As the son of an interior designer mother and a father who designed chairs, Gregg Buchbinder grew up in a tastefully appointed house. This was in the chic surfing town of Huntington Beach, California, during the ’60s heyday of Midcentury Modernism. European design magazines like Domus covered the coffee tables; fiberglass bucket chairs ringed the dining room table. Buchbinder’s favorite chair was in the living room: a classic Charles and Ray Eames lounge chair, a plywood-framed update to the English club chair that Eames once said should have “the warm receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.” “That was the soft place to go,” Buchbinder recently recalled by phone from his studio in Huntington Beach, where he still lives. “We didn’t love it because it was cool but because it was comfortable.”
Its comfort, for Buchbinder, was a result of all the details that had been done right. “As Charles Eames famously said, you can always tell the quality of a chair by the connections. If there’s ever a reason that a chair fails”—a creak, an imbalance—“it’s always the connections.” He held Eames’s adage in mind when, after college, he went to work for his father fabricating steel chairs for cafés and restaurants. And when, in 1998, he bought Emeco—a then-ailing Pennsylvania factory whose simple metal chairs he would bring to the headquarters of Google and Amazon, the campuses of Harvard and Yale, the sets of CBS’s Early Show and Saturday Night Live—it was Eames’s theory of connections he thought of first. Or, rather, the lack of them.
“The process we use—welding, annealing, heat treating—makes the aluminum molecules uniform,” Buchbinder explains. “There are no connections. It’s a time-consuming process that no one can see. But you can tell the difference because of how long these chairs last.”
The 150-year life expectancy of an Emeco chair stems from the stringent specs of Emeco’s first client in 1944: the U.S. Navy, whose submarines required chairs that could withstand a torpedo blast. In 1946, Emeco founder Wilton C. Dinges moved the company to Hanover, Pennsylvania—the home of Utz potato chips—to draw on its manufacturing base. Soon it had 600 workers and a train running through the factory to load government orders—not only for the Navy but also for prisons, hospitals, and Washington offices. By 1955, Emeco was making 200,000 chairs a year.
Dinges’s success came from his duality as an industrialist and an aesthete. A collector of Rodin sculptures, he advertised the Emeco chairs as “sculptured masterworks,” but he also emphasized the strength of the chairs, which were made of aluminum—a lightweight, noncorrosive, fireproof material that could be made three times stronger than steel. For one ad, he had heavyweight wrestlers weighing some 1,700 pounds stand atop a plank balanced on two Emeco chairs. “He prided himself on making chairs that were all one piece,” Buchbinder says, “That’s what made them so strong.”
Dinges ran the company through the early ’70s, until a heart attack confined him to a wheelchair. “Then the company was run by the accountants,” Buchbinder says. “The creativity stopped.” In the late 70s, Buchbinder’s father, who had made his own chairs for the Navy, bought the company from Dinges’s estate. “But my dad never did anything with it,” Buchbinder says. By the ’90s, Emeco was hemorrhaging money—with the Cold War over, the U.S. military was shrinking and government orders were drying up. In 1998, Buchbinder’s father decided to sell. Gregg took out a bank loan and bought it from him.
That fall, Buchbinder paid the factory a visit. “It was raining, and there were barrels on the ground to collect rainwater,” he remembers. “Only a skeleton crew of guys were left.” The workforce had dwindled to fewer than 20. “You could see the dispirited guys just waiting for the company to close. It was like going into a home that hadn’t been taken care of for decades. But you could see good bones.”
That day in the factory, he overheard Emeco’s customer service employee, a Russian woman named Paulina, on the phone with a client. “No, I will not take your order,” she said. “You pay money first!” He asked her who it was. “Oh, someone named Giorgio Armani,” she said. Buchbinder looked through the bookkeeping log: Terence Conran, the London restaurateur and designer; Studio 54 founder Ian Schrager; Frank Gehry; Tiffany’s. All of them were buying the classic 1006 model that Emeco had made for the Navy since 1944.
“That was when I realized we needed to shift our client base from the U.S. government to architects and designers,” Buchbinder says. Two months later, he met the French architect Philippe Starck at the Paramount Hotel in New York, which Starck designed and which stocked Emeco chairs. As Buchbinder remembers it, Starck said he’d always dreamed of designing a chair for Emeco; when Buchbinder replied that he couldn’t afford him, Starck waved his hand, explaining his philosophy of democratic design—he strove to bring high art to the people. In the hotel’s café, they sat in a pair of 1006 chairs and Starck began to sketch what became the Hudson chair.
Starck took his inspiration from the 1006, retaining the legs and the seat; for the back, however, instead of bars, he opted for a solid, shiny piece of metal. Emeco’s fabricators didn’t know how to achieve such an artistic sheen, so they took the chairs 20 miles northwest to York, where Harley-Davidson has its factory. “They showed us how to polish,” says Buchbinder. “You take a lathe and put the chair on a polishing wheel and just polish for eight hours. By the end, the chair looks like a piece of jewelry.”
“It took us from being an industrial company to being a design company,” Buchbinder continues. He began to travel the world with Starck, promoting their new chair and forging partnerships with a dozen acclaimed architects, including Jean Nouvel and Pritzker Prize winner Norman Foster. In 2002, the ultimate starchitect, Frank Gehry, ordered 120 of Starck’s Hudson swivel chairs for his firm’s L.A. office. Buchbinder decided to see the installation. “When I arrived, Frank was in the conference room. I said, ‘Mr. Gehry, why did you choose Emeco chairs?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Hot glue guns and X-acto knives.’ I had to ask one of his guys what he meant. ‘All the chairs we ever use here get destroyed,’ the colleague said. ‘We throw them, we drop stuff on them. But your chairs are indestructible.’”
Suddenly, Gehry beckoned Buchbinder into his office to ask his opinion of a chair. “I picked it up, then sat in it. I told him it was a heavy chair for aluminum, it wasn’t very comfortable, it weighed a lot, it probably wouldn’t hold up all that well because of all the connections, and it probably cost a lot. He said, ‘Let’s do a chair.’”
Inspired by Italian architect Gio Ponti’s minimalist Superleggera chair, Gehry designed the Super Light chair. “It weighs 7 pounds, which isn’t that light,” Buchbinder says. (The 1006 chair also weighs 7 pounds.) “Frank just wanted to make his chair lighter than the Superleggera.” It was more about form—the idea of lightness. “He was building Disney Hall at the time, and he kept describing the structure and skin of the chair, just like a small piece of architecture.”
Not all of Emeco’s partnerships have been purely aesthetic. “My childhood was all about design and environmentalism,” says Buchbinder, who grew up surfing every day. In 2006, when Coca-Cola asked whether he’d consider upcycling some of the 1 billion plastic bottles they send to landfills each year, he was intrigued. “But I didn’t want ‘Coca-Cola’ on it,” he says. “I told them, ‘Let’s not focus on anything other than the material.’” The result was Emeco’s 111 chair, which recreates the Navy chair from 111 plastic Coca-Cola bottles. Buchbinder says the partnership has saved 22 million bottles from landfills and lent a blueprint to companies committed to upcycling plastic waste, including Nike and Adidas.
Today, Emeco employs 62 people. Some are the children and grandchildren of workers who made the same chairs the same way. A few have been there for over 40 years and can remember the Dinges days.
When Buchbinder thinks about the sweat—intellectual and physical—that goes into each chair, he recalls his meeting with Gehry. “Frank said that a chair is about the hardest thing you can do. With architecture, some buildings take 10, 15 years. A chair might be two years. But when you do work that’s super simple, you see every flaw. You’ve got to do it right.”