Starck’s Material World

More than ten years in the making, the designer’s new chair pushes Emeco—a manufacturer long famous for its iconic aluminum furniture—in a whole new direction.

You’d be hard-pressed to find mutual admiration more intense than that
which exists between Gregg Buchbinder, the president and CEO of the furniture company Emeco, and Philippe Starck, who needs no introduction. “Gregg is the person who is the most honest I know,” the designer says. “He is pure, like the aluminum which make his chairs, like the fire which weld.” Though devoid of Starck’s flavorsome English, Buchbinder’s praise owns the reverence of a once-lost soul: “He cleaned us up, reinvented us, and helped us see a future.” Their latest joint effort, the Broom side chair, demonstrates that this isn’t hyperbole. The product’s development process, which spanned a decade, is less the story of a chair than of a relationship, and how it transformed a company.

In 1998, when the two first connected at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City, Emeco was in continuous production of a single product—the iconic aluminum 1006 Navy chair, introduced in 1944—“and we were on the verge of going out of business,” Buchbinder admits. Fortuitously, Starck, according to Buchbinder, “had always dreamed of doing chairs for Emeco. That night we met at the Royalton,” Starck’s path-breaking hotel for Ian Schrager, “and he sketched virtually the next couple years of what we made.” Their first collaboration, the Hudson chair, a minor but impactful updating of the 1006, proved enormously successful. “He reintroduced us to the world,” Emeco’s president recalls. “That was a huge thing for us.”

That was but the first step. By 2001, Starck was prodding Buchbinder to consider new directions—specifically, challenging the company to extend beyond aluminum and experiment with other materials. To Starck, the legacy of Emeco lay not in its signature material but in the rigor of its production process, as exemplified by the Navy chair. In response to the wartime need for lightweight, nonmagnetic, virtually indestructible furniture for use at sea, the company’s founder, Wilton Dinges, collaborated with designers, scientists, and engineers on the development of a 77-step process that produced the 1006—the perfect solution to the Navy’s problem. Eventually, Dinges’s purpose-built effort came to be seen, among design aficionados, as an artwork: an everyday object (a wooden office chair) transformed into sculpture via a change in material. Starck, however, wasn’t distracted. “The destiny of Emeco is not to use metal,” he declares. “It is to make the right product.”

In fact, Starck’s one issue with Emeco’s products—their relatively high price—was a consequence of the elaborate, handcrafted process applied to the metal. This, the designer claims, contravened his 30-year-long commitment to democratic design. “I rise the quality, down the price, and try to give to everybody—this is my oldest song,” he says. For those familiar only with his high-glam work, Starck’s interest in affordability may come as a surprise.

No less unexpected is the designer’s commitment to sustainability, a process he describes (in Starcklish) as “positive de-growing”—in effect, making progress without making waste. According to Buchbinder, this means more than reusing materials: “Starck said that recycling was a big lie developed by the marketing people to get the public to consume and throw away. He believes that if you have a heritage of making things well, you never have to recycle them.” It’s a concept that fits Emeco’s profile precisely: from the first, its products were made from 80 percent recycled aluminum, and given a life span of 150 years. “Emeco is a model of positive de-growing,” Starck observes.

The two decided to apply Emeco’s process-based culture toward developing “the right product” for a new age—one made from plastic, “which you can’t compete with from a cost standpoint,” Buchbinder says. “No style, no cultural reference, no signature,” Starck adds. “Just Gregg and me, who take the minimum possible and transform it into the best possible, to make more with less.”

Beginning in the fall of 2001, Starck began to draw what Buchbinder describes as “a simple little bucket chair”—and then the power of aluminum asserted itself. Believing that the material was so integral to the company’s heritage that it couldn’t be excluded entirely, the designer proposed a hybrid, featuring a curved aluminum seat-and-backrest set into a larger plastic structure. “And ultimately, after several years of work, we ended up with the tooling and molding costs of a plastic chair and the tooling costs of a big giant aluminum piece,” Buchbinder says ruefully. “So it was like, ‘Well, that wasn’t such a good idea.’”

