The Electrical Machine and Equipment Company — Emeco — in Hanover, Pennsylvania is an unlikely business partner for
The story began a few years ago when
“We wanted to demonstrate that something made of recycled plastic can be high-quality, long-lasting and desirable,” says Kelli Sogar, Senior Global Licensing Manager at
Emeco was recommended as a potential partner by Paola Antonelli, the senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Antonelli shared Emeco’s own strange story with
After the war, the military and other government agencies continued to order the chair — named simply 1006 (pronounced 10-o-six) — for bases and institutions around the globe, but they ordered fewer and fewer. And there was virtually no replacement market for the almost-indestructible aluminum chairs.
When Gregg Buchbinder bought the company in the late 1990s, it was on its last legs. But he noticed something interesting: They were getting small orders for the chair from unusual places — The Paramount Hotel in New York (which Philippe Starck was redesigning for hotelier Ian Schrager) and Giorgio Armani in Milan. Architects and designers had rediscovered the chair and found it to be timeless, basic and iconic. Born out of wartime necessity, it was the Jeep of chairs — a design as enduring as the chairs themselves.
Buchbinder decided to double down on what Emeco did well and make sustainable reuse the company’s mission. He had spent a great deal of his California childhood on the beach so preserving nature was important to him — and he believed a new role for Emeco should be making a positive impact on the environment. The 1006 Navy chair, as it was widely known, employed aluminum scrap and the goal was to not only use waste material, but to consume as little energy as possible — it takes 95% less energy to use recycled aluminum — and generate minimum waste in building the durable and beautiful chairs.
Buchbinder forged a number of high-profile alliances with the designers and architects who appreciated the chair: Philippe Starck, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Konstantin Grcic and BMW chief designer Adrian van Hooydonk. But when
Emeco had grown up in an era of wartime scrap drives and the recycling born of patriotism. Its chair was deployed around the world, where American service people were stationed.
So Buchbinder realized that “the guy who was sitting on an Emeco chair in those days was probably also drinking a
The partnership meant Emeco had to deal with the challenges of reusing the plastic PET, which are much greater than reusing aluminum. “Ninety-five percent of all aluminum ever refined is still in use,” says Buchbinder. “That is because it’s expensive to refine aluminum and relatively inexpensive to recycle it.” But PET is different. It is relatively simple to use PET to make products like t-shirts and carpeting, but very difficult to upcycle PET into a structural chair.
The process involves much more than simply melting and remolding, as it depends on the final product. So it took years for chemists, along with Emeco’s Product Chief Magnus Breitling and others, to get the right formula for the new material, called rPET.
Texture and color were critical. “At first we hoped that the look would be some sort of translucent material with lots of bright sparkling colors floating in it,” says Buchbinder. That was not to be. Only a few colors were practical. “For texture we tried to stay away from the shiny slick look of some recycled products. We wanted something that looked classic not trendy.”
Among the manufacturing hurdles, Sogar notes, was “creating an rPET formula that was strong enough for commercial furniture production required specialists at BASF and Emeco to develop an advanced molding technique.”
When the new product is something like a planter or waste receptacle, the demands for the material are less critical, Buchbinder notes. “But a chair has to be sturdy.”
Finally, in 2010, the finished product was ready: an attractive version of the original Emeco chair made of rPET. In keeping with the company’s use of numerical names and the fact that each chair was made of 111 recycled
Buchbinder immediately began receiving calls about the project, and he says he learned a number of lessons that could be useful to other businesses that want to be more environmentally aware.
“First of all,” he says, “don't be overwhelmed by the extent of the problems. I knew we were just a small company and wondered what we could do that was significant and more then drop in the bucket.” But he found out they could do important work.
Also, don't be leery of working with a large corporation. “I thought our small company would be lost beside them and that it would be difficult to find the right people in such a large company,” he says. “But in fact, the opposite turns out to be true. Because it is so large, a company like
Buchbinder believes the power of example can magnify the practical effect of programs like the 111 Navy Chair. “So far we've used 12 million bottles but that just puts a dent in reducing the problem,” he says. “But if we make it cool to use waste materials and inspire others, we can make a more significant impact. It is an exciting time for companies like ours.”
The partnership behind the chair may help change the way the bottles are viewed, says Sogar. “At the
A recent eco-friendly collaboration for Emeco is with Nendo, a Japanese design firm. The companies met when Nendo ordered several 111 Navy Chairs for a project in Tokyo. (Nendo, whose principal designer is Oki Sato, had previously worked with
Now, Nendo has created 'The SU Collection” for Emeco, a new line of stools and tables constructed largely of reclaimed or recycled materials. The stools use the seat bottom shape of the 1006 Navy Chair and are made from three different materials:
The Solid Reclaimed Oak seats have been sourced from old architecture in the United States and carved into the Emeco seat by Amish craftsmen in Pennsylvania.
The Eco-Concrete seats are made of green concrete, which consists of 50 percent recycled glass bottles and 50 percent CSA (calcium sulfoaluminate cement) and takes much less energy to make.
The line made its debut at the Milan Furniture Fair in April and also at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in May.
The name of the collection, SU, comes from a Japanese term that means basic and simple—which could also define the beauty of the original 1006 Navy Chair and the company's sustainability-focused design aesthetic today.