HOLLAND — Haworth Inc. has filed legal action against a California-based office furniture manufacturer that it says violated design patents for its Very Side chairs.
In court documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan earlier this month, Haworth alleges that Cypress, Calif.-based Exemplis Corp., which does business as SitOnIt Seating, “intentionally designed” its Rio task chair to resemble the Very Side chair. [Click here to see SitOnIt Seating’s Rio chair.]
Haworth claims those actions in marketing the similar chair have “irreparably harmed” the company, according to court documents.
The Holland-based office furniture maker has manufactured the Very Side product for about six years.
Haworth issued the lawsuit on Jan. 6 after an earlier written notice failed to persuade Exemplis to discontinue manufacturing its Rio chairs.
The recent lawsuit between Haworth and Exemplis underscores a slight shift in focus regarding intellectual property protections in the office furniture industry, said Brian Ainsworth, an attorney and partner specializing in such cases at Price Heneveld LLP in Grand Rapids.
Since office furniture manufacturers rely heavily on design to market their products, the companies have begun to beef up their design protections more than in the past, he said.
“It’s not as if they’re saying they’re not going to protect their utility patents, but they’re bolstering their protection of their design,” Ainsworth said. “A lot of the industry is driven by the aesthetic look.”
In late August 2015, Zeeland-based Herman Miller Inc. also made headlines with its lawsuit against New York-based retailer Madison Seating LLC, as MiBiz previously reported. Herman Miller (Nasdaq: MLHR) alleged that the company improperly marketed its products and used the Herman Miller trademark without authorization.
Experts who track the office furniture industry say intellectual property disputes, whether regarding trademarks or patents, are not uncommon — especially since there are only a handful of major OEMs.
“Everyone tries to protect the R&D they put into to developing their product line,” Ainsworth said. “It’s common in the industry for people to try to knock off some of the larger companies that spend a lot of money to come up with those products that are more useful.”
A Haworth spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation, citing company policy. Executives at Exemplis were not available for comment as this report went to press.
Haworth is being represented in the case by Grand Rapids-based Warner, Norcross & Judd LLP.