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  • Writer's pictureLeslie Olson

Cover Story

Before you buy that knock-off…

Photo of a vintage black lacquer Chinese Emperor Folding Chair, a crimson silk scarf, and vintage black lacquer chair by Dunbar-Edward Wormley,  circa 1950s
Chinese Emperor Folding Chair and Vintage Dunbar-Edward Wormley Armchair, c. 1950s

(Soundtrack included!)

At some point we all have to face it: very little in life is truly original. Seldom is anything created that wasn’t influenced to some degree by other references, ancient to current.

I'm often disappointed when a musician re-records a familiar song, but their cover adds absolutely nothing to the original. Such a missed opportunity! Recording a cover should allow an artist to re-interpret a piece, to present it through a new lens. Best case, a familiar song can be transformed into something magical. A shift in context or production can emphasize newly-profound lyrics, a surprising tempo or rhythm…or even make us giggle at a tongue-in-cheek performance. (Check out some examples below!)

The key distinction is between a copy and an interpretation.

There’s always been controversy in the design world about original furniture designs versus knock-offs. Searching for the terms “reproduction” or “knock-off” on many interior design blogs can open up a tumbling rabbit hole. A licensed original can be significantly more expensive than a replica. So what’s wrong with a knock-off that’s more accessible to a larger number of people, anyway? Shouldn’t everyone have access to good design? Why worry about quality craftsmanship or sustainability when you’ll be moving around the next few years? You’ll probably want to replace it for our next place anyway.

Much of this angst is fueled by what I call Totem Collecting. Certain things become emblems of discernment, luxury, or success. These Totems are bought with a keen eye to those who will recognize them approvingly: trending sneakers, an exclusive handbag, a Hans Wegner Papa Bear Chair. If we’re seeking Totems, which are often frustratingly out of reach, then why not buy a knock-off? Who’s to know, as long as it looks convincing – don’t we still get points for “having” it?

Spoiler Alert: we’re not going to resolve this issue here.

But…here’s an alternative. Instead of checking things off a prescribed “must-have” list, consider options that don’t directly copy the original, but have a unique interpretation of its root. You might just unearth a piece that references a well-designed or historic original, either overtly or with a gentle nod. The alternate version might even be more beautiful or functional than the original, if you allow yourself to see it. Maybe there's a vintage piece that makes your heart skip a beat. Or perhaps a budding artist or craftsman in your area is making the next New Thing. Not only could you be open to discovering them, but your purchases could give a financial boost to talented artisans who are making authentic works.

There’s a delight in discovering something ELSE that inspires us, instead of simply ticking off boxes of items that others might recognize. Those elusive Totems are often only satisfying when they’re first acquired…then they fuel the need for the next item on the list.

Worth considering: Just maybe that interpretation will eclipse the original!

An abstracted view of two chairs showing textures of a black lacquer Chinese Emperors Folding Chair with patterned woven seat, a crimson silk scarf, and a vintage black lacquer Dunbar-Wormley chair with woven cane seat.


Okay, so I can never pass up the opportunity to talk about music! Here’s a quick list of cover songs that are worth appreciating on their own merits. In no particular order:

Sturgill Simpson – “The Promise” (When in Rome, 1987)

Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Little Wing” (Jimi Hendrix, 1967)

Nina Simone – “I Put a Spell on You” (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, 1956)

Jamie Cullum – “High and Dry” (Radiohead, 1996)

Aretha Franklin – “What A Diff’rence a Day Made” (Dinah Washington, 1959)

Tom Waits – “Somewhere (from West Side Story),” Leonard Bernstein, 1957)

Shawn Colvin - “(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night” (Tom Waits, 1974)

Willie Nelson – “Stardust” (Hoagy Carmichael, 1927)

Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny – “Cinema Paradiso – Love Theme” (Ennio Morricone, 1989)

Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen, 1984)

Jennifer Warnes – “Famous Blue Raincoat” (Leonard Cohen, 1971)

Richard Thompson – “Oops! I Did It Again” (Britney Spears, 2004)

Cake – “I Will Survive” (Gloria Gaynor, 1977)

Mrs. Miller – “The Girl from Ipanema” (Antonio Carlos Jobim, 1963)

Any other suggestions?

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