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A Day in the Life: The Navy Chair

It takes 77 steps to create a chair designed to withstand three of the most destructive forces known to man: water, salt, and sailors.

Let’s preface that with a bit of history.

In 1940, Wilton C. Dinges founded the Electric Machine and Equipment Company in Hanover, Pennsylvania, with no more than $300 in his pocket and began bidding on government contracts for such things as antennas and jet engine parts. He soon purchased 10,000 pounds of scrap aluminum and set to work making table legs and chair frames. In 1944, the U.S. government contracted Emeco to manufacture aluminum lockers, bunks and assorted furniture for the Navy to aid in the war effort.

And this is where the Navy Chair comes in. It had to be able to put up with rough treatment by sailors and harsh conditions. It had to be lightweight for ease of transport and for use on submarines. And it had to be long-lasting, so Uncle Sam would get plenty of mileage out of the contract. Aluminum was durable, light, and tough—and Emeco had plenty of it.

Aluminum on its own is a soft metal; if you’ve ever been in a kitchen, aluminum foil may spring to mind. But when properly treated, aluminum is tough as nails (literally). The malleable material can be reprocessed countless times, too, without losing volume or strength, so it’s highly recyclable. It’s also non-magnetic, antibacterial, non-corrosive, fireproof—its virtues read like a wishlist of properties needed for that durable submarine-faring seat.

So where do the 77 steps come in? First, the raw recycled aluminum scrap metal is bent into the chair’s shape, its softness producing a smooth, curvaceous silhouette that isn’t possible to produce in stiffer metals. Next, welders join the chair, giving it strength and durability without any additional hardware. These artisan welders ensure smooth seams without lumps and bumps to detract from the fluid look of the chair’s design. After joining, the chair is treated in a proprietary process that uses heat and salt to toughen the aluminum until it’s stronger than steel—three times stronger, to be exact.

That’s one tough chair. But we’re not done with the 77 steps just yet. Each chair is hand-brushed over every square inch to give it a uniform finish. Then the chair is anodized, which oxidizes the surface of the aluminum and creates an even tougher non-corrosive finish.

Finally, each chair is polished. Three times. By hand. The polishing process alone takes eight hours to complete. Each step in the process is carefully administered by expert craftspeople, who understand the original Emeco ethos that only a human eye can tell when a design is complete, and only a human hand can get it to that state.

With all the steps, time, and care involved in the creation of a Navy Chair, it should come as no surprise that they’re built to last. In fact, they have an estimated 150-year life cycle, which far exceeded the specs demanded by the U.S. Navy when they contracted the chairs. Emeco’s brand mission is to make things that last, helping to improve recycling efforts by creating items that can be handed down over generations rather than contributing to a consumer-driven waste culture.

To this end, Emeco partnered with Coca-Cola to produce a new iteration of the famous aluminum design, the 111 Navy Chair, each created from 111 recycled PET plastic bottles and glass fiber. It has the same silhouette but is made in an array of colors, with a super durable construction that can go indoors and out. To date, the partnership has repurposed more than 28 million plastic bottles that were destined for landfills.

The Navy Chair collection has expanded beyond the original design over the years to include office chairs, upholstered seats, armchairs, and bar stools. A stalwart of American design, born of necessity and beloved for its ingenuity, craftsmanship, and timeless style. See it and all its iterations here.

Kelsey Kittle

Kelsey Kittle

When she’s not polishing up promotions as a Web Content Specialist, Kelsey is practicing how to properly pronounce Danish, if only to be able to say “home is where the ‘hygge’ is.” Aside from Scandinavian design, she spends a lot of time thinking about organic gardening, mini farms, honey bees and England.

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