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There is a chair designed by the artist (and architect) Donald Judd that has always appealed to me. It is simply called the “Backward Slant Plywood Chair 84” and was first produced in 1991. The design is not complex, and the labour required to make it doesn’t require particular skill or much time. In total, the material costs might come to a hundred dollars (if you were ripped off). The chair was out of production for a long time, and has only recently become commercially available again – the Judd Foundation licensed the production to a company called Schellmann. The price is a whopping $2,950.

Chairs #84/85, Judd Foundation
Chairs #84/85, Judd Foundation

Since I have recently been working with an excellent joiner, the idea came to me that perhaps I could have it replicated. I mentioned casually to a friend that I was planning to ask a carpenter to knock out a few out and did they want one. Their reaction was one of pure horror – they were appalled and aghast that I would have the audacity to flout not only the legalities of an unlicensed reproduction, but that I could be at all content to own an object they considered would have no soul (since it lacked the artist’s creative intent, and thus could not possess any “aura”). I shrugged my shoulders. The nuances of such an argument are lost on me. A chair is a chair. There is no difference between the image and reality.

I can’t understand how objects could possess an “aura” anyway – this mystical and sentimental attachment to the origin and intent of an author is a cultural superposition onto a thing. The object itself doesn’t know it’s a replica, and it doesn’t care. If there is any such thing as an aura then all objects must have them, irrespective of how they came to be. In fact, even the term “replica” is a highly problematic and confusing one. It suggests a kind of moral hierarchy between an original and a copy. It suggests that you should shell out an extra $2,800 because, even though Judd was a bastard and has been dead for several decades, his spirit lives on through the authenticity of his work. The chair is, as it is sometimes described, an “authentic replica” – identical to the original to such an extreme extent that there are no meaningful differences. The copy, in this sense, is an original.  

I would completely agree that the copy is always an original, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend three grand on a stained ply seat. Why am I so blazé about the idea of duplicating – of “stealing” – an existing design and commissioning an unauthorised version? It is because the arguments for what makes a design “authentic” are not essential to the material world. They concern social status (if you have a fake chair you are deceiving your friends and thus are fake yourself), peace of mind for the owner (I know it is real), and sociocultural or semiotic interpretation (the meaning of the object, in terms of its history and other qualities contributes to the overall understanding of the context in which it is located). Thus, a “real” Eames armchair denotes an owner with a passion for design, a knowledge and appreciation of quality. A “replica” Eames armchair denotes a superficial desire for a “lifestyle” or “look” that has no connection between ethics and aesthetics.

I don’t normally quote from Wikipedia, but in this case the article on “Replicas” has some telling lines: “Replicas and their original representation can be seen as fake or real depending on the viewer.” … “Replicas work well in museum settings because they have the ability to look so real and accurate that people can feel the authentic feelings that they are supposed to get from the originals.” Perhaps accidentally, we can see that original and copy depends on your own ability to interpret those terms, although I am highly suspicious of any argument based on “authentic feelings” a person is “supposed” to experience.

My position that an illegal copy and an authentic replica are the same thing is what is known as a “null hypothesis”. This is a form of assessment employed in medical trials, and it’s premise is that a placebo and your test drug are identical – in other words, probably your drug does nothing, so please demonstrate that it does actually do something (ideally what you thought or hoped it would). The assumption is that the fake and the real are the same; the onus is to prove they are different. In the case of replicas and originals, I naturally assume they are identical unless they can be shown to be different.

I’m making two arguments here: if a replica is so “authentic” you can’t tell it’s not an original, then it is an original. A fake Rolex that is indistinguishable from a real Rolex is a real Rolex. On the other hand, if you discover what in medicine would be called a “clinically significant” difference, then the two objects are not bound together. You are not talking about an original and a copy, because they are not the same. They are both originals of themselves. As Judd himself wrote in his seminal text “It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp” (1993), “A work of art exists as itself; a chair exists as a chair itself. And the idea of a chair isn’t a chair.” By this he means every object is ultimately self-referential and specific. As architects, what we would call the design is what Judd calls the idea for a chair. The idea is not the chair itself, just as the design is not the building itself. Even if you make ten copies of a building, every one is a unique object.

The conclusion to such an argument is always the question, “how would you feel if someone was to copy your work and make a profit from it?” Our entire relationship to ownership is changing, and we can no longer be either the authors or the benefactors of much of our own work. This was something Rem mastered, and even Palladio understood. If you make your ideas easy to copy you create a sphere of influence that increases, not decreases, your value. Your influence through imitation makes the original more expensive. In both cases, publishing and the image have been central to the dissemination and dominance of these architects’ ideologies.

In my own case, I am pursuing an ideology of material equality. I believe that high-quality, low-cost housing poses the only existential threat to capitalism and it is what we as architects should be totally focused on delivering. To achieve this would require such immense scales of construction and finance that no architect could ever achieve it by themselves. It is a struggle that will last centuries. So my ambition is not to make designs that are singular (they can’t be copied). My ambition is, quite the contrary, to make designs that can be freely and rapidly duplicated, but whose essence is so rigid that even significant natural variation does not corrupt the idea.