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It All Started with a Chair: When Philippe Met Emeco

It all started with a chair. And not just any chair. In 1944, Emeco (back then more commonly known as the Electrical Machine and Equipment Company) was tasked with manufacturing a chair that would serve the US Navy during wartime. At the time, the small factory in Hanover, Pennsylvania could hardly know that they had a modern classic on their hands. The Navy Chair was born, and the rest is history.

Despite its celebrity as an iconic piece of design, Emeco’s Navy Chair wasn’t born with style in mind. Made specifically for use on submarines, the design needed to be lightweight, strong, durable, and most importantly—withstand the elements of a life at sea: water, salty air, and sailors. ­­

This led to a 77-step process that, to this day, requires human hands. Craftsmen form, weld, and temper soft, recycled aluminum into a final piece that is so durable it is guaranteed to last a lifetime. Pair that with an affinity for discovering innovative and eco-friendly new materials (including the salvaged aluminum that makes up the Navy Chair), and you’ve got grade-A, USA-made seating that is designed to last, to perform, and to be admired today and tomorrow.

Emeco factory worker, making a Navy Armchair in the 1940s.

Now, why ruin a good thing? For over 50 years Emeco was known for the Navy Chair. But it was time for a change. This is where famed designer, Philippe Starck, came in.

In 1998, Greg Buchbinder took control over Emeco and sought ways to revitalize the company, which was struggling to survive with the one chair (albeit a great chair) in their catalog. That’s when he saw designers like Philippe Starck and Ettore Sottsass using the Navy Chair in non-traditional ways. (For example, Starck had included the Navy Chair in his design for the Paramount Hotel in NYC.)

Buchbinder reached out to Starck to get his thoughts. Little did they know, their friendship would spark a new chapter for Emeco that has led to an impressive series of chairs, stools, and tables that live up to the Emeco standards of quality and timelessness.

Emeco Navy Armchairs in the Paramount Hotel, New York

So, what was it about that chair that inspired Starck to include it in his hotel designs to begin with?

The pure simplicity and utilitarianism of the Navy Chair is the perfect canvas for creativity…at least in the modern sense. With such simplicity, you can build on it infinitely. For someone like Philippe Starck, with such an imaginative approach to design, that chair was the perfect balancing act for his own brand of design.

Like the adage that states “necessity is the mother of invention,” in the case of the Navy Chair (at least for Philippe Starck and others) the simplicity was the mother of new types of modern creativity, and the evolution of Emeco inevitably followed. Starck’s first design for Emeco in 2000 sought to simplify the Navy Chair even more; he described his Hudson Chair as “washing the details from the Navy Chair.”

Apart from new forms, one of the most dramatic evolutions Emeco has gone through has been that of materials. Having mastered the use of salvaged aluminum for their most famous chair (and many others), Emeco followed a path of material innovation that is hard to beat, with the help of Starck, Frank Gehry (pretty impressive!), Jasper Morrison and others. The 111 Navy Chairs, for instance, are made of exactly 111 (no more, no less) recycled PET bottles–designed in collaboration with Coca-Cola in 2010.

Other materials include recycled wood composites that are blended with polypropylene, which have been used in designs like the Broom Chair by Starck and the Alfi collection by Morrison. Emeco has even created an eco-friendly concrete composite that reduces stress to the environment all while having the same fortitude and look of natural concrete.

Getting back to simplicity and necessity, meeting Philippe Starck was the catalyst that expanded the Emeco collection with a range of chairs that are designed to last a lifetime, all with eco-friendly practices in mind.

People like a good story, and the Navy Chair is one rich with history. And who doesn’t want a piece of history? That unpretentious, modest silhouette born out of a need for something functional brought on a poetic admiration for the Navy Chair. That’s what Philippe Starck saw in Emeco, and as they say, the rest is history.

Sarah Chappell

Sarah Chappell

Ever since receiving her first home décor magazine at a young age, Sarah has been drawn to the design world, leading her to work creatively as the Marketing Production Coordinator at YDesign Group. When she is not gushing over interior design on the interwebs, she is usually writing about it. In her off time you can find her hiking, enjoying a nice long brunch, and exploring the awesomeness of Northern California. IG: @sarahwinningham

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