77 Steps

This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars: In the early 1940s as the War effort ramped up, the Navy put out a proposal for chairs. They needed a chair that was fireproof, waterproof, lightweight…and strong enough to survive a torpedo blast. An engineer named Wilton C. Dinges designed a chair he knew would be perfect. A chair made out of aluminum.

Gregg Buchbinder: Wilton Dingus developed a method, a process to take this aluminum and bend it and weld it and grind it and heat treat it… all of these elements, they’re all invisible but part of making something that’s super strong.

RM: That’s Gregg Buchbinder, he knows this chair inside and out.

GB: It’s the most indestructible chair on the planet.

RM: Wilton Dingus proved this by taking his super strong, indestructible aluminum chair up to the eighth floor of the Excelsior Hotel in Chicago…where the navy was holding chair auditions… and he threw it out the window.

GB: It hit the sidewalk and bounced…several times.

RM: I’m retroactively terrified by this whole story.

GB: Someone ran the chair back up..and It was completely perfect… undamaged.

RM: The Navy was impressed, and they gave Wilton Dingus a huge contract.

BW: In order to fill this contract he opened a huge factory… he called his business the Electrical Machine and Equipment Company. Or EMECO.

RM: That’s my fellow Radiotopian Benjamin Walker, host of The Theory of Everything podcast. Benjamin reported this story.

BW: Over the next few decades EMECO shipped hundreds of thousands of these 10-06 Navy chairs to the US government from its factory in Hanover, Pennsylvania.

GB: It became standard issue for all warships, battleships, aircraft carriers, submarines,

BW: It’s aluminum, silver… modern and minimal, not too many flourishes, it doesn’t even have arms… just three slats coming down from the back.

RM: The top is arched, but its squared off a bit on the sides. It’s a utilitarian looking design, except it has one slightly unexpected enhancement: there’s a divot on the seat, for your butt.

BW: In the 1970s EMECO was purchased by a California businessman named Jay Buchbinder, that’s Gregg’s father, but by the 1990s the company was losing a lot money, so Gregg took a trip to the factory to check on things.

RM: When he got there, things looked really bleak for EMECO.

GB: It was a skeleton crew; and the guys were just waiting for the company to close.

BW: The government contracts had long dried up. And Gregg started to think, maybe this place should be shut down. But then, he overheard this phone call between the office manager Paulina, and a mystery customer.

GB: She was on phone.. And she said, “No I will not send your chair, you send us the money first”! and slammed the phone down. And I said “Paulina, who is that”? and she said, “It’s some guy named Giorgio Armani”. and she had no idea who that was, and I started to look through the file cabinets of who we were shipping chairs to.

RM: They were shipping chairs to designers like Giorgio Armani and Terence Conran and hip entrepreneurs like Ian Schrager. Wealthy tastemakers had discovered the beauty of these indestructible Navy surplus chairs. Gregg suddenly realized Emeco could sell to what was mostly, an untapped market.

GB: I just felt right at that time, if we can shift our focus from government sales to focus on architects and designers, that would be an opportunity for us to take this thing and turn it around.

RM: Gregg Buchbinder definitely turned things around. Today EMECO makes new chairs with architects and designers like Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Philippe Starck… And the original 10-06 navy chair has become one of the most iconic chairs in the world. You’ve definitely seen it before. It’s in all kinds of movies and TV shows. It can be seen in The Matrix and Avatar; an upholstered version shows up in the Dark Knight when Batman interrogates the Joker.

TAPE: WHERE ARE THEY?

BW: It’s the chair you see in scenes in prisons and police stations.

RM: It’s also a go-to chair for fancy restaurants, and art galleries, and co-working spaces.
It’s everywhere.

BW: BUT, not all of those chairs are EMECO chairs. A lot of them are knock offs. Fakes.

RM: How can you tell that they’re real?

BW: Oh, you can see the slat at the bottom, it curves… See the bottom slat?

Roman (over Benjamen roman tape) Last month Benjamen walked me around New York city, showing me both real and fake EMECO chairs. Like the fancy diner filled with real EMECO chairs near his apartment in the East Village.

