In the 1940s, the United States Navy approached the Electric Machine and Equipment Company in Hannover, Pennsylvania for help developing an incredible new piece of equipment. It wasn’t a sophisticated sonar array, or some advanced weapons system. It was a chair. But not just any chair. As specified by the Navy contract, it had to be a chair capable of withstanding a direct torpedo blast from an enemy vessel.
So company founder Bud Dinges teamed up with the aluminum experts at Alcoa and gave the Navy a chair that not only met those expectations, but surpassed them. The Emeco 1006 “Navy Chair.” A piece of furniture so indestructible that Dinges once tossed one out a sixth floor window at a Chicago furniture show (it survived with only minor scratches) to demonstrate its legendary durability.
As it turned out, the US Navy wasn’t the only organization in need of a strong chair, and soon the Navy Chair had spread far beyond the decks of navy destroyers, to schools, prisons and other institutions in need of chairs that could take whatever the world dished out.
The chair’s strengths, however, proved more than structural. It’s highly functional nature resulted in a sublime purity of design. There was nothing in the Navy contract that said the chair had to be beautiful, but damned if it wasn’t. And this serendipitous sex appeal wasn’t lost on pop culture.
Soon Navy Chairs were gracing the cover of fashion magazines, appearing in Hollywood movies, and being ordered by restaurants worldwide, from the humblest fast food joints to the chicest upscale eateries. Today the Navy Chair can be found everywhere, durable as always, quietly offering the world a seat, no matter what.
But the story of Emeco isn’t where they’ve gone. It’s where they haven’t gone. Because through it all, World War II and Woodstock and Watergate, depressions and recessions and burst bubbles of every circumference, Emeco never took the easy road east—a path well worn by its competitors, who’ve offshored their products in droves and sent hundreds of thousands of jobs offshore with them.
Over the past several decades Emeco has had about a million reasons to send production of the Navy Chair overseas, but it has thirty-five pretty great reasons to stay firmly planted in Hanover, PA. Thirty-five passionate US workers with the requisite wizardry to turn raw aluminum into something special: A place to sit that actually stands for something.
When you get down to it, there’s no way in hell that Emeco would ever outsource the Navy Chair to China.
So someone else did it for them.
If you flip to page 94 in the Fall 2012 Restoration Hardware catalog, you’ll find a 2-page spread with a hero shot of three Emeco Navy chairs. Only they’re not Emeco Navy chairs. They’re Restoration Hardware “Naval Chairs,” exact knock-offs made in China.
When you think of all the hard work, all the history, and all the integrity that went into making the Emeco Navy Chair an icon, the comparative greed and laziness that birthed the Restoration Hardware version is almost incomprehensible. And trying to comprehend it imparts a serious malaise. It’s the inverse of witnessing a great Olympic performance. Instead of reveling in the fact that humanity, of which you are a small part, just raised the collective bar, you are made to realize the kind of weakness humans are capable of, and you’re sad to be one of them. At least, that’s how I feel.
I know; it’s only a chair. But it’s more than that. In fact, it’s hard to count how many levels this sucks on, so I’ll stick to the biggest three.
First is the real cost of the Restoration Hardware chair. It’s about a third of the price of a real Emeco, but it costs so much more. It costs jobs, which has an exponential effect on the US economy, which is how we ended up in the Great Recession in the first place. Buying the Restoration Hardware version means you save a few bucks up front, but down the road your house is worth less.
Second is impact on the planet. The Restoration Hardware chair is made without the hindrance of EPA regulations, so there’s nothing that says toxic waste can’t be pumped into the air, or dumped into rivers. And since the chair is shipped halfway around the planet, it leaves a Yeti-sized carbon footprint wherever it goes.
But the third should piss you off the most. Restoration Hardware is lying to you. Through both omission (nowhere in the catalog does it tell you the chair is made in China) and blatant misdirection. Aside from calling the chair the “1940s Naval Chair” and hoping you assume it’s made for the US Navy, they not-so-subtly imply that everything in the catalog, including the chair, is American made by putting Abe Lincoln on the cover. Abe Lincoln. A man who would have punched whatever reptilian Restoration Hardware executive outsourced this chair directly in the face.
There are other ways this sucks—stolen IP, shameful quality (look at those toothpaste welds!), heinous labor conditions—but it’s no use counting; the damage is already done. Even if Emeco could stop Restoration Hardware from selling the counterfeit chairs, the factory in China is already tooled up with the stolen design, and there are probably 10,000 fakes floating around out there already, with no shortage of shady retailers happy to sell them.
Unfortunately this isn’t some new policy at Restoration Hardware. It’s something they’ve quietly been doing since 2008, hoping you wouldn’t notice and counting their money in the interim.
The good news is, you can still vote with your dollars, and stop shopping there. You don’t have to stand for this. In fact if you really want to do something, you shouldn’t stand at all. You should take a seat. One that’s made in the USA.
By Dave Schiff, Partner & CCO, Made Movement