KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Today, we are experiencing a demand for the designs of midcentury American furniture, when America was in a period of design excellence and innovation, but the question of what to buy has become more confusing to the consumer. Can I buy an original? Should I buy vintage or new? What is the difference between an authentic piece and a reproduction?
As a designer, and someone who supports authentic design, I will try to clarify some of the confusion around these questions. (Full disclosure: I am an authorized retailer for Herman Miller and Knoll, both licensed to produce iconic midcentury furniture pieces.)
What really defines a piece of furniture as an "original"? This is an interesting question because many of the mid-century pieces we are familiar with were designed to be mass-produced and have been in production since they were introduced.
In the purest sense of the word, an "original" is a one-of-kind piece or a piece that was made during a limited-production run (also called a limited edition).
Very few of us can afford an original, as this is the stuff highly prized by collectors and it rarely comes up for auction. So the term "original" is not really applicable when you are talking about mid-century furniture that was designed to be mass-produced.
This really gets down to your taste. Are you a person who wants to see some patina on your piece or someone who wants something brand-new? If you are like me, the answer is both.
I shop vintage stores when I'm looking for something that I want to have a bit of history or when I am looking for something that is not made today. Other times, I buy new because it either looks best in the space or the new piece has been improved upon from previous production runs.
Both have merit, and sometimes a vintage piece is worth more than a new piece, especially if it is a piece with a finish that is no longer available or has detailing that was changed in later production runs.
Before buying a vintage piece with a price tag higher than a new piece, do your homework and find out when the piece was made and how it is different from those being made today.
Be sure to look for a manufacturer's tag or marking to confirm the authenticity. Sometimes the design of the manufacturer's tag has changed over time, which can help establish a date of the piece. Consider photographing the tag and contacting the manufacturer to see if it can help you narrow down the time frame.
Experience has taught me that clients get easily confused by this question because of the way pieces are marketed.
"Authentic" pieces are being produced by the manufacturer that is authorized by the designer, holds the license on the design and is making it consistent with the original design specifications.
Sometimes materials change because of changes in technologies. However, if the manufacturer holds the production rights and the license for the design, it is still considered an authentic piece.
A "reproduction" is a piece that is produced to look like the authentic piece, but the manufacturer does not hold the license from the designer or the original manufacturer to produce it. Other words and phrases are used to describe a reproduction such as "replica" or "inspired by."
If you want to avoid buying a reproduction, ask the retailer if you are buying an authentic piece. Check the manufacturer's website for a list of authorized retailers.
Also, examine the piece for a manufacturer's tag or stamp. Many new pieces have a plaque or signature stamped discreetly into the piece to confirm authenticity.
Finally, when purchasing a new piece, ask the retailer if the manufacturer provides a certificate of authenticity.