When Woodcraft introduced its line of Wood River handplanes in 2009, the company stated that its planes were inspired by vintage Stanley planes from the early 20th century.
Tool reviewers and customers, however, disputed that claim.
The Wood River tools appeared to me (a professional tool reviewer at the time) to instead be close copies of modern Lie-Nielsen handplanes. Woodcraft has since modified its Wood River handplanes, but it's my opinion that the initial misstep cost them in the reputation department.
I think the controversy drove potential customers away. It sure did for me. I won't recommend the Wood River handplanes to anyone. And I probably never will.
This is a lesson that every designer should remember when trying to sell or promote his or her work. If you aren't 100 percent honest about the sources of your inspiration, it can haunt you for years and damage your reputation among your competitors and compatriots.
What makes this tightrope even trickier to walk is that sometimes we – the designers – aren't entirely sure of the sources of our inspiration. We forget. Or we store it in our subconscious.
If you aren't scared witless yet, keep reading to learn about more pitfalls and potential traps – some that you might even be setting for yourself. And learn some strategies to keep your nose clean.
One quick personal note: As a young furniture maker I struggled with these issues and made lots of mistakes. I had my hat handed to me a few times and figured out my path with a lot of bumps and bruises. So the following isn't some paternalistic lecture from a pulpit. It's how I approach designing after being ground down quite a bit.
Making Historical Copies
Let's start with the easy stuff. If you make furniture, tools, jewelry, books or other beautiful objects from the past, one of the easiest traps occurs when making a copy of an historical work. Sometimes you think you're making a copy or interpretation of an historical work, but you are instead baldly ripping off someone's modern intellectual property.
This happens all the time in the two worlds I'm deeply involved in, toolmaking and furniture design.
For example, several years ago, a tool making company came out with a design for a clamp it claimed was based on late 18th-century examples. They were wrong. The clamp wasn't from the 18th century. They had copied a modern design – assuming it was ancient – from a blacksmith who specializes in making 18th-century-style clamps. (The two parties came to an agreement in the end, but there were some hurt feelings.)
This side table, which I built for myself many years ago, is a close copy of a Christian Becksvoort design. While Becksvoort has deep ties to the Shakers, this is not a Shaker piece. It is a Becksvoort piece.
Furniture designs offer similar problems. I don't know how many times I've seen newly minted furniture makers peddle a copy of an "authentic" 19th-century Shaker side table that is actually a contemporary table designed by Christian Becksvoort that gets labeled as "classic Shaker."
The problem is simple intellectual laziness. If you are going to make an historical copy, you dang well better gather every scrap of information available on that object before you toot your historical horn. When I make an historical copy of a piece that's in the public domain, I assume I'm going to be sued by someone claiming to be its real designer (luckily, that hasn't happened yet).
So I keep a folder on my computer of all my research on these pieces. If I measured the piece in person, I scan my drawing. If I have photos and descriptions from auction catalogs, I put them in there. Ditto anything from books and old magazine articles.
Basically, I create a folder that becomes my memory bank for that object. Here's why: After you design and build several hundred objects, it can be tough to remember every detail of your inspiration for a piece that you built in 1998. These folders of data have proved to be a butt-saver.
The piece here, called an "aumbry," is based on a circa-1490 piece that was part of the Clive Sherwood collection sold at a Sotheby's auction in 2002. My version is not historically accurate. It is not even a close copy. Stating these facts might reduce the price I can charge, but it keeps my dignity intact.
And finally, I'm careful about how I describe the piece. It's easy to say your work is an "authentic reproduction." But what does that mean? Did you copy its flaws, mistakes and the wear it has suffered? Did you use the same tools and processes as the person who made the original? Or did you instead capture the look of the piece using modern materials and tools? It's best to be specific about your work and avoid vague adjectives such as authentic, accurate, perfect, exact and genuine.
Bottom line when making reproductions: Know what you are talking about and say what you know.
Your New Pieces
Things get trickier when you start making new pieces and you claim some sort of ownership of the design. When you are a designer at the outset of your career, it's tempting (and easy) to simply say nothing about what or who inspired you. Instead, you say: This is the thing – buy it if you like it.
If your rocking chair has a silhouette (or details) from the iconic Sam Maloof rocker, it's best to fess up. If you don't, you might not be able to hear the mockery and catcalls from your workshop, but they're out there.
That seems the safe route – keep your mouth shut and stay out of the briar patch of attribution. But this approach is the opposite of safe. The problem is that your competitors and fellow designers are watching you. Closely. If Sam Maloof inspired your curvy design for a rocking chair and you don't even mention Sam Maloof, your competitors will assume that you take full credit for the design. And you are therefore either an arrogant jerk who steals designs from others, or you are too stupid to know who Sam Maloof is.
Wait, why should you care about what your competitors think?
You likely need them. There will be times when competitors will send work your way, especially if you maintain a reputation for being a straight-shooter. I end up referring about half of my potential customers to other makers because they are more suited for the job. But I won't send customers to someone I perceive as intellectually dishonest – doing so could hurt my reputation.
