Emeco + MIT

explore the future evolution of furniture and sustainability

"Enhanced Privacy"; Project by Jo Pierre

During the spring semester of 2022, Emeco and MIT taught an advanced product design course in the Department of Architecture’s Design program entitled “The next 150-year chair”, envisioning the future of sustainable furniture, new technology for manufacturing and the role of future product designers. In November, the student projects will be showcased at Emeco House in Venice, CA.

"The Next 150 Year Chair"

Words by Oli Stratford

“Going into a school like MIT as an analogue furniture manufacturer can be a little daunting,” says Jaye Buchbinder, Emeco’s head of sustainability. “These students are so smart and interested in the future, whereas we’re still using the same kind of machinery that we have had since the 1940s.” She pauses a beat. “Just imagine if they’d come back and said that none of our methods work any more!”

This sense of uncertainty was what faced Jaye and her father Gregg Buchbinder, Emeco’s owner, in spring 2022. Over the course of the previous few months, the pair had been speaking with MIT’s Jeremy Bilotti and Skylar Tibbits, a design lecturer and the director of MIT’s undergraduate Design programs respectively, within the Department of Architecture. The Buchbinders were admirers of Bilotti and Tibbits’s work in design and, over the course of multiple conversations, the four began to devise a plan. “Jeremy and Skylar asked us if we would be interested in participating in a class,” Jaye explains, “and together we came to this idea of Emeco being involved around a particular question: how could we get students to approach the concept of sustainable design, especially in a world where the word ‘sustainable’ arguably carries no weight anymore?”

Since the launch of its flagship product, the aluminum 1006 Navy Chair, in 1944, Emeco has been interested in sustainability and how its principles map out within furniture design. Originally developed as a chair that could meet the rigorous demands of the US Navy, the 1006 was designed using scrap aluminum that could survive the combination of salt air, water and military engagement that this entailed. Once the aluminum had been subjected to an exacting 77-stage process at Emeco’s factory in Hanover, Pennsylvania (where the brand still produces to this day), the result was a piece of metal furniture that was lightweight, non-corrosive, fire resistant and torpedo proof. Yet the heightened requirements of a theatre of combat also resulted in a design that was fitted to multiple different environments. What can survive life on board a gunship, for instance, could comfortably meet the demands and footfall of commercial spaces, while the elegant simplicity and logic of the 1006's design, generated through the strictures of its brief, created an archetypal form that was additionally at home in domestic interiors (what Emeco’s later collaborators Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa might term “supernormal”). As a result of the rigor of its design, the 1006 came to speak of a form of non-aesthetic aesthetic, redolent of no-nonsense American industry and engineering, and which was manufactured to last for a minimum of 150 years – a robustness that went on to prove the cornerstone of Emeco's wider sustainability policy.

“Emeco has always approached sustainability as buying chairs that will last your whole life, and which you will also like your whole life because they're not driven by trend,” says Jaye. Yet as Emeco has entered the 21st century, the company has become interested in different approaches towards sustainability. Emeco has already begun to explore the potential of materials such as recycled PET and recycled wood-filled polypropylene (created using waste wood) within its furniture range, as well as delving into ideas of the circular economy through the recycled and recyclable On & On chair by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, but Jaye was interested as to whether these explorations could be pushed further. “We’ve always worked around the idea of longevity, but what does that mean anymore,” she asks, “particularly in relation to students who are approaching this world fresh?”

Fueled by these questions, the Buchbinders worked with Bilotti and Tibbits to help formulate a response through collaboration. During MIT’s spring semester, they agreed, Emeco would sponsor and steer an advanced product design course taught by Bilotti with MIT students drawn from across different design disciplines at the university, guiding them towards the creation of new furniture prototypes. The trade-off between the two organizations was clear. On the one hand, Emeco would provide the students with its industrial experience and expertise, because “there are certain realities that are invaluable for students to hear from somebody in industry,” explains Bilotti, “and having known the folks at Emeco for a few years before this collaboration, I knew them to be honest, no-nonsense people, which students can really benefit from.” It is a point with which Tibbits is in agreement. “It helps students to work on real-world problems, to be able to see a path forward in their careers,” he says. “Things become less and less abstract as they move through their degrees, and external collaborations are ideal because they connect to very real goals, challenges and interests from industry.” In turn, MIT’s students would open up fresh views onto the world of furniture design and sustainability that Emeco had been working within since 1944. “There's something inspiring about taking a step out of the industry, and getting perspectives that are not clouded by the past,” Jaye says. “It makes you question the way you do things.”

At the heart of the class was a desire to conceptually reframe the 150-year lifespan of the 1006. “Today, a 150-year chair means making something that lasts a long time, which is a great thing to do,” explains Tibbits. “But the question is as to whether that will be the same for the next 150 years. Should the goal still be to make things that last forever? That's one approach, but maybe there's something that could be infinitely recyclable instead, or something that's modular and reconfigurable. There are a million different perspectives on this idea within design, which became an interesting starting point for a thought experiment: what is the next 150 year chair?” To Jaye, this approach represented a fundamental challenge to some of the mores and assumptions of the furniture industry within which she had grown up. While a number of pieces within the brand’s catalogue already captured aspects of these ideas – both the aluminum 1006 and recycled PET On & On are, in principle, endlessly recyclable – the suggestion of alternative pathways towards sustainability (and new definitions as to what “sustainability” may mean) was illuminating and inspiring for Emeco’s future work. “How can the world of furniture improve?” Jaye asks. “We wanted to really take a step back and look at what furniture means. How could we change it to be more meaningful in our day to day lives?”