RM: … it has nice chairs and wood, it’s full of people, they look wealthy…(laughs)

RM: Then Benjamen took me to his place to show me his collection of real and fake EMECOs.

RM: Wait so which is the real one?

BW: This is the real one.

BW: This is the first knockoff, that I was kinda excited about because… . if you lift it up you’ll see there’s something immediately wrong.

RM: It’s heavy…

BW: It’s not even made of aluminum!

RM: (laughs..)

RM: Benjamen Walker is obsessed with the real and the fake. What makes something real, and when does it matter. These are questions he’s exploring right now, in a mini series on his show the Theory of Everything.

BW: And for 99% Invisible I wanted to look at the real and the fake as they relate to the design of chairs.

GB: In America today, most people think of design as shape. The average consumer doesn’t realize that design is so much more than that.

BW: To understand what a real EMECO is, you need to understand not just what it looks like but how its made.

GB: There are 77 steps we go through, to produce the navy chair.

BW: That’s why I took a visit, to the factory in pennsylvania.

GB: The first step, actual sheets of aluminum. This sheet is the sheet we’ll use to make seat bottoms from.

BW: One of the most distinctive elements of an EMECO navy chair is the butt shaped divot.
Legend has it that it was modeled after the derriere of Betty Grable, a famous hollywood actress of the 1940s.

RM: But there is absolutely no evidence for this claim.

JB: Growing up, friends would come over and get the giggles about the butt, the butt shape in the seat.

BW: That’s Jaye Buchbinder.. Greg’s daughter, named for her grandfather, Gregg’s father. And she recently started working at EMECO.

BW: Oh man.

GB: Now we’re off to welding.

BW: I didn’t see much automation at the EMECO factory. Just a number of skilled craftspeople.

GB: This is Walt and right now, he’s routing holes into the aluminum extruded tube in order to accept crossbars that go into the tube, in this case, the famous three vertical slats.

BW: The back of the EMECO chair is curved like an upside down U and the three vertical slats come down from the top of this U and meet a curved crossbar.

RM: The three slats don’t go all the way to the seat, they intersect with the crossbar ¾ of the way down. It’s one of the most distinctive design elements of the EMECO shape.

GB: Okay so now we are going over into Department 3 which is grinding. All the welds have to be ground down, except for three.

RM: The original chair they made for the Navy, had a lump of welding at each joint, but when the fancy designers started working with EMECO, they found all the welds to be a little crude, so EMECO ground them down…except for the three welds where the vertical slats meet the arch on the back of the chair.

GB: We leave these three welds on the back as our signature..

(Factory sound)

BW: After the chairs have gone through all this heavy work, they go through a series of water baths.

GB: There’s a total of 5 baths, 1-2-3-4-5, in order to perfect this process..

RM: After 5 salt baths, and a night in a 320 degree oven, this aluminum chair is three times stronger than steel.

GB: It’s the ultimate in sustainability, and kind of the opposite of planned obsolescence.

RM: Many of the designers who work with EMECO wanna see this elaborate process and make the trip out to pennsylvania to meet the workers. Like the famous industrial designer, Philipe Starck, whose visit was filmed by Gregg.

PS: I was obliged for myself to meet you… because, like artist, you make a sculpture. And you reproduce the sculpture every day, and that is a beauty. That’s why when you see your chair, you see love.

RM: According to Gregg, when designers visit the factory, they come away with a deeper appreciation of the workers and the value of the chair, beyond its shape.

GB: When I take an architect through EMECO, the one thing that they always say is, “You should charge more for these chairs”.

RM: A lot of Architects must have a pretty big chair budget, because EMECO chairs are not inexpensive; A new 10-06 navy chair will set you back about $550.

BW: But you can get an EMECO lookalike chair for a lot less.

Madson Buchbinder: There are several websites that have listings from vendors of fakes. Counterfeit chairs

BW: That’s Madson Buchbinder, Gregg’s wife. She does press for the company, but she also has a ritual where she wakes up every morning and scours a number of e-commerce sites for fakes.

