One evening last spring, a chic crowd squeezed into New York City's Center for Architecture to catch a glimpse of the design cognoscenti's latest object of desire: a sleek, six-and-a-half-pound aluminum chair -- dubbed the Superlight -- created by renowned architect Frank Gehry. Taking it all in, with a look of supreme satisfaction on his face, was Gregg Buchbinder, the 48-year-old chairman of Emeco Ltd. For decades, the company, based in the struggling mill town of Hanover, Pa., was a manufacturer of modest functional chairs for the U.S. Navy. Then Buchbinder took over, transforming Emeco into a producer of hip home furnishings. The Superlight, released to the public in August, is Buchbinder's largest design coup yet. "Gehry has created a piece that carries the monumentality of his buildings but [has] the grace and usability of an everyday object," says Ron Forbes, founder of retailer Design Within Reach. The success has inspired Buchbinder to reach ever higher. "If an architect designs a house on the moon one day," he says, "I want to be the company he comes to for chairs."
I grew up in a furniture family. My mother was an interior decorator and my father had a passion for chairs. I was interested in design and architecture, so we had a strong bond. I believe that if you love architecture then you probably also love chairs.
As a teenager in California, I spent most of my time surfing. My idea of business was to own a surf shop. But after getting a B.A. in business, I went directly into the family business. My father ran JBI, a contract furniture manufacturer in Long Beach that made barstools and institutional seating for fast-food chains like Denny's. He was my mentor, a charismatic leader who saw a positive side to everything.
In 1978, we got a tip about Emeco and flew out to see the factory. The company was failing; there were holes in the roof and mounting debts. But the minute we walked in, my father recognized a beautifully crafted chair called the 1006 [pronounced ten-oh-six] that Emeco had made since 1944. It was simple and durable; sailors would throw them around on submarines. My father saw the potential and said, "We must save the company or these skills will be lost." So he bought Emeco in 1979.
The company limped along for years. Managers tried new products, like plywood folding tables. But they were cheesy. In 1997, I happened to be in the office and heard a customer-relations rep screaming into the phone: "No, I will not ship chairs, you send money first." I asked her who was on the line. She said, "Someone from Armani." Giorgio Armani had ordered 1006 chairs for his stores. Designers like Philippe Starck and Terence Conran were also buying. The 1006 had become retro chic. It was a revelation to me.
We were this wacky little company in Pennsylvania and the big designers had found us. Still, nobody really knew about Emeco. In 1998, I bumped into Starck at a trade show in New York City and introduced myself. He said, "I thought you'd be an old man." Then he suggested designing a chair for us. He made sketches on a magazine cover, and that became the Hudson Collection, which included new versions of the 1006 as a barstool, swivel chair, and armchair. It launched in 2000 and really put us on the map. Today, it accounts for almost half of our total production -- we'll make 46,500 chairs this year.
I wanted to own that category, to be the one and only company making aluminum chairs for architects and designers. So I acquired Emeco from my father in 1998, assuming $2 million in debt. We needed to build brand awareness. I hit the streets of SoHo, knocking on shop doors with a copy of a magazine that showed our chairs. I talked my way into trade shows to meet distributors. I hired an architect as sales manager and a sales staff that could service the design community -- not just the government. At the factory, we invested $1 million in new equipment. I brought in robots for one welding operation, but the rest we did by hand. When it comes to making chairs, nothing can replace the human hand.
My life changed after my father's death two years ago. We were riding a tandem bike on a Sunday morning and were hit by a car. The driver had fallen asleep and swerved into the bike lane. My father, who was 69, died instantly; my neck and two vertebrae were broken. What got me through this tough time was a sense that I had to keep things going for the people who had depended on my father. We were family. I realized then that a sense of compassion would guide all my business decisions.
In 2003, Frank Gehry moved his office to Marina del Rey, Calif., and ordered Hudson chairs from us. I love his work, especially the way he handles metal. So I went there to oversee the installation. We talked chairs. Gehry had designed a few chairs, but they were more like works of art. After a while, Gehry looked at me and said, "So, let's do a chair."
Working with Gehry was daunting. He made pictures that looked wild. For every idea I had he came up with five more. He was designing a chair from the inside out, trying to make it strong but also comfortable and light. There were many dead ends. One day he was looking at a prototype -- it was a bent sheet of aluminum on a tubular frame -- and he announced, "This is the one." I was so excited I asked him to sign it.
I invested another $1 million in the factory and started a new production line for Superlight. We debuted at the Milan furniture fair and orders were so strong we doubled the initial run to 4,000 pieces. Our finances are healthier today. We're chipping away at our debt, and cash flow has improved: We estimate revenue of $10 million this year, up from $2 million when I took over.
American furniture companies are going to China en masse. I get offers all the time from manufacturers; they say, "We'll make it cheaper." But for me, the most important thing is maintaining quality. My goal is to make classic designer chairs that become icons. I want them to be around and appreciated long after I'm gone. For that, there's no better factory in the world than Emeco.
Ernest Beck is a New York City-based freelance writer.