Leading the answers to this question were a group of five students – Amelia Lee, Faith Jones, Jo Pierre, María Risueño Dominguez, and Zain Karsan – aided by teaching assistant and PhD candidate Lavender Tessmer. Working through a series of guided workshops, the students formulated ideas around what sustainability might mean to them, with these ideas subsequently developed in myriad different ways: transformations in function, fresh approaches towards material selection, and adaptations towards contemporary lifestyles.

"La Junta"; Project by María Risueño Dominguez
The Wable; Project by Amelia Lee
The Wable; Project by Amelia Lee
"Liquid Metal Printing"; Project by Zain Karsan

“I personally believe the word ‘sustainability’ is sometimes more of a buzzword,” explains Lee, whose work honed in on recycled HDPE, a plastic commonly found in laundry detergent bottles and milk cartons. “I wanted to ensure that I was staying true to the definition and thinking about sustainability in the materials sense.” Others, however, pushed their research in alternative directions. “Often, when we talk about sustainability in furniture, we refer to material selection, circularity, and recycling, which all impact furniture longevity,” notes Risueño Dominguez, “but we should also take into account consumer behavior, perception, and emotional needs.” To many of the students, sustainability was inseparable from relevance: a sustainable piece of furniture is one that remains useful to, or loved by, its user over an extended period. In achieving this result, however, designers need to push at the boundaries of what furniture is – or might become. “Creative practice deals in objects of contemplation, that challenge preconceptions and show new ways to do things,” Karsan summarises. “For design practice to remain relevant, it must continue to be irreverent.”

This sense of exploration was palpable within the program. “We framed the class to the students as being something like a miniature thesis,” explains Bilotti. “They had to develop their own take or perspective on the future of sustainability.” Karsan, for example, delved into the potential for liquid metal printing, offering a fast, no-scrap, scalable process for achieving complex furniture forms. Lee’s exploration of HDPE, meanwhile, took form as the Wable chair: a lightweight design produced using sheet plastic that can be cut and folded into shape, and whose ambiguous form is intended to enable play and spontaneous adaptation. “Amelia had this concept of play and designing something that could grow with a kid,” explains Jaye. “Wable is like a playground for the urban child which, as they grow older, evolves with them. If you keep something forever, it's because you're constantly interacting with it.” In this sense, the two projects present interesting counterparts to one another: Lee’s work exploring the longevity of a form, and Karsan’s dealing with the lifespan of a material. “Longevity was not really a primary concern,” Karsan explains. “The project centres around the end of life of a part, or assembly, and its transition to a new object. Liquid-metal printing hinges on the infinite recyclability of materials like aluminum, melting scrap and printing objects anew extremely quickly, with an order of magnitude less embodied energy.”

The sense of flexibility and adaptability present within Lee and Karsan’s work was a theme picked up by other members of the class. “I think one concept that emerged in much of the work was this idea that people want their furniture to change,” Jaye explains. “To expect a chair to be the same for 150 years is a beautiful concept, but this approach may not be for everyone: consumption habits are changing, and while some people take pride in keeping things, others find joy in changing them.” Given the financial realities of the contemporary housing market, for example, younger generations frequently move home, shuttling between temporary spaces that often vary dramatically in both style and size. Similarly, as societies have become increasingly connected and globalized, some have come to reject the traditional idea of the home as a static, unchanging space to which they regularly return, instead preferring short-term residences that suit a more nomadic lifestyle. In such a climate, the idea of retaining the same set of furniture over an extended period can become outmoded and cumbersome. “While you can keep a small, timeless chair that fits anywhere,” Jaye notes, “there are still questions of practicality that you have to think about in relation to these shifts. I have a large table that I had in my old apartment, but I’m now in a small 1950s bungalow where it just can't fit in certain directions. So how do you build variability into the thought process around furniture? How do you design for that kind of flexibility?”

"Liquid Metal Printing"; Project by Zain Karsan
"Liquid Metal Printing"; Project by Zain Karsan

Pierre’s project engaged with these issues though the creation of flexible space partitions, formed using lightweight TPU forms that can subsequently be filled with water to provide soundproofing and visual breaks that still admit light into a space. Pierre’s use of TPU represents a mono-material approach towards furniture that purposefully takes aim at a persistent issue within furniture manufacture – when different materials are bonded together in order to provide structure and longevity within a design, they often become inseparable and, therefore, unrecyclable. In this sense, Pierre’s approach addresses the realities of furniture manufacturing, while also paying consideration towards demands generated by usage. “The way that the water refracts the light is beautiful, but the option to drain the liquid also gives you a more flexible treatment of space, because conventional partitions can be very heavy,” Jaye adds.