MB: and those sites are Houzz, eBay, Amazon, and Alibaba. We have very good luck if it’s an exact copy. I can get those off in a heartbeat.

BW: When companies don’t comply with the their request to take down the look alike, EMECO can take the company to court. This is what happened in 2012 when restoration hardware started selling The Navel Chair

RM: They even knocked off the name!

GB: So when someone is a counterfeiter, that’s typically the kind of things they do in order to give their product, a fake authenticity.

BW: Restoration Hardware settled with EMECO before the case went to court. Gregg’s also gotten other big box companies like Target and IKEA to knock it off with the knockoffs.

RM: He can do this because he has Trade Dress Protection. Trade Dress Protection is designed to protect consumers from the lookalike imitations of name brand products. It’s not protecting the function or use of the product, but just its “dress”, how it looks. And for EMECO, that means the chair’s shape.

GB: That shape belongs to EMECO, nobody can reproduce that shape; so having that kind of protection allows us to be very aggressive when we need to be.

BW: But I met a lawyer, Christopher Sprigman who doesn’t think EMECO deserves this protection.

Christopher Springman: So consumers, in the marketplace, when they look at this chair, unless they are real furniture aficionados, they don’t think “Oh, this is EMECO.” They think, “Oh that’s a chair.” Right? Or “That’s a chair.” or “That’s a pretty chair.” Or “That chair would look good in my living room.” I don’t think the shape of this chair is distinctive. Its an office chair design that’s been around, I have pictures of it from the 20s in department stores and offices. If this had gone to litigation, I think that would have become clear.

BW: Trade Dress Protection is really hard to get for designed products and Christopher Sprigman believes if EMECO ever does end up in court, it risks losing this protection.

RM: What really bothers Christopher is companies like EMECO and Herman Miller and Vitra turning to the law to take knockoffs out of the marketplace..

CS: To the extent that that succeeds, these designs become the territory of the rich and no-one else can access them. But I just wanna put a fine point on this; so this is a family company, that’s their business and I understand that they care about that, but let me just say out there in the world there are a bunch of consumers who want to furnish their homes and you know, this is a country where not everyone is rich. If you want to be stylish and have a house that is nice and you don’t have a ton of money.. You might buy knock off chairs.

BW: In his book, The Knockoff Economy, Christopher makes the argument that these kinds of protections given to expensive things like, chairs and clothing is actually bad for consumers. Because for most people knock offs are as close as they can get to the real thing.

CS: One of the things that is real about them, is that they’re for the rest of us, right? They bring the rest of us into the world of the artist, right? They allow us to participate in the fashion world, even if we can’t afford the stuff that is paraded out on the runway. They allow us to participate.. In the world of industrial design, furniture, kitchen, appliances, etc. even if we can’t afford the super expensive brands. That’s democratizing. I think it makes the country prettier and more enjoyable.

BW: But for Gregg, EMECO knock offs also make the country, the whole planet, worse, by filling landfills with garbage chairs.

GB: All of our product is engineered to be made for the longest life possible.. A knockoff is purely made to be sold, used and thrown away.

BW: Yes Gregg could probably make nice chairs for less money – but it takes 77 steps to make a torpedo proof chair; and a torpedo proof chair will last 150 years.

GB: The goal is to produce something where it has the least impact environmentally, all the way through, and has the longest life. To me that’s the very best kind of product you can do.

BW: Gregg genuinely cares about sustainability. I spent just a few days with him, but I know he thinks food tastes worse when it’s served in disposable containers, and that he travels with his own silverware. This is why he wishes he could use the law to go after all the knockoffs, The look-a-likes, AND the almost-look’s-likes. Like the very popular, lightweight, aluminum Delta chair from Crate and Barrel. I showed him a photo of this chair.

BW: Is this a fake?

Gregg: Absolutely a fake.. What they’ve done is instead of three bars, they put four bars. Instead of a horizontal arc towards the bottom, they take these four vertical bars and bring them all the way down to the seat bottom. But it’s the same tube shape, It’s bent the same way, the legs are the same configuration, the seat bottom has the bum dip in it, the legs have the same taper. This is made to look like an EMECO chair.

