GIVE ’EM HELLER
Furniture industry veteran John Edelman ushers an iconic modern design brand into the 21st century.
If you attended the NYCxDESIGN or NeoCon design fairs last May, you likely encountered a cerulean 1977 Volkswagen van with four colorful Frank Gehry–designed Twist cubes on its roof rack. Whether it was partyhopping around New York’s SoHo district or making its way to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart (the site of NeoCon), the van turned heads—and made frequent stops to allow a passenger to throw open the sliding side door and hand out canvas tote bags emblazoned with a single word: Heller. At the wheel was John Edelman, who had recently purchased the company (in collaboration with business partner John McPhee) and currently serves as its president and CEO.
Known for his outsize personality, innovative approach to marketing, and genuine passion for design, Edelman has been an industry fixture for many years, and is most widely known for his former role as CEO at Design Within Reach, which Edelman and McPhee purchased in 2009 (he stepped down in 2018 after a decade at the helm). Within weeks of the Design Within Reach purchase, Edelman first met Alan Heller, founder of the namesake furniture and housewares brand. Heller was suing Design Within Reach for producing a knockoff of his popular Mario Bellini chair, and Edelman went to New York City to meet with him in person. The two found common ground, including a strict adherence to authenticity (Design Within Reach released the knockoff before Edelman had purchased the company), and soon became close friends.
“Even while I was at DWR, I was always trying to get Alan to grow his business,” Edelman says. “We’d have these long, three-hour lunches, and I’d give him 15 ideas for how to grow his business. He’d tell me to go jump in a lake. He had his own way of doing things.”
Founded in late 1971, Heller is known for manufacturing affordable modern furniture and homewares by some of the world’s most revered designers. The company’s first product, the Massimo Vignelli–designed Hellerware—stackable plastic dinnerware that came in an array of colors—was an out-of-the-gate hit that would become synonymous with the era. Over the ensuing decades, Heller produced pieces by Frank Gehry, Mario Bellini, Philippe Starck, and others. By the time Alan Heller died in 2021, the company had entered the echelon of iconic design, but needed guidance to succeed in a contemporary, crowded, and tech-driven market. Edelman, who had retained a close friendship with Heller, was ready to step in.
“From that first meeting with Alan, I knew I wanted to buy the Heller brand,” Edelman says. “True modern design, which is what Heller is, is timeless. We’re offering pieces at price points that allow people to own true modern design and hopefully discourage the purchase of knockoffs.”
One of Edelman’s first ventures with Heller was to create an e-commerce site and get the word out about the revival of the brand via social media. The brand used the cheeky hashtag #HellerOn Wheels to promote the blue bus as it traveled around New York City and Chicago. Next, Edelman plans to focus on product. Hellerware will return this fall, along with several archival products. The company is currently working with Mario and Claudio Bellini on a new collection, and although he won’t elaborate, Edelman is keen to develop fresh products with emerging designers. “We’re currently working with two young designers on brandnew pieces,” he says. “We hope to be able to offer those by mid-2023.”
With Edelman at the helm, Heller is poised to make a significant comeback with an expanding collection and increased inventory. “The foundation that Alan created was legitimate and authentic,” Edelman says. “I know we can succeed if we keep building off that.” h
COURTESY HELLER The Bellini chair, designed in 1998 by Italian architect and designer Mario Bellini for Heller, is an icon of modern design. In 2001, the piece received the Compasso d’Oro, Italy’s most prestigious design award. With the revival of Heller, the Bellini line is set to expand in 2023.