The Chairman and CEO of Emeco was in Singapore to launch the Broom and SoSo chairs at Space. We spoke to him about sustainability in design and business.
24 January, 2013
1006 ’Navy Chair’, Broom chair and 111 ’Navy Chair’ (a collaboration with Coca-Cola)
When Gregg Buchbinder (pictured left at top), the American son of an interior designer and an engineer, purchased the Emeco company in 1998, it had just one client: the US Government.
Having been established in 1944, the Electrical Machine and Equipment Company (Emeco) was soon tasked with creating a lightweight chair that could withstand water, salty air and sailors. The durable aluminium 1006 chair, or ‘Navy Chair’ as it became known, is still in production today. And it is still made to last by human hands in an intensive 77-step process.
“First, let’s make things that last,” is Emeco’s mantra today. And along with its continuing philosophy of manufacture for longevity is its focus on using recycled materials. The company’s foundations were laid at a time when recycling was seen as part of the ‘war effort’. Today, Emeco pushes the message of sustainable design in a very different context. The company’s philosophy, though, is not that different to what it was in 1944.
SoSo aluminium chair and stool, designed by Jean Nouvel
Please introduce us to Emeco’s latest chairs – SoSo by Jean Nouvel and Broom by Philippe Starck.
These are two very different chairs that take two different directions. Jean Nouvel took our traditional 77-step process, our traditional craftsmanship and our traditional material. It’s 80% recycled aluminium made into something that will last forever. He wanted to keep the heritage of the  chair – from an aesthetic, environmental and craftsmanship standpoint. So he’s leveraged everything we do, and given it a different shape.
Broom chair, designed by Phiippe Starck and made with waste materials
Broom is about the whole process of material use and production. It’s made of 90% industrial waste – waste wood swept up from the factory floor, and waste polypropylene. We worked with scientists on formulating the material, and then with engineers to make the structure. It’s gas injected, so it’s very strong. It appears to be just a normal everyday plastic chair, but in fact it’s a really durable, sustainable chair that’s made to last a long time.
Tell us about the styling of these chairs. What gives these products ‘emotional durability’ or ‘eternal appeal’?
We’re really style averse; we’re not a company that’s trying to make something you’ll want to upgrade next year. We want people to say, ‘I don’t need to buy more; I already have a chair that does the trick.’
Our goal is to get people to keep our chairs or pass them down to someone else. Rather than recycling the chair when you’re done, give it to someone else who can use it for their lifetime. That, to me, is the ideal way to make something sustainable. I think as a society we need to start thinking that way, because we’re trashing the planet and it’s time we started to change the way we do things.
1006 and 111 ’Navy Chairs’ with Broom chairs
You’re encouraging people to buy less. What does that mean for your business?
Well it’s not a popular philosophy among business people! There are several things that help us to follow that philosophy. One is that we have no shareholders except me. I have nobody to answer to. I can do things because they’re the right things, rather than worrying about where the bottom line is. Number two, the world is big and we’re now selling in 50 countries. We might have to go further to find more customers, but we’re able to do that.
And number three, I think people recognise that there are good applications for our chairs; they can use them in schools, homes, offices, restaurants, indoors or outdoors, and they only have to buy them once.
Wood fibres are visible in the Broom chair
How many staff do you have?
60. It’s a small company.
How many of those people are doing the manufacturing?
The majority. We have a small office. It’s a fairly straightforward operation. It’s a small, cohesive team.
Philippe Starck and Gregg Buchbinder in 2000, after they commenced their collaboration
How do you choose which designers you’ll collaborate with?
Well I met Starck by accident at a trade show. He said he had always wanted to do a chair for Emeco. That was interesting. And Frank Gehry had bought a bunch of Emeco chairs, and I went over to his office to see them and met him. We ended up collaborating.
At this point, Emeco has built up a great reputation for building high-quality products, and for most architects or designers, the idea of doing something that can last that long is attractive. They know Emeco has a pretty good shot at doing something that will be a significant product. A lot of people want to work with us.
Buchbinder testing the strength of a chair
Top image: Gregg Buchbinder, Philippe Starck and the Broom chair
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