As a continuation of our explorative series of classic and modern design in collaboration with Be Original, I spoke with Gregg Buchbinder, CEO of Emeco about the historic, often imitated but never duplicated, Navy chair.
Emeco (Electric Machine and Equipment Company) was founded in 1940 in Hanover, PA. Drawing upon the ability of local craftsmen on the East Coast, Wilton C. Dinges founded the initial furniture venture using scrap aluminum to create chairs, tables and lockers for the American Government.
Emeco engaged in the challenge of research and experimentation and the defining moment was when the firm entered the quest to fit the new Navy submarines with chairs strong enough to withstand torpedo blasts. Together with Alcoa experts, Wilton C. Dinges created the 1006 Navy Chair made of recycled aluminum, using 77 steps to create a seamless one-piece look. The Navy Chair was a chair so durable, it had an estimated life cycle of 150 years and far exceeded the Navy’s specifications.
In the boomtown Post-War years, Emeco branched out, outfitting not only The Navy, but also federal prisons, state hospitals and government offices. Hundreds of thousands of chairs were handmade and sold to the government.
In 1998, Gregg Buchbinder purchased Emeco and repositioned the company making chairs for architects, designers and retailers. He started working with names like Philippe Starck and Frank Gehry and Ettore Sottsass… and the rest is design history—a history that is not only still relevant today but Emeco hasn’t stopped innovating. They just released a new chair by Starck that’s essentially made from trash and an armchair by Konstantin Grcic.
When I first took over Emeco, we only had sales reps who called on the US Government – Navy ships, submarines, prisons, etc. The sales had dwindled down to almost nothing. I was at Emeco and I heard our customer service employee, Paulina, yelling into the phone, ‘No, I will not ship your chairs! You send the money first.’ I asked her who was on the phone and she said, ‘Somebody – Giorgio Armani.’ I looked through the file cabinet to see who was ordering chairs and found a recent order from Ian Schrager’s office ordering chairs for the Paramount hotel. Terrence Conran was also ordering chairs. This is when I decided Emeco needed to find a new market in order to survive.
There was a photo on the cover of House Beautiful magazine in 1998, showing Hugh Hardy’s dining room with Emeco 1006 Navy chairs at the table. I realized that people who knew timeless quality and design were choosing our chairs.
The 77 steps used to create a Navy Chair hasn’t changed over the past 70 years. It takes three days of work by 12 to 14 different craftsmen to make an Emeco 1006 Navy Chair. The 1006 chair is made by hand by skilled craftsmen, some of whom have been with Emeco for over 45 years perfecting their skills. Emeco’s factory in Hanover is one of the few remaining manufacturing plants in the area, and relies on the local heritage of manufacturing expertise brought to the United States by German immigrants over 100 years ago. Emeco looks towards the future by implementing the latest manufacturing techniques and apprenticeship programs.
Here are some of the steps involved in the manufacturing process:
FORMING, WELDING & GRINDING. Emeco starts with soft ‘0’ temper aluminum to achieve smooth curves and fluid form. Pieces are then assembled with hundreds of inches of hand welding. Emeco craftsmen grind the welds for a one-piece appearance. Polishers are specially trained to produce a hand polished finish that is as close to perfection as possible.
HEAT TREATING. A proprietary heat treatment has three steps to strengthen the chair. A 959ºF / 515ºC salt bath takes the aluminum from 0 temper to T4, the chair is squared up to eliminate wobble, and then baked overnight in a special aging oven taking the aluminum up to T6 in hardness, which makes the aluminum up to 3 times stronger than steel.
HAND FINISHING & POLISHING. Every inch of each brushed-finish chair is hand brushed in the direction of the aluminum grain. This procedure alone takes years to master. It takes 4 man-hours to hand brush an Emeco chair and additional 8 hours to polish one. No other aluminum product is hand finished with as much time and skill as an Emeco chair.
ANODIZING. Through this electrolytic process, the surface of an aluminum chair transforms from aluminum to aluminum oxide, a very durable finish. Aluminum oxide is next to the hardness of a diamond.
The design, material, and elaborate time-consuming manufacturing process done by the hands of craftsmen since 1944 are still the same. That’s likely why the process, products and company itself has stood the test of time. The 1006 Navy Chair has always been made with the highest standard for quality in authentic design, material, and craftsmanship, and always guaranteed to last.
Because of the timelessness of the design, its form has become ubiquitous—so much so, that it’s probably one of the most knocked off chairs in the industry. Gregg explains that “Everyone in our company can speak with passion on the value of buying an authentic Emeco chair and not a knock-off. We have specific points we go over and particular things we tell our customers.” They reinforce the following points:
1. Spend your money once
2. Our chairs last 150 years
3. Our chairs won’t break and endanger the person sitting in them.
4. The materials we use are part of an environmental consciousness that is protecting the earth’s resources.
5. Our chairs support anti “consuming” and the value of owning things you’ll hand down for generations, not throw away.
6. We’re not trendy – “Timeless and Classic” is always a good purchase.
In 2010, Emeco released the 111 Navy Chair, a bright red Navy chair made of 80% recycled Coca-Cola bottles. The partnership began back in 2006, when Coca-Cola approached Emeco to solve an environmental problem—how to take their bottles out of the landfill and upcycle them into something that would last a long time. Emeco committed to the challenge with the new material, taking soft recycled PET plastic, originally intended for short-lived fabric and textiles, and build a tough, one-piece, scratch-resistant chair for heavy-duty use.
“Although re-engineering a core product was a significant investment for us, I was excited about the impact of using the rPET from millions of bottles each year. We’ve turned something many people throw away into something you want and keep for long, long time,” said Buchbinder. The 111 Navy Chair is not just a solution to a problem, but an encouragement to developing environmentally sound structural materials.
So what does the future hold for this company that’s approaching elderly status? Buchbinder explained that Emeco is to continue to explore ways to reuse waste materials and make things that last: What is old will become new again.