The Maestro’s Last Chair

When Gregg Buchbinder met Ettore Sottsass eight years ago at the Chicago Museum of Contem­porary Art, it was “like meeting a rock star.” The chairman of Emeco wasn’t just a fan—“My mom used to get Domus magazine, and as a kid I remember seeing interiors that Ettore had done, and then there was the whole Memphis thing,” Buchbinder says, referring to the seminal movement Sottsass founded in 1980. Because he fell in love with the company’s 1006 Navy chair, the designer, who died on December 31 at age 90, also unwittingly saved the furniture manufacturer from ­bankruptcy.

Sottsass had discovered the 1006 in 1956, during his brief stint in New York working for George Nelson. Designed during World War II for use on submarines, the nearly indestructible aluminum seat had become a staple in American prisons and hospitals. Sottsass was entranced by the chair’sraw beauty. Returning to Italy, he brought the 1006 with him and began employing it in contempor­ary residential projects, the antithesis of its usual institutional settings.

The Navy chair’s vigorous simplicity struck a chord: years later, designers like Philippe Starck and Frank Gehry started using it, Terence Conran stocked it in his Habitat stores, and it became a design icon—staving off financial ruin for the Pennsylvania-based Emeco. “Sottsass put the 1006 out there…and that was the seed that allowed us to reach a whole new community of architects and designers,” says Buchbinder, who purchased Emeco in 1998. “We still had our government orders, but not enough to survive.”

So when Buchbinder finally met Sottsass, it was with a mixture of trepidation and exhilaration. He knew the maestro’s history with the chair but didn’t realize how fond Sottsass was of it—he had several in his home in Milan. “When I said I was from Emeco, Ettore immediately smiled, and said he admired the 1006 and wished he had designed it,” Buchbinder says, a trace of shock still apparent in his voice. “So I told him, ‘You should redesign it,’ and we agreed we’d do something.”

It took five years for that something to begin. But the result, a line of chairs and stools reflecting a modern take on the 1006 Navy chair, was Sottsass’s last effort before his death. Dubbed Nine-0 in anod to his age, the collection—created as Sottsass was battling health issues—is an exuberant grace note on a career that blurred the functional with the artistic and aimed to bring beauty to everyday objects.

By all accounts it was Christopher Redfern who got the project under way. “I knew Ettore would enjoy creating a chair for Emeco, so I pushed it,” says the 36-year-old architect, who served as Sottsass’s design associate for ten years and coauthored dozens of his products. With age and mobility issues finally catching up with Sottsass—he had stopped coming to the studio, back problems making him unable to climb the stairs—Redfern knew time was running down. One afternoon three years ago, when Redfern was at Sottsass’s house discussing projects over lunch, they drafted a proposal. “We agreed that we wanted to do a chair that was functional, would be a good seller for Emeco, and would be on the market for many years,” Redfern says. “We admired the 1006 so much that we couldn’t get away from it. So we tried to put it in the context of how we live our lives today.”

They laid down some principles: at 16 inches wide, the Navy chair was the perfect size to fit through ship hatches but too narrow for today’s ample bodies. Its hard metal seat wasn’t comfortable to sit on for extended periods, and it could use a dash of color. Then they started sketching. “We have a competition to see who could get the best ideas out,” Redfern says, slipping into the present tense while explaining how they began every project. “It’s a beautiful thing, sketching with a maestro who is respectful.” The pair set a basic frame ­structure, adding six inches to the seat’s width but removing three inches from the backrest’s height to balance proportions. They began toying with leg styles and tried to create a variety of chairs for ­different needs and settings.

Aside from a stackable version of the chair, which would be ideal for public facilities, perhaps there could be one with armrests to serve as a high-end dining chair or an office version with a swivel base. Maybe there could also be a choice of backrests and a range of seat colors. “We kept all of those ideas on board,” Redfern says.

Development was a game of transatlantic Ping-Pong. Redfern would send Emeco the renderings, and the company would create the prototypes. Depending on the technical needs, Emeco would send each prototype to Redfern or e-mail him images of it. Several times Redfern visited Emeco’s factory in Hanover, Pennsylvania, or Buchbinder and the company’s materials expert, Magnus Breit­ling, traveled to Milan. In all, eight chair ­proto­types were made.

Buchbinder recalls what it was like to receive that first sketch. “Denis Tangen, who runs Emeco’s factory, looked at it and said, ‘This is incredible,’” because, aside from design, it demonstrated a real understanding of the manufacturing ­process: which solutions would be the cleanest and most cost-efficient to execute. “Denis stopped everything and started working on the prototype himself,” Buch­binder says. “And he sent back a picture of the model the next day. That’s how excited we were about it.”

Ideas began to come from Sottsass and Redfern “like spaghetti thrown on the wall—and so many of them stuck,” Buchbinder says. The designers fashioned a stackable chair, then one in which the legs arched up to form armrests. Next, they created a bar and a kitchen stool, then a swivel chair with a flourish—looped arms that sit playfully like hands on hips. “I think Ettore did that just because he was just having fun at that point,” Buchbinder says of the touch. “He was thinking that in a family kids don’t always look the same, so he created some differences.” Sottsass and Redfern also concocted three seat backs—open, with three slats, and with a padded surface—for all models, and designed two types of legs, standard and linkable, for everything but the swivel chair.