So you can't just keep your mouth shut about your influences. If you do that, you might be able to fool a few unsophisticated customers, but you can't fool your fellow makers. You need to be able to discuss how your design arrived in the world. And you have to do it in a way that both keeps your dignity and tips your hat to the people before you.
How do you do this?
Here's a crazy situation. After I designed and built this piece, a fellow furniture maker found a few photos of similar antique Swedish tables. The source of my inspiration was a Moravian stool – not these antique tables. Perhaps the two share a common ancestor. In any case, I rewrote my description of my table to say it shares DNA with these tables.
Evaluate Your Own Work
Before I describe my work to others – whether it's a book, chair or a tool – I force myself to answer these difficult questions.
1. First question: Where did my book, furniture design or tool come from? The answer cannot be: I came up with it myself. Every design is the result of a process, and there are many links in the chain. If I can't easily answer my question, I break down my design into its individual components and ask the same question of the components. Where did the legs of this chair come from? Where did the title of the book come from? Where did the shape of the cutting edge of this tool come from? I keep asking this question until I have a narrative for the design that is honest. This narrative is usually quite surprising to me (and that's a good thing).
2. Next question: What will my grumpy competitors say about this design after they've pounded four beers? The healthiest thing you can do as a designer is to put yourself in the place of other people, including your enemies and customers. I try to think about what my competitors will say after they have dropped the veil of niceness thanks to a few drinks. Usually the answer to this question is something like "It's a rip-off of this person's work." Or "It's a pale photocopy of the classic work of Ms. Master." Go for dark. If you think your competitors say things like "Aieee, we can't compete with that guy's genius," then you are delusional.
3. Last question: Can I fairly call this piece my design? Has it stepped away from both the influences that I acknowledge and the influences that my competitors will assign to it?
The answers to these questions become my roadmap for describing my work to customers and fellow designers. The exercise also prepares me to defend myself against internet trolls or simple snarky comments.
While I still like this chair design, it had too much DNA from other traditional makers for me to call it my own. So I tipped my hat to those makers and continued to refine the chair until I could call it mine (and sleep at night).
Here's an example of what one of these self-evaluations looks like. We'll use one of my older chairs, which I built for customers for about a decade.
This chair combines design elements from chairs I admire from John Brown (a famous Welsh chairmaker) and Don Weber (a chairmaker in Kentucky) with some of my own touches, particularly the top crest rail and the details on the arms. The legs and stretchers are similar to Weber's chairs, though I have changed their angles. The seat shape is a common D-shaped seat found on many Welsh chairs. The bent arm is similar to Weber's, but mine is more open and is chamfered on the back and on the ends. The sticks (some people call them spindles) are very John Brown. The arrangement of four long sticks for the backrest is found on many John Brown chairs. The crest rail is, as far as I know, my design and is more modern-looking than most chairs of this ilk.
My competitors might say I stole elements from disparate makers and combined them in a way that's more like a jackalope and less like a mule. They will decry it as an inauthentic example of a Welsh chair because I bent the arm with hot steam (a process the Welsh didn't use historically). They'll also sniff at the chamfers and angles I added to the arms and crest rail as too modern for the form. In other words, it's a hot mess of influences with some modern touches slapped on.
While I've combined some traditional elements in a new-ish way and added some touches that bring the form into the modern era, the chair is heavily influenced by other, more traditional chairmakers. It's only fair to call this chair a derivative design.
The answers to these three questions helped me write a description that went something like this:
This chair combines significant design elements from traditional Welsh stick chairmakers John Brown and Don Weber. But it attempts to bring the chair into the present century with modern details – chamfers, bevels and sharp angles – plus modern construction methods, such as steambending. It is a design with one foot planted firmly in the past and the other in the modern day.
Yup, that is some serious spin. And that spin was the direct result of forcing myself to answer those difficult questions. It turned out to be a good approach. I sold a lot of these chairs and avoided a lot of criticism and accusations of theft.
The other healthy thing about performing this exercise is that you will develop a much keener sense as to when you have really crossed over with a design into something you can call your own. It also gives you a punchlist of things to work on as your designs evolve.
I knew I had to get away from Don Weber's legs and stretchers (what we affectionately call the "undercarriage") and the long backrest. After refining those important elements again and again (I leaned into the facets and chamfers), the rest of the chair's parts began to evolve and get in line with the new legs, stretchers and backrest. My spindles became straighter and crisper (no bulges in the middle) and the sharp lines of the stretchers suggested I should add a sharp line to the seat as well. The chair design then snapped into focus.
I can (and do) consider this chair my design. It still owes a debt to the great stick chairs of Wales, but it's in the same way that all playwrights owe a debt to William Shakespeare.
I feel confident calling it my design because I know how I got to this point. Now I have my fingers crossed that my customers and competitors will agree – and not send me to the same woodshed where the Wood River planes ended up.
Christopher Schwarz is the editor at Lost Art Press and one of the founders of Crucible Tool. He works from a restored 1896 German barroom in Covington, Ky. You can see his furniture at christophermschwarz.com.