly choose to buy certain replicas.

But first, what do we mean when we talk about replicas? Essentially, we’re talking about copies of iconic furniture items made by a variety of sellers. Some of these sellers have some sort of clearance from the original manufacturers, but the large majority of them usually craft and sell replicas on their own, with some repercussion.

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You might be asking yourself: what about copyright, then? Who owns those designs? It’s a very fair question, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But first, let us introduce the star of the show.

Eames Lounge chair and ottoman: original or replica?

We decided to use the Eames Lounge chair and ottoman as an example of the current situation in the replica market. Granted, we could have chosen items that are copied and sold at a larger rate, such as the Eames ribbed-back office chair, or the myriad Eames DSW chairs that you just wouldn’t know are from the mid-century modern era.

Both of these items are so ubiquitous today that you wouldn’t believe they aren’t just a general furniture shell to be mass-produced. Consider park benches: they’re everywhere, but who designed them? Nobody, right? Now consider the above two Eames examples: how frequently have you seem them around? If you are unfamiliar with Charles and Ray Eames, you probably won’t recognize them as designer pieces at all.

This is the reason why we chose the ELC. Famous enough to be among the best-selling replicas, and iconic enough to be recognized as something other than living room furniture. The discussion around designs that have blended seamlessly into our daily lives is for another article (my next one, most likely).

So, with that in mind, let’s open the debate.

Which one should I buy? And how do I tell them apart?

Glad you asked. The answer to the first question is very simple: buy the one you can afford. The price difference between the original designs and most furniture replicas is extremely high, so this is the first thing you should consider.

Also, if you are not terribly wealthy, you’ll be glad you thought this through. To put things in perspective: the average ELC replica sells for between $900 and $1,200. On the other hand, an original ELC with ottoman will cost you around $6,000, maybe a little less if you get it second-hand. Right from the start, you can see why the replica market hasn’t stopped growing since the early 2000s.

Another Eames Lounge chair with a kitty on it. Photo from Flickr.

Material-wise, you can expect to find decent builds, woods, and fabrics (in the case of the ELC) for most of the top-tier replicas, but we have to admit the quality of the original pieces will probably surpass them, as these pieces are indeed a luxury.

The stores that sell originals understand and amplify their worth, and buying the piece from them is usually not a just a regular online purchase: it can feel like being part of a private club, and you do get some interesting benefits that you wouldn’t get at a replica store.

Second question: how do I know if an ELC is original? There are many ways to go about this, but first, let’s get something out of the way. Some people consider all replicas to be knock-offs, and that’s understandable.

The Eames DSW chair is one of the most copied chairs in the world. Found on Flickr.

However, we do believe there’s a difference between a $400 “Eames Lounge chair” with abnormal cushions and no reclining features, and a $1,100 Eames Lounge chair replica that follows the original design as faithfully as possible. The first one is what we would call a knock-off, and the second is a furniture replica.

So, with this in mind, is seems like the real question is: how do I tell good replicas from the bad ones?

Choosing the right Eames Lounge and ottoman replica

This is what a good replica of the Eames Lounge chair with ottoman looks like, most of the time (we make sure of that). We want to pay homage to the designers, and thus we follow this particular look.

The measurements from a replica like this should match the original Vitra model, which is currently produced by most original retailers and has some differences with the first ELC the Eames couple created.

Such measurements are not a secret. The chair should also match the original in functionality: make sure it reclines naturally and has interchangeable cushions.

Replicas come in every shape and size imaginable. Photo found on Flickr.

Last but not least, the aesthetic: the chair should have a five-leg base, while the ottoman should have a four-leg base. The chair should be joined by shock mounts, preferably made of silicone. Low-quality shock mounts are made of rubber and wear out much quicker. Keep these details in mind and you’ll be fine.

Also, the price difference is very consistent: a replica that costs $3,000 could be suspicious. Stay within the aforementioned range, maybe spend a little more, but do not go past $2,000.

What about copyright? Doesn’t the design belong to the Eames family?

The issue with furniture copyright laws is that they were (and somehow still are) even more obscure than regular copyright laws. Nowadays, governments are still coming down hard on digital piracy, for example, but nobody talks about the provenance of the Eames Lounge chair (or any other piece of furniture, unless you’re at an auction).

Its distribution rights were originally ceded by the Eameses to Herman Miller, Vitra, and a couple other companies that no longer exist. Only the first two remain with those distribution rights, and they have been making efforts to stop (or slow down, at best) the replica market.

In the old days, both Herman Miller and Vitra had nothing to fear: their designs were protected, recognized, and manufacturing-wise, it would’ve been really hard for a company to start copying them. It was a good situation.

Those laws, however, had relatively short expiration dates, and by the end of the 1990s these pieces had become a part of the public domain (and manufacturing became a much speedier process).

A 1965 Herman Miller ad for the Eames Aluminum Group of office chairs. Photo from this Flickr user.

It is only recently that some governments have taken action against replicas, like the UK, which updated its furniture copyright laws three years ago. Replica manufacturers have traditionally thrived by changing the name of the product or explicitly stating that the product is a replica. These two strategies usually keep everyone out of legal trouble.

We think, however, that buying furniture replicas is not a bad thing (for a variety of reasons that we’ve already explained).

In the meantime, consider your own experience of buying mid-century modern furniture. If you’re reading this blog, you’ve most likely purchased a replica. How’s that worked out for you?