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.
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: 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..
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!