Debuting at the Milan Furniture Fair this past spring was one very familiar looking chair. The iconic Emeco aluminum Navy chair was developed back in 1944 and is a widely recognized symbol of mid-century American design. However, this years fair saw a new Navy chair that despite all the familiar lines was something all together different. Dubbed the 111 Navy chair, this chair is composed of a specially formulated composite containing 111 recycled plastic bottles. The chair is part of a joint venture between Emeco and Coca-cola, and is over 4-years in the making. The result is a strikingly colorful plastic version of the original classic that carries a message to consumers that up-cycling our plastic waste can be both viable and beautiful.
The 111 Navy is constructed from a hollow one-piece injection molding with a semi-gloss scratch resistant surface. It comes in 6 bold colors including Coca-Cola red, snow, flint gray, grass, persimmon and charcoal. The 111 recycled PET bottles make up about 60% of the chair which is reinforced with glass fiber to achieve the desired structural integrity. Around 300 million recycled Coca-Cola bottles will go into 1 year of production for the chair. This is just a fraction of the bottles Coke produces but regardless is an impressive example of upcycling use for soda bottles.
Coca-cola has long been involved in various large scale projects attempting to reinvest the company and it’s brand in better recycling strategies and awareness amongst consumers. This particular venture is also unique in that it resulted in a product that is not immediately identifiable as being part of the Coca-cola brand. In fact, the designers stayed quite true to the original Emeco chair. Rather than emblazoning the chair with Coke’s strong visual equities, as with other promotional objects, they restrained themselves to including just a small raised bottle detail on the top of the chair back. Other than a familiar color scheme, what’s really left is a nice plastic version of the classic aluminum design, with the balanced visual appeal and heritage of the original Navy chair. What I find most interesting is the way this product ties together two, previously unrelated, classic American design icons of such differing recognition. This may be appealing merely for its irony, but regardless it creates an interesting narrative.
Recycling, and more specifically upcycling remains a challenging proposition to most companies. The crux of the problem is that the business and infrastructure for collecting usable waste materials like plastic bottles remains fragmented and under-serving to the volume created. This is compounded by the fact that a growing global economy insures that inexpensive raw materials are always available. Certain materials may have great potential for becoming more widely used manufacturing stocks, but there must be a greater effort to consolidate the collection, cleaning, and processing of such materials before the demand for producing mass market products can be met. It will be expensive to implement, but has long term advantage to whomever captures ‘the stream’. Coke just took one step closer.