After paying legal settlements to Obsolete and Emeco for ripping off original designs, Restoration Hardware faces yet another accusation of intellectual property theft, this time by Melbourne lighting designer Christopher Boots. (Unsure why this merits scrutiny? We unpack the issue of knockoffs here.) But first, context: Restoration Hardware’s penchant for familiar silhouettes has been noted as far back as 2012. “For decades, lovers of modern furniture, balking at the cost of authorized versions, have settled for inexpensive knockoffs,” wrote the New York Times. “And companies like Restoration Hardware have been eager to meet demand.” The brand’s New York City showroom, at the time located in Flatiron, carried replicas of Arne Jacobsen’s Series 7 chair, Mies van der Rohe’s MR side chair, and Emeco’s Navy Chair, lazily renamed the Naval Chair.
The latter sparked a highly publicized lawsuit, which helped illuminate the widespread epidemic of knock-offs within the design industry. In the Times story, Gregg Buchbinder, Emeco’s long-time CEO, compared Restoration Hardware’s replica to “stealing the Nike Swoosh or the Mercedes-Benz logo, and then exploiting our brand and reputation to produce an inferior product.” (For the uninitiated, quality and craftsmanship have always been Emeco’s beat—one of the brand’s latest collections, On & On by British mainstays Barber & Osgerby, is virtually indestructible.) Take the disparity in price points: The Emeco Navy chair may set you back $455, but Restoration Hardware’s nearly identical replica cost a mere $129. Such a drastic price differential, argued Buchbinder, may make it difficult for customers familiar with both brands to justify the original design’s cost. Ultimately, Emeco emerged victorious—Restoration Hardware agreed to permanently cease selling the Naval Chair, and its existing inventory was promptly recycled.
It now appears that Restoration Hardware is back on its bullshit. The home furnishings behemoth is currently embroiled in a legal bloodbath after blatantly copying two crystalline fixtures designed by Christopher Boots. The Australian lighting designer declined offers to create his signature quartz crystal fixtures when the brand approached him in 2016, despite being promised $12 million in annual profits. Commodifying his work contradicts the labor-intensive, piece-by-piece detailing required to assemble one of his fixtures, a process that limits production to roughly 12 editions per year, with lead times approaching 18 weeks to ensure the utmost quality. “We’re limiting our range now,” Boots told Metropolis that same year. “The value in the work is its handmade aspect and its rarity, and we don’t want to be a factory of production endlessly making these kinds of things.” Scaling up to mass-market proportions is, and always was, out of the question.
Unfazed, Restoration Hardware introduced near-identical replicas of Diamond Ring and Sugar Bomb, two of Boots’s signature pieces. (In 2014, these two pieces thrust his then-emerging practice onto the global stage after appearing in Hermes’s Vitrine d’Artiste program.) The replicas, dubbed Geode Quartz, were instead attributed to U.K. designer Timothy Oulton. “Given the size of the U.S. furniture market, and [Christopher Boots’s] minimal sales, it would seem nearly impossible for [him] to establish any secondary meaning in that design,” Oulton says.
That’s precisely where Oulton and Restoration Hardware miss the mark. Boots has maintained a lifelong fascination with rocks and minerals that led to the genesis of his namesake atelier in 2011. “I found a crystal on a beach when I was eight years old and got totally entranced by that whole world,” Boots told Surface earlier this year. “Quartz was one of the initial materials I worked with because it was so beautiful, clear, and pure. I try to be as reductive and purist as possible to honor the materials.” Not exactly a holistic companion to Restoration Hardware’s comparatively banal mantra of “modern comfort.”
One cease and desist later, Restoration Hardware removed the knock-offs from its website and bricks-and-mortar, though they still appear in the RH Contract Hospitality Source Book and discount outlet stores. Oulton, meanwhile, seems to have started offering a replica “Elysium” line on his own website, self-debasement be damned.
Boots wasn’t the first designer to call out Restoration Hardware, and, if past is prologue, he won’t be the last. In the first spread of the brand’s 731-page Fall 2019 catalog, chairman and CEO Gary Friedman bloviates about how true leaders must take solace in discomfort for the sake of originality. “In a world that rewards duplication and penalizes the inherent bumpy road of innovation, we will continue to drive ourselves to destroy today’s reality so we can create tomorrow’s future, while remaining completely comfortable making ourselves and others uncomfortable.” Sans context, the proclamation is uplifting enough. When penned by a juggernaut intent on siphoning the creative ingenuity that makes his own industry so great, it’s shameless.