The line between reinterpreting and drawing inspiration from a design versus blatantly copying it is a hot topic. Just chat to any designer who feels that their work is getting counterfeited in China or ripped by high street brands. For instance, Tom Dixon told DAMNº a few years ago that the idea for his handmade, stoneware lighting range 'Lustre' originated from a desire to thwart the copycats. “My work is being copied a lot in Asia and this is about finding a coping strategy”, he explained at the time.

This exhibition, 'Ceci n'est pas une copie', at CID - Centre d'Innovation et de Design au Grand-Hornu in Belgium, looks at this debate from a different viewpoint. The title is a pun on Magritte's painting 'La trahison des images' (1928–29), depicting a pipe with the words “Ceci n'est pas une pipe” underneath it. The Belgian surrealist's statement meant that his painting was not a pipe, merely the representation of one.

Eames Lounge outdoor chair, Bob Copray & Niels Wildenberg

By titling the show after Magritte's painting, curator Chris Meplon advocates that copying something does not necessarily make it a copy. Rather, it could be another work entering into the trajectory of the history of design. Indeed, Studio Job made a humorous drawing, 'Ceci n'est pas une table', depicting the smoke of a pipe rising in golden bubbles to create a console.

Works by 55 designers are included in the show, including Alvar Aalto, Andrea Branzi, Jasper Morrison, Konstantin Grcic, the Bouroullec brothers, Hella Jongerius and Martino Gamper. Much of the exhibition hinges on how designers interrogate themselves about how much they can take or borrow in order to make a work that has its own merit.

pipe, ceci n'est pas une table, drawing, Studio Job, courtesy Loek Blonk

What's insightful are the comments by designers on this topic. For example, Bob Copray and Niels Wildenberg of Mal Furniture in the Netherlands say that they “find it an exciting challenge to put a familiar icon into a different context, or give it a different form, so that people look at it with new eyes.” For their MalClapchair, the duo painted a beach chair in the colours of a Rietveld classic, while for their Mal 1956, they made a plastic version of the Eames Lounge outdoor chair in electric blue and white, with an integrated drainage system.

Twists, tributes and parodies abound in the show, which takes the stance that a light degree of copying is beneficial to design on the condition that it is accompanied by historical awareness, creativity, wit and intelligence.

Lu Yii Wij Tong, courtesy Volker Albus
Bertjan Pot, carbon copy, 2003, photo David Marchal

Mal Furniture, MalClapchair, photo David Marchal
Exhibition view, photo David Marchal
Exhibition view, photo David Marchal