The collaboration went into abeyance in late 2003—after which fortune again smiled on Emeco, this time in the form of the Coca-Cola Company. With millions of its empty polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles piling up in landfills, Coke executives wanted to find an organization willing, Buchbinder says, “to successfully upcycle this material into an iconic product that could demonstrate its strength, and inspire other manufacturers to try it as well”—a smart public-relations move that also made environmental sense. In 2006, at the suggestion of the MoMA architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli, Coke approached Buchbinder about crafting a version of the 1006 chair from recycled PET. Recognizing the industrial challenge as being similar to the one posed to Wilton Dinges by the Navy—and a continuation of the journey begun with Starck—Buchbinder jumped in.

Buchbinder and Magnus Breitling, Emeco’s director of product management, worked with the chemical company BASF to develop the 111 chair—so named for the minimum of 111 beverage bottles it contains—an injection-molded product composed of roughly 60 percent PET, as well as glass fiber and pigment. “It took us about four years to get the material right,” Buchbinder recalls (the chair debuted in Milan in 2010), “but it’s been a huge success. We’ve kept more than seven million bottles out of landfills.”

Having effectively achieved what Starck had envisioned—the application of the company’s know-how to a new material—“we had even more of a mission,” Buchbinder says. He was driven by his teenage daughter’s response when, after an exhausting 2006 trip to Milan, he asked, only partly in jest, when she’d be ready to take over Emeco. “And she said, ‘After I save the world—you make chairs, Dad,’ ” Buchbinder recalls. “But she was so proud when we made the 111—that was helping to save the world. It was even more clear that we want to be a company that’s about zero waste,” which he’s made one of Emeco’s formal goals.

Though the 111 was a step in the right direction, Breitling observes, “there is also about 30 percent glass fiber in the chair that’s not recycled.” And so, with the avidity of a bloodhound—“I am a very curious guy,” admits the German-born engineer—Breitling began searching for an all-waste-product compound, a quest complicated by the fact that “the majority of eco-friendly polymers are not so eco-friendly, because they come from a food source like corn.” Breitling’s eureka moment came “while shopping with my wife in some stupid store,” he recalls. Picking up a cutting board made from rice husks, “I’m thinking, it doesn’t make sense, you just need a substrate so you can cut your stuff”—why not use a waste material, instead of a starch-based product? Making the sort of mental leap that can only take place on a boring shopping trip, it occurred to Breitling that using sawdust as a stiffening agent in combination with discarded offcuts of a suitable all-synthetic polymer would result in an almost entirely recycled product. Once Emeco had perfected the mix (15 percent sawdust and 75 percent reclaimed polypropylene, with the remainder consisting of color and mold-flow enhancer), the company returned to Starck’s “simple little bucket chair”—which the designer named Broom, as the raw materials were swept up from factory and workshop floors—and went to work.

Breitling describes the process of creation, which largely unfolded in the late summer of 2011, as “playing ping-pong with Starck’s vision and our ability to manufacture something.” Design modifications were driven by Emeco’s desire to maximize the chair’s strength and stability—the legs were squared and reinforced, the body widened, and the edges of the seat flared upward­—and the gas-assisted injection-molding process was facilitated by hollow channels placed within the chair. Care was also taken, according to Buchbinder, to avoid trendy colors. “You want to know that the design and engineering intelligence is baked in, but we still wanted people to be proud to have it,” he says.

Both Buchbinder and Breitling attest to Starck’s flexibility, and, indeed, the designer claims to have done nothing more than “interpret what the material can do,” as “the political, economical, ecological situation of our civilization today design the chair—not me.” Starck does confess to a certain pride in the success of the exercise. “To go from the dust to a very high-quality product is incredibly modern. This chair speaks of positive de-growing, which is why it’s special for me.”

So far as Buchbinder and Starck are concerned, the journey isn’t over. “We shall continue,” Starck declares. “We go slowly with Gregg because we are not in a hurry. We are not,” he adds pointedly, “in the fashion business.”

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