Geneva, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) - Geneva consumers’ chance to buy cheap fake and illegal designer furniture took a beating 11 May. Twenty-four top designer name chairs and sofas would have had a shop sales value of CHF100,000 if they had been the real thing, but as fakes the copycat Le Corbusier and other name furniture would have been sold in Geneva for closer to CHF15,000 total.
Wednesday, in front of a crowd of journalists, Swiss Customs had a large bulldozer roll back and forth over the pile of confiscated goods until they were a flattened mass of cheap leather, twisted metal and plastic bits.
The counterfeit furniture was imported from China by what authorities say is a Geneva city centre well-known furniture boutique, whose name is not given because the case faces possible litigation. Nearly 80 percent of counterfeits that were seized in Switzerland in 2010 came from China.
The goods were seized 16 March by the Geneva Customs office on suspicion of fraud.
Italian license holder asked for fakes to be destroyed
Cassina, an Italian company which holds the exclusive worldwide licence to produce Le Corbusier furniture, was contacted by customs officials about the imports, and it asked that the fakes be destroyed. The importer also faces a fine, the amount of which has not yet been determined; if the shop is discovered to be a repeat offender, it risks being closed.
Customs officials and Cassina managers who were present Wednesday declined to say how much a fine might be: the number of copies, the history for importing fakes of the shop and other factors are part of the calculation.
The most likely scenario, says Cossina’s director, Gianluca Armento, is that his company and the importer will reach a private but legally binding agreement on the fine. The shop has not been caught importing fakes in the past, but is suspected of doing so, one customs officer told GenevaLunch.
Fake designer furniture a growing problem
The public destruction of the goods is designed to send a message to importers, who, according to Armento, are aware of what they are buying, and to consumers, who may not be. The problem of fake designer furniture is growing, with Armento and the customs officials who hosted the media event Wednesday agreeing that it is now an industry of at least €500 million a year.
Swiss customs officials are working closely with several industries, including furniture makers, to be able to better spot likely counterfeit products. Customs seized iimported bulk goods, not counting pharmaceuticals and precious metals, 2,741 times in 2010, compared to 470 in 2007, 1,176 in 2008 and 1,622 in 2009. The value of the goods (calculated as the value of the real product) was CHF4.7 million in 2009 and CHF7.21m in 2010.
Most of the fakes come from Italy, says Armento, but there is a new twist, and the Geneva seizure is a good example: Italian fake designer manufacturers are cutting their own costs by bringing in underpaid Chinese workers or having all but the finish on the furniture done in China. “They’re avoiding paying social costs in Italy and finding manufacturers in China who don’t pay them, so they’re really exploiting Chinese workers. They’ll do anything to lower costs. They just finish the pieces in Italy.”
Copies are illegal – forget what the salesman says
The designer copy business sparked debates in Italy for several years, but Michel Bachar, head of communications for the federal customs office, says there are clearcut intellectual property issues and consumers should not be fooled by sales people who say copies are legal.
They are rife on the Internet, but, Armento points out, it is impossible to judge quality online, and this is the consumer’s greatest protection: the licensed products use better quality materials and the hidden structure conforms to specifications set by the designer.
The 24 pieces of furniture included, for example, copies of the LC2 and LC3 chairs and sofas, and the LC4 chaise longue, designed by Le Corbusier working with Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand, in 1928. They quickly became cult objects as emblems of modern design, and they were often copied.
Le Corbusier designated the license holder
Furniture designer Cassina opened its doors in Italy, near Milan, in 1927. In 1964 the “Cassina I Maestri” (Cassina Masters) collection was born and the company acquired the rights to products designed by Le Corbusier, Jeanneret and Perriand. Le Corbusier himself granted the worldwide exclusive license to Cassina in 1964.
Le Corbusier’s real name was Charles-Edouard Jeanneret. The Swiss designer and architect was from the Swiss town of La-Chaux-de-Fonds, which will celebrate his 125th birthday in 2012.
Consumers should check the quality
Raymond Pfaff, country manager for Cassina, says that consumers shopping for the real thing need to know how to check for quality differences. In the case of the Le Corbusier pieces destroyed Wednesday, the shoddy workmanship of the curved metal joints and the and mediocre thin leather used made it quickly apparent that these were cheap copies.
The value of designer pieces to the owner, says Pfaff, lies not just in the look of the iconic pieces and what they represent in the history of design, but in the fine quality of the materials and their durability, their timelessness.
Diligent customs officials are catching some of the fakes, but it’s a daunting task, says Pfaff, with Italian fakes coming via truck into Switzerland, without any mention these are designer name pieces of furniture, and from The Netherlands if they are shipped to Europe from China.
The non-profit Stop Piracy organization was recognized by the Swiss government in 2009, and the group of 40 organizations that are members, has been working closely with Swiss Customs, training staff to spot counterfeit goods, among other projects.