RM: Benjamen took me to a Crate and Barrel in Manhattan to show me this chair.

BW: So I think we have to go in this room, I came in here looking for it the other day. Um, and look at what these bastards did with this knock off, look at that.

RM: They kept the welds.

BW: They kept the welds on the top of the slats.

RM: Are they even welds or decorative welds?

BW: Decorative welds! (laughs)

RM: So the Crate & Barrel chair is different enough, to avoid a lawsuit. But it retained those signature welds of the EMECO chair, to give it that handcrafted feel. But even if they mimic those welds, according to Gregg, there will always be one key difference between the EMECO chair and this one.

GB: It won’t last, it’s not designed to last as long as our chair is.

BW: Gregg is fairly certain it wouldn’t pass the original test of being thrown off that 8 story building. Of course, there’s really only one way to find out…

BW: That helicopter. We’re gonna wait for that helicopter. Now that I have you on my roof, on the 7th floor, with the knockoff Crate & Barrel. I kinda think the ultimate test is throwing it off, to see what happens.

RM: (giggling) No way. No way! No, you’re on your own for that one. You do that on your show. There’s no way I’m taking responsibility for that, absolutely not.

BW:So to hear what happens next you’re gonna have to go to The Theory of Everything.

RM: Yeah, go to The Theory of Everything! You’re not suing me!

Credits

Production

Theory of Everything plunges listeners into a whirl of art, journalism, fiction, interviews, and exploding pipe dreams. Host Benjamen Walker connects the dots in a world of information overload, featuring conversations with philosophers, friends, and the occasional too-good-to-be-real guest. Also check out Christopher Sprigman’s book The Knockoff Economy. Coda on Eames chair copies with Kurt Kohlstedt.

Comments (13)

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  1. Chris

    “…if you wanna be stylish and have a house that nice and you don’t have a ton of money you may buy a knock-off chairs”
    What kind of argument is that? Maybe then we should allow to buy and sell knock-off Rolex or Lamborghini? No. Design is one of the parts of intellectual property of object and should be protected by law.
    Don’t have the money? Don’t buy that chair. There are plenty other stylish and affordable designs in the world.

  2. Andrew Sleeth

    I love 99Percent, but I’m calling “Foul!” on this episode for the sole reason that the chair-toss was a cheap tease that lazily evades an essential difference between science and engineering — the latter being the chief domain of designers.

    Manufacturers thrive on anecdote and untested claims, just like Wilton Dignes eight-floor toss. Unless you subject other products to the exact same test, not to mention document the methods and results and submit them to public scrutiny, then you have only an unchallenged anecdote that lives on as myth.

    Roman was journalistically irresponsible not to follow through on that test. True, 99Percent isn’t investigative journalism by any stretch. But it also shouldn’t become complicit in perpetuating anecdotal myths when they might be easily and conveniently challenged.

    Really, Roman, it was a cop-out to hide behind liability and not follow through tossing the Crate & Barrel knock-off. It only suggests you’re afraid the result might show the Navy chair to be really quite ordinary. And while we’re on the topic, just where’s the paperwork showing the results of those torpedo tests?

  3. Eric

    I have an authentic Eames chair I’ve been trying to sell, but potential buyers keep trying to talk me down in price by telling me it’s a fake. It’s really maddening, especially when they can point to YouTube videos about spotting fakes made by wannabe furniture experts who have no idea what they’re talking about.

