Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but what Target has done to the venerable Navy chair shows disrespect.
The Web store Target.com offers a "Cafe Aluminum side chair" from Asia for $249.99 a pair. The online listing describes the chair as a "classic design." That's true. The image closely resembles a trademarked American classic: the Emeco 1006 Navy chair.
The 1006 is a bona fide wartime workhorse. It was developed in Hanover, Pa., in the 1940s for use on submarines and aircraft carriers. Aluminum makes the chair lightweight and corrosion-resistant. An elaborate manufacturing process makes it virtually indestructible. According to company lore, the 1006 is tough enough to withstand a torpedo blast.
The military remains a customer, but today the 1006 is also a symbol of modern industrial chic. Navy chairs are found in Armani and Tiffany boutiques, the architecture offices of Frank O. Gehry, in the movie "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" and at home with Brad Pitt. The chair has starred in its own docudrama, "77 Steps," filmed by Eames Demetrios, grandson of designer Charles Eames. Television viewers can spot Navy chairs on "Law & Order" and "CSI," as well as in Verizon and HBO ads. Design Within Reach sells them for $370 each on its Web site.
The American and Asian chairs have nearly identical slatted backs, curved seats and rounded shoulders. The Navy chair has a durable brushed matte finish that is guaranteed for life. The import is painted and lacquered to simulate the look.
The similarity generated correspondence between lawyers for Emeco and Target in May. The discounter pointed the finger at the supplier, Euro Style of San Rafael, Calif., whose president, Trygve Liljestrand, said this week he is hoping to avoid litigation by adding two slats to the back of his chair. He did not commission the look-alike but was shown a prototype on a visit to the Far East. He says he had no idea the Emeco chair had legal protection. Nor did he know of its role in World War II.
Target's response has been less satisfying. A champion of design might have whisked the knockoff from its lineup. Target won a Smithsonian National Design Award for corporate excellence in 2003, but now the discounter is behaving like a discounter: The knockoff is still online.
Why would a smart corporation like Target risk its hard-won reputation as a design store over a cheap imitation chair? Target attorney Shayne L. Brown wrote to Emeco's attorney, saying that company policy is "to respect the intellectual property rights of others." Five Target executives declined to comment for this column, including Brown.
The problem of knockoffs is not new or limited to Target. Nor is Euro Style the only source of Emeco look-alikes, which are known in the business as counterfeit classics. The Foundation for Design Integrity has been fighting them for a decade. Attorney Susan E. Farley, who represents the foundation and Emeco, was hoping to settle this week with a company threatening to market imitations of another Emeco chair, the stylish Hudson, designed in 2000 by Philippe Starck for the Hudson hotel in New York.
"They are both super-super-famous chairs," Farley says. "If they're made in China, how are you supposed to compete with that? You don't have to be a Harvard business grad. That's a real threat to American jobs."
The Navy chair is pure Americana, which is why Target looks so bad. It comes from an era when Yankee ingenuity, government research and a skilled labor force could work miracles, and small towns thrived on full employment. In Hanover, which is just up the road from Camp David, 60 skilled workers -- down from 600 during World War II -- produce 10,000 Navy chairs a year. The capacity is 30,000, according to Gregg Buchbinder, who bought the factory in 1998. During the war, rail cars pulled right up to the door to load government orders.
Emeco, which stands for Electric Machine and Equipment Co., was founded by tool-and-die maker Wilton C. Dinges, who worked out the technology with the U.S. Navy and Alcoa. The designer's name is lost. The Design Encyclopedia of the Museum of Modern Art notes that the chair took decades to perfect. During manufacture, the molecular structure of the metal is altered to make the material three times stronger than steel.
"We're risking everything," Buchbinder says. "For a little company, we put so much livelihood and development into the tooling. If someone else is allowed to make it, it just kills us."
Like Target, Buchbinder has sought to raise the profile of his company by working with celebrity designers. Along with Starck's Hudson collection, Emeco makes a Superlight chair designed by Gehry. Buchbinder was hard at work on a new chair by Norman Foster, the British architect, when he learned of the aluminum chair on Target.com. He bought one and put it through a few tests before deciding to challenge it. He worried that legal fees could prevent the launch of the Foster chair.
"I only have five collections," Buchbinder says. "Those jobs depend on making those chairs. My back is up against a wall. I don't have a choice. I have to fight for it."
Target's commitment to design began at the Washington Monument. The corporation organized sponsorship of the famous Michael Graves blue wrap used during a lengthy renovation in 1998. Smart executives bought the notion that design could differentiate Target from other big-box stores. Exclusive collections have been commissioned from Graves, Starck, Isaac Mizrahi, Todd Oldham and others. Anonymous designers toil away on staff. The corporation also has partnered with such brand-name companies as California Closets, Sony, Eddie Bauer, Tupperware, Calphalon, Waverly and Woolrich to offer quality design at volume pricing.
Target.com includes comments from three shoppers who have purchased the Cafe Aluminum side chairs. Two of them complain about sloppy welds. One of them gives the chair four stars as a "great alternative to the Emco [sic] chair."
If Target's guests know the difference, surely those in the executive suite do, too.
Why not apologize, pull the imitation and maybe even work out a partnership to ensure that a great example of American design not only survives but flourishes?