Wartime scrap aluminum leads to Emeco’s invincible chair

by David F Salter

Never has satisfaction been achieved on so many levels from the simple act of sitting down.

Rarely has one product created such a successful enterprise. Enter the 1006 Navy chair, created in 1944 by Emeco Industries Inc., a specialty chair manufacturing company in Hanover. At a time when scrap aluminum was available and plentiful, a resourceful man by the name of Wilton Carlyle Dinges established the Electrical Machine and Equipment Co. (Emeco). Dinges employed local steel workers and figured out a way to manufacture a chair that could withstand almost anything. His 77—step process made the recycled aluminum resistant and strong.

The United States Navy thought so much of the chair that it gave Emeco a government contract, and the company grew from that point. The chair survived salt water and salt air, and it was found to be nearly indestructible.

As World War II wound down and ships came in, the chair found its way into secondhand stores, because it was incredibly sturdy. But while the chair withstood war and the Navy, business was not as sturdy.

Jump to 1998, when Gregg Buchbinder, a young man with an entrepreneurial spirit, an eye for engineering and architecture, and a love of the environment catapulted the company to a new era. Buchbinder grew up with an engineer for a dad and an interior designer for a mom, both of whom had some experience with secondhand furniture. He also spent a lot of time at the beach.

“I used to surf, and I cared deeply about the environment,” the owner and CEO said. “When I saw Emeco, it really resonated with me. It spoke so well to me. The 1006 Navy chair was the most robust produced product you could conceive of. From an environmental standpoint, it was made 80 percent from recycled materials, and it was tested to last 150 years. All those things were contained in one chair.

“Once I got to the factory and saw the craftsmanship and saw the process, a wonderful process, it was too important a company to go away.” The challenge For Buchbinder was how to make the company profitable again. He knew he had to reach new markets and he had to develop new products.

Buchbinder took the 1006 Navy chair to New York City, and he began to visit furniture stores and vintage stores. While those in the business knew of the chair, they didn’t want a new Navy chair, and that reinforced Buchbinder’s notions.

Call it serendipity, good fortune, or whatever you will, but that trip was the turning point for him and the business. While in New York, there was a furniture trade show that was too expensive for Buchbinder to attend. But he was able to wrangle a free pass so he could walk the show. He was staying at the Paramount Hotel, where a designer had taken the Navy 1006 chair and had made some modifications to it, and it was being used in the hotel.

“Philippe Starck had taken the Navy chair and put a Slipcover over it and an ‘axe handle’ in the back, and that’s the chair that was in the hotel,” Buchbinder explained. “I’m walking the trade show, and who is coming down the aisle toward me but Starck. I said to him, ‘I like what you did with the Navy chair at the Paramount Hotel.’ He asked me how I knew of it, and I told him that I owned the company. He said he thought it would be a bunch of old Navy men.

“He said he had other ideas, and I said I’m interested but I can’t afford to pay you,” Buchbinder continued. “We sat down and worked something out. He pulled out a magazine and drew on the back cover, different ideas he had for chairs. Right there, the Hudson chair, the stools and the Heritage Collection were born. All of these things he had really thought about for a long time.”

That led the duo to the Hudson Hotel, for which they created the Hudson chair. It was this first partnership that also took the company from being an industrial company to a design company. Buchbinder and his team now work with a number of designers and architects to create chairs that end up in hospitals and restaurants as well as museums. The one constant in the evolution of Emeco is its manufacturing roots in Hanover.

“First, we have an incredible focus on craft,” Buchbinder said. “We have so much hand work and we need skilled craftsmen. We have those skilled craftsmen in that area, people who are very prideful and very dedicated to their work. It’s a big advantage.

“Second, the company originally was located to service the shipyards all along the Eastern Seaboard,” Buchbinder said. “We still do a tremendous amount of work on the Eastern Seaboard, and we also ship a lot to Europe, so the location makes a lot of sense.

“Third, we have a lot of suppliers for everything we need to make our product located around Hanover,” he added. “There is less impact on the environment, less cost and less travel.” During the first week in April, Buchbinder and his team traveled to Milan, Italy, to participate in Salone del Mobile Milan, one of the biggest furniture trade shows in the world. It’s so prestigious that only two or three American companies are allowed to show there. And it’s all because of an aluminum chair.