If the name “Navy Chair” doesn’t ring any immediate bells for you, we bet that the sight of one in all its brushed aluminum, minimalist glory will definitely make the memory neurons fire in your brain. Emeco’s Navy Chair — a seamless, aluminum frame that is formed perfectly for ergonomics and doesn’t fuss with ornamentation — is only one of many of Emeco’s fine furniture offerings.
Before Gregg Buchbinder signed on to lead Emeco, the company was well-known, but mostly for supplying the famous Navy Chairs to institutional clients (and yes, the Navy). But, seeing that a few minimal-loving architects were starting to incorporate Emeco’s sleek designs in their spaces, Gregg seized on the market. Now, you hardly see a modernly-designed space without a Navy Chair. The best part about this company though? It’s not even about looks at all. They’re about making products that last. They’re even aiming to move their company toward a model that doesn’t put anything in a landfill. Now that’s cool. We got to talk to Gregg on the phone. This is what he had to say:
2Modern: We are on the phone Gregg Buchbinder. He is the CEO of Emeco. Thank you for talking with me.
Gregg Buchbinder: You’re very welcome.
2M: Describe your company’s style to someone who’s maybe never heard of it.
GB: Well our company isn’t really about style. Like the famous Navy Chair…it was a purpose-built chair 67-years ago solving a problem for the US Navy. They needed something light weight, non-corrosive, super strong, fire-proof, all these things…and Emeco came up with a solution. We used the same configuration, style or one might say style, for a new chair when we were solving a problem for Coca-Cola. And we did that because it wasn’t about a trend or a style, it was about the material. So our focus at Emeco is just to make things last, not follow trends, do things that our timeless.
2M: So does everyone at the company have a couple of Navy chairs at their house?
GB: You know it’s interesting, when the guys retire we have a lot of old guys who have been craftsman at the factory for many years, we always make a special chair for them – whatever they want. It’s a one-off custom chair, and whatever they can envision we do. So whenever someone retires they definitely get a chair. And most of the guys probably in some way have a prototype of a chair that we’ve worked for one of the chairs. So usually people do have a chair at home.
2M: Well I want to get right into the green talking because I know your company strives so hard to be eco-friendly, not just in material but in ideas.
GB: Well at Emeco we really have a higher purpose. The goal is to not to have anything go into landfills 100 years from now. And what we’d like to do is what we’re doing. Like our basic chair we take 80% recycled materials and we make it into a chair that is virtually indescructable. That can last—that has been tested to last—over 150 years. That’s the goal. To take things out of the landfills and make high quality things. So like when Phillipe Starke worked with us he said, he coined it “heritage begets recycling.” When you make something so well it never has to get recycled. So we’re the opposite of a company that says let’s recycle. We’re a company that says let’s just make things really well out of recycled material so you don’t have to recycle ever again.
2M: How do you guys stay so relevant?
GB: Well I think a couple of things. One, certainly our future will one day be our heritage. We do have to stay current, we do have to do things. Like when we had the order for the Hudson Hotel…it was a 1000 chairs they needed polished. And we have never polished before. In the 66 years that Emeco existed, we had to learn a new skill. Every time we work with a new designer whether it’s Phillipe Starke or Frank Gehry or Norman Foster, they always push us to do new things. In that case we had to learn how to polish. Thankfully we were down the road from the Harley Davidson factory, in York, Pennsylvania. And they taught us how to polish aluminum. And now it’s a big area in our factory set up to polish aluminum. So we’re always pushed because of our collaborations with people with different lenses. So that keeps us young and fresh and vibrant and new.
2M: And how about you? How did you become the CEO of such an amazing company?
GB: Well I acquired the company back in 1998 and what I saw in the company was a company that has this amazing material and process—a 77 step process—and this craftsmanship and it was all focused on the U.S. government. My vision was, how can we take this extraordinary process and this incredible chair that’s 88% recycled and really focus on architects and designers because I think there’s a market there. So that became my quest. And I’ve been working on that for about 12 years or so.
2M: That’s great! I guess I just always assumed it was discovered by designers and that’s how it became to be spotted in every architectural magazine. But you’re saying that you decided to see what other markets it could fit into?
GB: Well yeah certainly, Ettore Sottsass, who we have done a project with, he discovered Emeco back in the 1970s when he was doing his three stores in Europe. He had spent some time in the U.S. and had discovered the chairs which at the time were used strictly used for institutional purposes – for jails, schools, whatever—and what he was designing was spectacular and really nice homes and retail locations. And he would put our chairs in a nice setting like a dining room and people would say, you know, wow that’s interesting. But he saw the beauty in the product we’re making. Most people just saw a metal institutional chair but he saw the craftsmanship. So he started using it back in the 1970s and then other people started using it at the time, probably in the early ‘80s it got published in Vogue in Italy and people like Frank Gehry and Philippe Starke and Terrence Conran found it, so there were people who found it whose use was very limited. So I knew there was a potential for another market outside of the government market. So yes, there had been architects who discovered the chair but it wasn’t at very much use at the time.
2M: What is your favorite thing about being the CEO of a high-quality, classic, aweomse, long-lasting, eco-friendly company?
GB: My favorite thing is the people. The people that work here are real. They’re not affected by…it’s a small town in Hanover, Pennsylvania. For the most part they don’t follow design or they don’t follow fashion. They’re real people who do things purposely. The average guy that’s there can sketch up and design and build his own home from the ground up…from the plumbing to the electrical to the carpeting and it’s amazing the level of talent and craftsmanship you find here. The skill level of these people. I just admire them so much. We had this last year, one of the guys had his 50th anniversary here at the factory and it’s just so amazing how this guy spent 50 years of his life. There’s a whole group of guys here that this has been their whole life’s work. I just really admire and appreciate that. So that’s probably one of the most special things about it is the people are extraordinary. But I also get the opportunity to work with some of the top thinkers of the world. And to sit down and work with a guy like Frank Gehry and do something very innovative. And something that at a company like Emeco, we’re able to take on projects that most companies won’t because they’re way outside the normal boundaries that most companies would do. We’re not driven by marketing or what the trends are or focus groups. We just work directly with design people and see what their lens is and try our best to create what they visualize.
2M: You’ve been listening to a 2Modern designer interview. For more fun podcasts and design posts check out the blog at 2Modern.com.