Design: A Creative Process of Copying

Braun’s T3 Transistor Radio (1958) and the original iPod (2001) | LIFE EDITED
Braun’s T3 Transistor Radio (1958) and the original iPod (2001) | LIFE EDITED

Renowned Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto is all for copying.

Asked to reflect on his clothes being referenced by younger designers as part of fashion history, he said:

“I would like to shout to young people, especially young designer or young student. Simply, be yourself, you’re okay. And start copying which you love. Copy, copy, copy, copy, and end of the copy you will find yourself.”

This idea of seeking originality through the process of copying is controversial given a designer’s aim to be unique. No one likes to admit being a copycat, but the truth is design travels through iterations rather than discrete moments of entirely new inventions.

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Copies: Creative Processes Transformation and Evolution” is an on-going exhibition in Mexico City’s Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura that looks specifically at design copies. Beginning from Archivo’s own collection of design objects, guest curators Cecilia León de la Barra and Jorge Gardoni found “copies” of them to put together side-by-side for comparison. From designer furniture to popular salt-and-pepper shakers, the duo found that lookalikes existed for all kind of things.

And it wasn’t just small shady companies making copies. In their exhibition, they’ve highlighted how Apple’s popular iPod and Calculator app makes references to Dieter Rams’ industrial design from Braun.

Despite the exercise, they came none the wiser about differentiating between a copy from an original.

“We think it’s difficult to identify real originals, most of them are all evolutions or transformations,” said the duo over an e-mail interview. “Sometimes it was just a matter of which came first, or coincidences.”

A selection of IKEA furniture and their competitor’s lookalikes from website E-Kit 2.0

Ultimately, the difference for them is all down to the designer’s intention. While they avoided featuring designers or companies that “plagarised” just to make money, they wanted to acknowledge how copying is part of every creative process. It helps a designer better understand how something works so that they can go on to create something “new.”

A more fuzzy word that designers use is “inspiration”, which has a more noble ring than the blunt idea of copying. Either way, it is a tacit acknowledgement that design does not exist in a vacuum, but is only a time-specific physical manifestation of a larger journey through ideas.

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Written for Elizabeth Spiers and Chappell Elison’s Online Publishing class at D-Crit.

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