War & Peace – The Evolution of the Emeco Navy Chair

I have a confession – I love to visit my local Corporate Culture showroom. It is a chance to marvel at truly inspiring furniture design. They have room after room of magic, and the brilliant curators (as I call the staff) can tell you all you want to know about each beautiful piece. This time I was captivated by one of my all time favourite chairs – the Emeco 1006 (pronounced “ten-oh-six”) or better known as the Navy chair.

The Famous Emeco 1006 (aka the Navy Chair)

If chairs were the ancient Greek city states, then the Navy chair would surely be Sparta. It was born for a life at war. Built for function, not beauty. The stories that surround it are legendary. And its place in the list of design classics is as well deserved as the heroic status of the Spartans after the Battle of Thermopylae.

The Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae (movie still from "300")

During WWII the US Navy put out a request for a chair to be designed for service on board submarines and destroyers. The brief was simple, it had to be:

  • corrosion resistant
  • maintenance free
  • very light
  • non magnetic
  • fire proof

 

Oh and strong enough to survive a torpedo blast!

WWII Photograph taken through the periscope of USS Thresher of a torpedoed Japanese ship in the Pacific (photo from National Archives)

Emeco founder and engineer Witton C. “Bud” Dinges took up the challenge using aluminium to create one of the most durable chairs in history. Each chair is built individually over 2 weeks by a handful of craftsmen, 77 painstaking steps at a time. The story goes that when Mr Dinges presented the prototype to the US Navy he proved its durability by calmly walking to the open window and tossing the chair out. It was a sixth floor office! On his return, he sat down on the undamaged chair to hear their feedback. It is unsurprising that the chair exceeded the Navy’s expectations.

Official 1944 US Navy Poster by artist Jon Whitcomb

There was a problem however for Emeco – their chair was too good. They had one client (the US Government) and one product with a life expectancy of 150 years! Even though the government continued to buy the chair after the war to go in correctional facilities and hospitals etc, there came a point when they didn’t need any more because they never had to replace them. Like a true Spartan, Emeco soldiered until it was bought by Jay Buchbinder in 1979 and now run by his son Gregg Buchbinder.

"Sword into Plowshare" by sculptor Evgeniy Vuchetich

Their immediate problem was how to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” and bring this iconic military designed chair to the civilian world. Let’s face it, hospitals & prisons aren’t quite the leap into peacetime civilization. It turns out they had a loyal fan base of top designers who were already using them, they just didn’t know it.

Gregg tells the story of how he once overheard a clerk tell a customer that she didn’t care who he was, she required full payment up front. After she hung up, he asked her who she had been talking to. Turns out it was Giorgio Armani! After looking through the invoices he began to see more famous names appearing.

Philippe Starck - Legendary French Designer

The design gods smiled on Emeco in 1998 when Gregg was at a furniture convention. He saw legendary designer Philippe Starck surrounded by general admirers and hangers on. He boldly went up and thanked Philippe Starck for buying his chairs. Starck had long been a fan of the Navy chair and had dreamt of having an opportunity to work with them but assumed such an old company would be unreceptive to change.

On the contrary, Buchbinder was really open to allowing a new creative mind to collaborate with their high level of master craftsmanship and help put Emeco back on the map. And so the “Emeco by Starck” ranges were born.

Emeco Icon Chair (designed in 2006) by Philippe Starck

“My idea for the new Emeco chair was to design nothing, just transmit the phenomenon of Emeco. The new design is balanced, minimal and coherent; there is serenity. When I close my eyes and think of a chair, I think of this chair — it is an Icon,” – Philippe Starck

Sketch by Philippe Starck of the Kong Barstool

 

Emeco Kong Barstool by Philippe Starck

 

Working with Emeco has allowed me to use a recycled material and transform it into something that never needs to be discarded – a tireless and unbreakable chair to use and enjoy for a lifetime. It is a chair you never own, you just use it for a while until it is the next persons turn. A great chair never should have to be recycled. This is good consideration of nature and man kind.” – Philippe Starck

Emeco by Starck Collection (L to R: Icon, Heritage, Hudson, Kong)

And so now with “Emeco by Starck” there was the Icon, Heritage, Hudson and Kong collections and Emeco was firmly on the design map. With 80% recycled Aluminium and a 150 year life span they had also indirectly gained fame for being a really sustainable product.

Coca Cola of Spartanburg

In 2006 Coca Cola had opened a recycling plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina (yes really Spartan-burg, I am not making that up!) that was recycling thousands of plastic bottles every day. They were looking at ways to show true value of recycled bottles with a product that would be upcycling at its best – an item that would be beautiful, functional but most of all something that would last the test of time.

So naturally they went to Emeco.

Emeco, for a second time, accepted a herculean challenge. Gregg and the team decided to try and remake the classic Navy chair with its mythical strength and durability but this time from recycled plastic.

Plastic Bottle (photo by Dori O'Connell)

The problem with recycled plastic bottles or rPET (Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate) is that it has no structural integrity – which is not all that flash if you are trying to build a really strong chair. But Emeco was a company founded by Mr Dinges – they aren’t mere mortals to be stopped by such mundane laws of physics!

They teamed up with the scientists at BASF and modern day alchemy began. They turned 111 plastic bottles, a pinch of pigment and mixed in some glass fibre to create the 111 Navy chair with a beautiful “earth inspired” colour palette by Laura Guido-Clark.

I love the attention to detail. Even the welds on the back of the Emeco 1006 have been perfectly replicated. And yes the whole chair can be recycled once again.

The 111 Navy Chair Collection (photo by Emeco)

Whilst it may not survive a torpedo attack, it adds a wonderful array of colour to the otherwise classic grey Emeco world. I love to see the chair I love so much, brought back to the forefront of great design once more but this time to deliver a message of sustainability.

I wonder how many products can say they have been an inspiring style icon not once but twice in their life time? Then again I wonder how many products have a 150 year lifespan.

Design Classics - aluminium Emeco 1006 and the recycled plastic 111 Navy Chair

I am a huge fan of the Emeco ethos. They have a devotion to a way of life that is slow, careful, deliberate, and ecological. It is a place where real craftsmanship is valued and there is a old world honesty, pride & integrity in a product that is built to last.

This is how it should be.

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