Why Restoration Hardware’s Knockoffs Are Good for Design

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Nov. 26 2012 4:30 AM

Can Restoration Hardware Legally Knock Off the Navy Chair?

Actually, the big retailer’s cheap imitation is the best thing to ever happen to the original.

The Emeco 1006 Navy Chair and Restoration Hardware's "Naval Chair."
Emeco's 1006 Navy chair (left) and Restoration Hardware's naval chair

Product images by Emeco and Restoration Hardware.

The Emeco 1006, also called the “Navy chair,” is an aluminum side chair produced by the Electric Machine and Equipment Company (Emeco) in Hanover, Pa. The chair was commissioned by the U.S. Navy in World War II for use on warships: The procurement contract specified that the chair had to be able to withstand torpedo blasts to the side of a destroyer.

After the war, Emeco began selling its Navy chair to the public. The original design never sold particularly well, but over the years Emeco’s chair carved out a small niche as a piece of high-end (that is, expensive) design of the sort you’ll see featured in Dwell magazine.

That is until Restoration Hardware got into the act. Recently the big furniture retailer began selling a look-alike Navy chair, which it refers to as the “standard aluminum side chair.” (It previously referred to it as the “naval chair.”) The Emeco original is $455. The Restoration knockoff is $129. At that lower price—and given Restoration Hardware’s ubiquity and marketing muscle—the Navy chair was poised to go mainstream.

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That was something Emeco was not going to take sitting down. The company has now filed suit, accusing Restoration Hardware of violating its trademarks. Restoration Hardware has apparently responded by taking the chair off its website. They shouldn’t have. The lawsuit is very likely meritless. And it points to the problem in granting overly broad rights in names and designs via the trademark system—especially since trademarks, unlike copyrights or patents, can last forever.

Let’s turn to the dispute itself. First, Emeco’s claim to a trademark on the term “Navy chair” is weak. Why? Because over the years that has become a generic label for this type of all-metal, 1940s-style chair, rather than a name that immediately conjures up a Pennsylvania company named Emeco. And in American law, if a product’s name becomes generic—such as aspirin, linoleum, thermos, or zipper—it can no longer be trademarked. Lawyers call this “genericide,” and the fear of becoming generic is one reason Kleenex is always reminding you that they sell “Kleenex-brand tissues.” The makers of Kleenex are trying to save their brand from genericide by reminding you that Kleenex is a particular brand of tissues, not a generic name for tissues.

In any event, Restoration Hardware isn’t using the name “Navy chair” anymore, so even if Emeco wins on this claim, it’s a pyrrhic victory—Restoration Hardware will be entitled to go on selling the chair under the unexciting but perfectly serviceable “standard aluminum side chair” label.

But Emeco has a second claim. It argues that it has a trademark on the chair’s design as well as its name. This claim is also a stretch. The Supreme Court has been very skeptical of such “trade dress” claims in which a firm asserts ownership over how a product looks. The court has said that firms can claim trademark rights on the design of products only if they have achieved what lawyers refer to as “secondary meaning”—that is, if the design is recognized by a substantial number of consumers as synonymous with the product itself. 

This is possible but very rare. The sinuous design of a Coca-Cola bottle is protected, for example, because people widely recognize a bottle of that shape as synonymous with Coke. Is Emeco’s Navy chair the home furnishing equivalent of a Coke bottle? No. It may be that a small number of industrial-design fans believe that chairs that look like the Navy chair come from a single source (such as Emeco). But actually they don’t—the Navy chair has been knocked off for years by a number of firms. Here’s a knockoff version by Advanced Interior Designs. Here’s another by Interiortrade. And here are knockoff Navy chairs in various colors by Globe West. Matt Blatt has done Navy chair knockoffs as well. Heck, at one point, even mega-retailer Target was doing a knockoff

For the same reason that the Navy chair name is probably generic (a lot of firms have produced very similar chairs under that name), the design almost certainly doesn’t indicate any single source of the product (because consumers have been getting their Navy chairs from a variety of sources for years). The bottom line is that Emeco can’t stop Restoration Hardware from knocking off the Navy chair.