Jones similarly delved into the potential for users to complete or customize their furniture, proposing a system in which a tubular metal frame can be upholstered using recycled yarns. “She learned different types of knots, and wove the yarns into something like a braid that you can then knot to create upholstery,” Jaye notes. “If you want to reupholster the form, it’s just a case of retying those knots – it's something that you can undo at home, and retry as many times as you want. It’s a form of future flexibility, where the consumer is in control of their furniture.” This sense of control was further developed within Jones’s research for the project, which entailed careful study of knots, weaving, and braiding. Utilizing the knowledge she gained from this process, Jones designed a method for creating braided textiles that was intended to be both didactic and empowering: by untying the braids, a consumer can understand how to re-tie them without the need for written instructions or specialized tools, providing legibility into the construction of their furniture – something often missing within the field.

Given the future-facing nature of the ideas that they explore, the students’ furniture pieces all possess an element of speculation, yet this is in keeping with MIT and Emeco’s ambitions with the class. “The goal of the program was not to prove scalability or figure out all the manufacturing details,” Tibbits explains. “They didn’t have to get to the point where you could say, ‘Yes, we can pull the trigger and make 1,000 of these.’” Nevertheless, an emphasis on making did emerge through the workshops, aided in part by a visit to Emeco’s factory in Hanover. “External collaborations with industry enable a better understanding of design constraints related to scalability of solutions,” explains Tessmer, whose role as the class’s teaching assistant saw her work with and steer the students through their projects. “Having this experience in parallel with the in-class design process was integral to understanding the externalities of manufacturing and production,” she adds. “Being able to tour the Emeco factory was important for synthesizing first-hand observations of the process, expertise, and standards of testing and finishing with the early stage proposals happening in the design studio.”

The ReWoven Chair; Project by Faith Jones
"Enhanced Privacy"; Project by Jo Pierre
"Enhanced Privacy"; Project by Jo Pierre

Certainly, the opportunity to delve into production provided a new lens onto the industry for students. “Our factory is grunge – it’s industrial and analogue,” says Jaye. “It's beautiful, and I love it there, but I think it was eye opening for the students to see that things are still being made in the US in that analogue way.” This kind of insight, of course, is one of the advantages of academic institutions partnering with industry. “When you see, use, or design chairs, it's hard to fully comprehend all the steps it takes to make them, and how many people, processes, and years of expertise it takes to do it right,” says Risueño Dominguez, whose visit to the factory proved “an important experience for me and my career as a designer”, as well as indirectly feeding into her specific response to the brief. Aided by her experience of seeing aluminum work at Emeco’s facility, Risueño Dominguez taught herself how to cast the metal (“Replicating some of Emeco’s processes on a very small scale”) in order to develop La Junta, a furniture system built around a single cast element. With this element in place – which has been designed to connect to myriad different materials and forms – users can then add further elements of their choosing to form finished pieces of furniture. “If you moved to an area that has lots of metal manufacturers, you could get some pipes to use for legs, or if you're in a more rural setting, you could use tree branches instead,” Jaye explains. The idea of the project, Risueño Dominguez notes, is to “allow furniture to evolve over time, grow old with you and, hopefully, be passed on to the next generation. By attaching different found objects to these furniture joints, you would be able to create different typologies of furniture tailored to your needs. Instead of designing a piece of furniture, I focused on designing ‘a piece of a piece of furniture’ that eventually could end up becoming part of a larger system.”

"La Junta"; Project by María Risueño Dominguez
"La Junta"; Project by María Risueño Dominguez

The project, in its exploration of different avenues down which furniture design might develop, proved simultaneously challenging and reassuring to Emeco. “More than anything, the students’ mindset is the takeaway,” Jaye explains. “Their ability to take a step back from what is being produced and really think about why we’re doing it and what we’re going to do with it. It’s a reminder that when we're designing things, we need to think about what makes sense for our version of sustainability. If we want something to last 150 years, how do we make it so it can actually be used for 150 years?” Yet this progressiveness is not incompatible with the forms of practice and manufacturing that Emeco has been utilizing since the 1940s. "It was interesting to see how many students were working with processes such as tube bending, welding and casting,” Jaye adds. “Really age-old techniques that have low energy costs because we know how to do them efficiently. After all these years, they still make sense and can allow for a lot of different results. After the initial worry of what the students might think, that was validating to see!”

Just as importantly, the class has left its mark on the students themselves. “To remain relevant as an industry, we should be rethinking what furniture is and what its meaning is more often,” Risueño Dominguez  says, whose experiences within the class allowed her to push at her understanding of what a designer is and what they can offer. “Our society assumes that we need X, Y, and Z typologies of furniture in our domestic environment, and we search for and buy them, but can you ever imagine a world where furniture is not as we know it today?” she explains. “Maybe the role of the designer is no longer to create the vanguard of furniture or product design, but really to heighten our awareness as human beings of the objects that we interact with on a daily basis and have a critical position to actually understand what is essential, what is not needed, and what is harmful to communities or the planet. In a way, I see that it's less about creating new stuff and more about changing behavior and rethinking how we want to live.”

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