Palm Springs Law Blog

Friday, December 29, 2017

Mid-Century Modern - Can You Sell Those Designs Again?

I was thinking about the mid-century modern phenomenon and how much I like some of the architectural and furniture design elements when it occurred to me that I don’t really know how to define “mid-century modern”. I checked with my assistant, who claims to have lived through most of that era. She says that depending on with whom you talk, the term can apply to the new designs in architecture, furniture, fabric design and even clothing fashions, all the way from before the German Bauhaus movement in the 1920’s to the growth of the U.S. civil rights era in the 1970’s.

After a little research, I found that this is probably as good as any description.  But I also learned that many of those people who grew up with it are NOT big fans.  And bringing it back to life is not always easy. Sometimes, it might not even be legal.

In the U.S., mom and dad got hooked on this life-changing style.  With their new affordable mortgages and better jobs after WWII, they bought butterfly chairs, butterfly roofed houses, and anything Scandinavian-flavored. But very few middle class folks could afford the huge prices of original architecture, or furniture like the Eames lounge chair, the Barcelona chair, and Saarinen designs that were the cutting edge of change in that era.

Instead, they got the low cost knockoffs and were happy enough. But those were styles that the younger generation vowed to be wary of, to grow out of, and to get away from. Those budding adults wanted new space and new vibes, like every generation before them. Many years later, here we all are – some of us resurrecting and idolizing everything mid-century, often with a much more respectable budget to acquire the stuff.  And others who sniff at and snub the whole thing as old-hat and stuck in the dusty past.

There will always be people who disagree about style, design, the energy of change – but being an attorney, I wondered if there were any legal issues to bringing back an earlier style. Can you just recreate those houses, that furniture, the fabrics and sell them all over again?

I checked into it, and it soon became clear that there is nothing clear about this whole process. There are patent and copyright issues. Zoning and historic preservation issues.  Squabbles among manufacturers about who owns rights to a design.  And there are politics and passion lurking everywhere. What the heck? How can anything so simple on the surface be so complex?

I can’t speak to politics or passion, but my research says there are plenty of nooks and crannies that need to be explored before staking a claim on mid-century modern décor.

How about the architect and the design, the plans, the structure, the usefulness of a building project?  In the past 25 years there are finally some legal protections for an architect’s creativity and products. Before that? In the mid-20th century, not so much. Plans, designs and structures rarely qualified for copyrights, patents or trademarks.

How about the furniture designer who blows a hole in the old ways, the traditional, the too comfortable? Who develops a design for the future? Recent laws allowing copyrights on furniture and fabric designs and products offer some legal protection at last. But not for those from the middle of the last century, in most cases.

Across the country there are tugs of war over tearing down iconic mid-modern structures, with impassioned cries of “you don’t care about history and art” from the mid-mod-lovers, and on the other side, shouts of “stuck-in-the-past-old fogeys” from the promoters of their own vision of the perfect lifestyle. City councils are begged to classify mid-century buildings as historic structures so they can’t be changed or destroyed. Developers often prod, and even sue, city councils to replace them with newer and more profitable buildings.

So, many mid-century modern designs have little protection because laws in the U.S. didn’t offer it for most creative endeavors in that era. Right now, if you find a “new” knockoff house or furniture that you love, you should probably be feeling lucky. Various countries are trying to prevent a second go-round of rip-offs by prohibiting copying or importing copies of certain designs of furniture, fabric and architecture.  And the EU and other countries are extending copyright periods to 70 years as a protection for the original designs. The cost of originals is likely to skyrocket, as copies will soon disappear in those areas.

In the U.S., the future of “new” mid-century modern design is uncertain.  If you can’t afford the huge cost of the occasional original homes and furniture that come on the market, then you may want to find some current knockoffs and grab them while you can. 

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