With the frameworks set, just the seat remained. To add comfort, Sottsass favored using textile cushions similar to the ones he had affixed to his own Navy chairs. But that solution wasn’t ­practical from a cost or production ­standpoint. “We had to find a material that would resist smoke and scratches and live up to heavy-duty use,” Redfern says. “It had to come in nice colors and stick to the frame,” rather than rest on it.

The answer was a type of soft polyurethane that Maarten van Severen had utilized on his .03 chair for Vitra. Buchbinder first saw this material, which is soft like upholstery and can be used indoors and out, when he visited the Belgian designer six years ago. Emeco’s Breitling, who formerly worked at Vitra, assisted with the seat’s development and installation, which took five tries to get right. In the final version, the polyurethane is incorporated into the chair and supported by an internal metal frame.

While the Nine-0 line progressed, Sottsass’s health deteriorated, making it increasingly difficult for him to work. But knowing his personal attachment to the project, Redfern went to great lengths to keep the designer abreast of developments, working out an ad-hoc system to maintain Sottsass’s involvement. “I’d phone Ettore, and we’d first chat about football, women, and food before discussing the Nine-0,” Redfern says. “If he didn’t chat, I knew he wasn’t feeling good that particular day. But if he did, I went to his house to see him.” Whenever there was a new prototype, Redfern would bring it along so the pair could discuss it. “He had a lot of faith in me,” Redfern says. “I knew what he wanted. After so many years, it’s automatic.”

Despite his physical frailty, Sottsass remained mentally acute. Buchbinder says, “He’d be looking at a prototype, and there would be a problem, such as how the pad should fit with the frame. He’d say, ‘Let’s lower this part of the frame and put the welds here so they won’t show. It will look better, it will be more comfortable, and it will be cheaper to produce.’ I would be totally amazed,” Buchbinder exclaims. “How cool would that be, when you’re ninety, to be that sharp?”

Seat color was one of the the last Nine-0 details to be settled. The five hues, which Redfern chose after Sottsass’s death, are an unspoken tribute to his mentor. The pair had discussed one of the colors—an apple green—and Redfern had mentioned he wanted to do a red, which Sottsass must have realized was a reference to the iconic Valentine typewriter he had designed for Olivetti in 1969. But Redfern chose the color for another reason too. “When I first came into the Sottsass Associati studio in 1996, I remember Ettore ­sitting on an old Emeco office chair from the fifties,” he says. “It was aluminum, with armrests, but it was upholstered in bright red leather. It stuck in my mind for a long time. The contrast between the materials looked great. I think it was one of Ettore’s favorite chairs.”

The other colors were equally personal—the construction orange came from textile cushions Sottsass had on the Navy chairs in his bedroom, and the anthracite gray was for cushions he had on the 1006s in his lounge. The sky blue “comes from a ceramic I have in my house that Ettore made,” Redfern laughs. ”It’s a very intense color.” The underside of the seat has Sottsass’s signature etched into the polyurethane.

Although Sottsass wasn’t able to experience the final version of the Nine-0, he did try out an earlier one. Redfern recalls a picture taken in April 2007 in which the maestro is sitting in “prototype number four or five—it had a leather cushion at that point and was about halfway done.” And Sottsass did see the polyurethane seat. “The last time I showed Ettore the chair was in the middle of December, and the polyurethane piece, the first sample, was on,” Redfern says. “We were happy. This is one of the best chairs we had ever done together. It was an emotional moment for me.”

As for the Nine-0’s place in Sottsass’s canon, Redfern says the line is like “a knife or a fork—it’s a generic object that I hope we’ve made a little bit more interesting.” It’s an accurate assessment. For although the chair is not technologically innovative, with no exotic production processes or materials, it is a testament to a deep understanding of industrial design’s role: a marriage of form and function. The Nine-0 bends the rules just enough—offering whimsy and style and a point of view—but not enough to interfere with the chair’s utilitarian purpose or to doom it as novelty. It’s a classic chair that’s eminently serviceable, created with no wasted steps or extraneous components. That’s what Emeco’s Tangen was responding to in those first drawings: it is an elegant solution.

Emeco will launch the Nine-0 collection this spring: at Milan’s Salone del Mobile, in April, and at New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair, in May. In partnership with Emeco, Design Within Reach will offer a numbered edition of 200 brushed-aluminum swivel chairs with polyurethane backrests in Valentine red; the retailer will have an exclusive on that version for six months and will stock the rest of the line and colors by July 1. In addition, it will host a Sottsass retrospective during ICFF in a raw space that will become the retailer’s new Soho studio. The overview will include films about Sottsass’s place in history, objects he created, and 20 of the Nine-0 swivel chairs.

For Redfern, the Nine-0’s impending launch is bittersweet. “I’ve been going through a bad period over the last three weeks, but I’m just starting to come out of it,” he admits. He is wrapping up Sottsass Associati’s remaining contracts, including the Aero II LED Hybrid light for Zumtobel, the Faituttotu vase system for Serralunga, and urban furniture for Biella, a town north of Turin, Italy. For his part, Redfern plans to segue slowly into designing under his own name, perhaps founding his own practice. “I don’t feel right creating new things under the Sottsass Associati name without Ettore.” But he does expect the studio to continue: “There is such a wealth and archive of work that has gone on over the years,” he says. “Some projects that were designed ten years ago weren’t valid then but could be quite interesting to look at now.” In the meantime, Redfern’s focus is on getting the Nine-0 out there. “Ettore wanted the chair to be released to the market,” he says. “And if it is a success, I think he will be smiling down from the sky, really, really happy.”

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