  4. Boy, that was a tough one that surprisingly got my hackles up. As a designer and creator who has had intellectual property stolen, it is frustrating to hear someone defend a knockoff. Knockoffs aren’t altruistic – they are absolutely opportunistic. It entails riding a trend or design or idea for personal gain, not somehow delivering an iconic design to the masses. It is not for the societal good; it is capitalistic as hell.
    How about this: I’ll write a book called The Knockoff-Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Aggravation. I hope it doesn’t affect Sprigman’s bottom line, but why should I care if it puts a little extra coin in my pocket at his expense? If he really wanted this information out there for everyone’s benefit, then he would have published it for free (like 99PI). It’s fair game then, right?
    If a person wishes to be altruistic and allow their work to be copied and/or improved upon, they leave it open-source. Adam Savage does this a lot (he can afford to do so). However, if a person wishes to retain that information, even if for personal gain, that wish should be observed for it’s lawful term. Granted, I think protections should expire after a reasonable period, but respect each other’s work – Theft is theft.
    We are all inspired by others. If a particular design inspires a new direction, fantastic – that’s innovation. I am inspired all the time, and you should be, too. However, if you make modifications and call it yours, you are stealing (or plagiarizing, infringing, faking, counterfeiting…). It is, to me, the same as Vanilla Ice calling the beat for “Ice Ice Baby” his original, when it is clearly Bowie & Queen’s “Under Pressure”. Was it innovative? It’s arguable. They settled out of court. Give credit where it’s due or get your own ideas, would ya?
    I love you, 99PI – keep up the good work. Especially because, it makes me think!

  5. Brian

    To counter those design lovers above, I think it was great to have some perspective from the pro knock off crowd. The claim of 70 years after death of the creator is an absurd length of time for the monopoly of gains from these types of products. While as a staunch capitalist I see the value in property rights, the argument that “mine will last longer” is something the market can and does appropriately value. Using the law to shut down any competition for potentially 150 years is insane. If you want to regulate waste, then regulate waste. Stopping production in the first place is not the solution.
    Knockoffs aren’t altruistic, they are regular people trying to apply open market principles on unnatural monopolies provided by a government. While rewarding creators for their creations has value, the protection supposedly provided to designs like this is far too extensive, and limits progress as a society in the exact method as described on the show, by restricting availability solely to the rich.
    The point of the legal framework is to benefit society by meeting the need of creators for remuneration (and thus chosing to create in the first place). If the creations aren’t actually available to society due to absurd price demands, what’s the point of protection? If you don’t want regular people to have access to your creations, why not just live as a personally sponsored creator by a rich person or corporation who can keep it all as trade secrets?

  6. asclepius

    Is nobody bothered by the fact that these jerks probably jacked up the prices on their aluminum chairs by 10x because Italian designers were buying them? Aluminum is one of the cheapest materials you can make something out of and they’re marketing it like it’s the second coming of Jesus. This chair is probably worth 50 bucks, which is why the knockoffs cost about that much. 550 dollars for a freaking aluminum chair is nonsense. Nobody should pay that price for this.

  7. Pepe

    The chair in the Dark Knight clip appears to be a knock-off as well! A good view of its four slats flashes briefly at the 4:00 mark.

    1. 99pi

      Good eye! It’s authentic, but it’s a variant design with added cushions and slightly different details like that.

  8. pat

    (Copying from my comment on Reddit)…

    I was really interested in this podcast as I have a couple of these chairs…kind of. I have 2 chairs that were salvaged from a major manufacturing company (taken out of the smoking room in the 80’s). They were incredibly filthy with nicotene and other stains of which I won’t speak, but cleaned up beautifully. I knew the design was for the Navy, but wasn’t familiar with Emeco….just keep them around because they’re cool. However, they’re not Emeco chairs – they’re Goodform chairs manufactured by General Fireproofing, which I always assumed was a knock-off..looks like they were manufactured in 1954. However, the podcast episode got me wondering again and I started looking into things again….

    So here’s the plot twist – I saw a couple of chairs listed on Ebay with the note that “Originally designed at the request of the US Navy to be used on Navy ships and submarines, General Fireproofing Company began manufacturing these chairs in 1936. The GoodForm chairs have since become one of the most recognizable products of the 1930s and 1940’s, and their aluminum chair design was eventually used by the Emeco company as well, who still continue to manufacture chairs today in this design. ”

    So, it sounds like maybe Dinges of Emeco really didn’t design these originally?? Now I’m very curious.

  9. Marc

    Should have called the episode “77 Steps – Benjamen Walker is in this one” so I would not have waited almost two weeks to listen to it.

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