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Behind the Design: Navy Chair

Navy Chair and Navy Armchair by Emeco

Behind the Design: The Navy Chair

Born of necessity and built to last, Emeco’s iconic design stands up to war,
weather and the test of time.

Written by Cody Torgersrud

Icons are not made overnight. They are built from great ideas, obsessive design, decades of dedication and a little dumb luck. The Emeco Navy Chair has this and more in spades.

The unassuming design was not the brainchild of a design enfant terrible or the machinations of a Pritzker winner. The Navy Chair was simply the result of the most basic of design challenges: make something to meet a need. The need was, as the name implies, one of a military nature.

Emeco was founded as the Electrical Machine and Equipment Company in Hanover, Pennsylvania, in 1940. Their big break came in 1944 in the form of a contract to design and manufacture a chair for the US Navy. This was a chair that needed to stand up to the salt air and rough seas that the Navy had to endure during WWII.

Therein lay the challenge. How do you take a factory of steelworkers and create a practical, functional and durable object with limited resources for the ultimate client? Thus, was born the Emeco 1006, or as we more commonly know it, the Navy Chair. The design is simple, sturdy and comfortable. The original included eye bolts on the feet to ensure that they would stay in place through rough seas and even rougher combat.

As for the material, there was a novel solution as well. During the war, traditional materials like steel were sparse. But there was a surplus of salvaged aluminum, so a common-sense decision was made to use it. To this day, every Navy Chair is made from recycled aluminum. Emeco takes this soft, malleable metal and—through a 77-step process that includes a balmy 960-degree saltwater bath and baking in a custom oven—transforms it into a finished chair that is three times stronger than steel.

It is not just a novel process or a clever design that makes the Navy Chair what it is. The chair is literally made by hand. The assembly, treatment and triple polishing (clocking in at eight hours of labor all on its own) are all part of what makes the Navy Chair an item from another time, and something designed for the future.

While the look of the Navy Chair is easy to copy—many have tried—it is this dedication to the craft that is much more elusive and what sets the chair apart from the multiple knockoffs out there. The ethos behind the brand is simple: Make something that will last and not need to be replaced, even after being thrown out of a multistory office (there’s video to prove it. See below.) And while this is highly idealistic and displays a level of design morals that few exercise, it can have a downside in the business world. Repeat traffic can be slim when your product never needs to be replaced.

By the ‘90s, Emeco was facing trouble. When Greg Buchbinder took the helm, he knew this. But he also saw orders coming in from prominent names in the design world, including a then fresh-faced Phillipe Starck. Seeing the potential for growth and development, Buchbinder took the leap, fostering relationships with designers and brands, and thrusting the Navy Chair into homes, hotels and restaurants—spaces far outside the institutional and military realm they once inhabited.

It was also around this time that the company created its first new design in over half a century: the Hudson, in collaboration with Starck for the Hudson Hotel in New York. Partnering with high-caliber designers like Starck put Emeco on the map in a whole new way, spawning a slew of iterations of the original chair as well as a whole stable of designs built around the ethos of the first.

A playful take on the Navy Chair came from a collaboration between Emeco and Coca-Cola. The 111 Navy Chair is an expression of the dedication to recycling that Emeco embodies. Made from recycled PET bottles, exactly 111 of them, the chair mimics the original in form and function but introduces the design to a whole new generation with its range of colors.

Variations on the Navy Chair design include side chairs, arm chairs, counter stools and bar stools, all in standard metal or wood-seated versions. Supplementing the classic are a slew of other designs, including the Nine-0 from Ettore Sottsass (his last chair design, based off his own 1006 chair) and the 1 Inch by Jasper Morrison, an exploration of the minimalism that can be accomplished with the strength of Emeco materials. While these designs all carry the signatures of the names that shaped them, there is an undeniable Navy family resemblance all the way through.

The 1006, the original Navy Chair, has shaped generations of those who sat on them, and inspired some of the greatest names in modern design. Solid and strong, yet unassuming, the Navy Chair can truly be called an icon of our time.