MADE TO LAST
Emeco works magic with waste
This is a story that smacks of serendipity. When a certain CEO met a certain designer, the two realised not only their own personal joy, but the company and designer concerned both came away smelling of roses. Emeco met Philippe Starck at the very moment the business needed resurrecting, and the two went on to produce an iconic chair that thrilled Starck and saved Emeco. This particular producer continues to exercise its sincere commitment to sustainability by making things that last and last, doing so through the utilisation of waste material. A mentality that is necessary if we are to take responsibility for our planet.
“The roof was leaking and the craftsmen were waiting for the company to close”, says CEO Gregg Buchbinder about the condition in which he found Emeco back in 1998. This was the company that created the legendary Navy Chair in 1944. Today, Emeco is alive and kicking, standing-out not only for its excellent and elegant chairs and stools, but also for its signature sustainable approach. “Our purpose: using waste for making things that last.”
It was when Buchbinder – back then a tanned, longhaired surfer with a passion for design and engineering (his mum was an interior designer, his dad an engineer who worked on projects for Eames, among others) – ran into Philippe Starck at a design fair, that got things moving. Starck was genuinely surprised that the CEO of the company he’d always wanted to design for, was such a young and unconventional guy. “He honestly had expected a bunch of old men in dark suits.” It was the beginning of a long-term collaboration that began with the Hudson Chair: “Starck came to the factory and made some sketches, reassuring us he would respect the soul of the original Navy Chair. And indeed, he worked with the same 77-step process (forming, welding, grinding, heat-treating, finishing, anodising, and much more), the same craftsmen, the same material – he just washed it making it more neutral and added polish. Thus, Starck made the Navy Chair sexy.” Emeco at once reincarnated itself, emerging from a dying business with only one iconic signature product, to the next big thing in the world of design, exactly what Gregg Buchbinder had envisioned: “Our biggest challenge had been how to find new markets, since the American Navy was then Emeco’s only customer. My idea was to focus on designers and architects.” Just as the Hudson Chair, launched in 2000, became the talk of the design-town – Is it Italian? wondered visitors to the Salone del Mobile – the mission was accomplished for the American CEO and the French designer. “Starck had opened the world of designers and architects to us.”
And, as with the original 1006, or Ten-o-six (the official name of the Navy Chair), the Hudson Chair was made of 80% waste. This was because during WWII all metal went into the war industry (so much so that cars had to have wooden doors, but that’s another story), and therefore Emeco had to make its lightweight, non-corrosive, fire resistant, torpedoproof chairs for the American Navy from aluminium waste. It was precisely this, in addition to the craftsmanship, that inspired Gregg Buchbinder: “As a kid from the West Coast I used to surf in the ocean, and it made me resentful to see how pollution and garbage were turning the ocean into a big sewer. I very much liked Emeco’s unique approach to creating long-lasting products (the Navy Chair was designed to last for at least 150 years!) from waste, from stuff that otherwise pollutes the planet.”
Buchbinder further developed the company in this direction, and made sustainability its core purpose, way before that became cool to do. “We don’t focus on lifestyle, we focus on lifecycle and materials. Our products are so strong that they are passed-down through generations – that’s how we define sustainability. And of course, if it fits the purpose, we want to make it beautiful and elegant.” For a very long time, Emeco was swimming against the current of our consumer society. “The Ikea approach is to make it so that it only lasts one year – it’s so cheap that you need to replace it next year with something new. And the marketing guys who sell you the idea of recycling make sure you don’t feel guilty about it. Whereas recycling is trashing the planet just as much, due to the energy and water it takes, so it’s not sustainable at all.” Upcycling is Emeco’s primary objective. “Our policy is: do not recycle! Keep the quality level so high you never have to replace it. Make things that last.”
That said, the 111 Chair comes as a puzzling surprise, since it was developed in collaboration with Coca-Cola, a company known for its questionable labour practices, its causing of negative health effects (obesity), its depriving of local communities from their groundwater in many developing countries, etc. “Initially, it seemed really weird to me, too,” Buchbinder remarks, “so when Coca-Cola first came to me, I was apprehensive and turned them down. But when I learned there was a real sustainability commitment, we started to talk and to research the possibilities.” This took four years, resulting in the 111 Chair in 2010. “For me, the challenge was to keep highly-polluting waste material like PET plastic bottles out of the landfill. To make one 111 Chair, we use 111 bottles of coke – equivalent to the recycling potential of three million bottles per year. After four years of production, we have prevented over 13 million bottles from becoming landfill. Back in 1944, Emeco used aluminium waste to make the Navy Chair; we now use waste material from Coca-Cola to create another long-lasting product. So it makes sense to me.” The 111 Chair is a great success and has become a new, important symbol for Emeco. “Google, for instance, uses it in its London offices. This chair is a sustainability statement.”
Another key player in Emeco’s sustainability philosophy is the Broom Chair (2012) by Philippe Starck. Made of 90% post-industrial waste, 15% comprises of wood fibre from factory waste and 75% reclaimed polypropylene scrap industrial waste. “Imagine a guy who takes a humble broom and starts to clean the workshop”, said Starck, “and with that dust he makes new magic” – hence the name of this upcycled chair.
While Emeco inspires companies to buy upcycled furniture, the company is also eager to share its insights with other businesses. “We have a sense of duty to inspire other companies to act responsibly as well”, says Buchbinder, who fields questions about how to do this for things like lighting. “At Emeco, we do not have all the answers, but we want to share our insights about using waste material to make durable products, in order to reduce the impact on the environment. It’s just a matter of time before our consuming mentality will come to an end. So let’s make things that last.” ‹