Alan Heller, who made beautiful plastic housewares, dies at 81

Alan Heller, the maker of stylish, often whimsical but always affordable housewares and furniture, combining high-end design and prosaic...


Alan Heller, the maker of stylish, often whimsical but always affordable housewares and furniture, combining high-end design and prosaic plastic, died on August 13 in his Manhattan home. He was 81 years old.

Barbara Bluestone, his partner, who confirmed the death, did not specify a cause but said he had been in poor health for many years.

The son of a housewares maker, Mr. Heller was a year after college in 1966, after an extremely brief career selling ironing board covers, when he saw a set of dishes and cups plastic stackable in a museum exhibit.

The dishes were the work of Massimo Vignelli, the Italian designer and graphic purist responsible for New York’s subway map, Bloomingdale’s logo, and other staple visuals from the late ’60s and’ 70s.

The pieces were surprisingly simple, like the Helvetica cast for which Mr. Vignelli would become famous. The plates had rims designed to be stacked, and the coffee cups, which were large enough to hold just one or two espresso, had handles that protruded from the rims of the cup like arched slides. The tableware had won the Compasso d’Oro, the Oscar for Italian design, in 1964, and a set had been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its permanent collection.

Mr. Heller was hit. He searched for Mr. Vignelli, who then moved to New York City, and the two made a deal to re-produce the parts. (The original manufacturer, a Milan-based company that also made Mickey Mouse ashtrays, had gone out of business.) But first, a few changes had to be made.

Americans loved their caffeine in tall mugs (few of them drank espressos back then), and they tended to fill those mugs to the brim, which meant Mr. Vignelli’s refined handle design and the rim of the notched mug had to be changed to stop hot coffee. to spill on the hand of the American drinker.

“It was like ripping off the wings of a butterfly,” Vignelli has often said of these changes, as recalled by Michael Bierut, former vice president of graphic design at Vignelli Associates. “You only have one bug left.”

But Mr. Vignelli wasn’t exactly bitter, and he, his wife and design partner, Lella Vignelli, and Mr. Heller became longtime friends and collaborators, making Heller tableware, as they called it, in many iterations, the most spectacular in the colors of the rainbow. For older Americans, Heller dinnerware is a 1970s madeleine as powerful as a Marimekko print.

“Alan understood how good design can make your life more fun and more enjoyable,” said Suzanne Slesin, longtime design writer and editor and a former New York Times reporter. “He was making plastic items that had integrity and beauty – something you wanted to collect and show off – and that were affordable. It was design for everyone.

When, in the early 90s, the mischievous French designer Philippe Starck wanted to make a toilet brush, he turned to Mr. Heller develop its technology and manufacture its special molds. The brush, marketed as Excalibur, for King Arthur’s sword, was pastel in color, and when unsheathed it looked like a flower from space.

A lightweight molded plastic chair designed in the late ’90s by Mario Bellini, the Italian architect and industrial designer, was another success for Mr. Heller – and his first piece of furniture. It is an essentialist object, a chair reduced to its purest form, and economical, originally priced under $ 100, in keeping with Mr. Heller’s ethos of accessible design.

When retailer Design Within Reach opened in 1999, the Bellini chair was a featured product in its first catalog, and for years it was among the company’s best sellers. It won Mr. Bellini a Compasso d’Oro in 2001.

(In 2009, Mr Heller sued the company for overturning the chair – the Bellini-lack was called “Alonzo” and cost about $ 50 less than the original – as were a number of designers who were also copied. The new management has ended the practice and the original Bellini chair is “still a classic that always sells,” said John Edelman, former general manager of Design Within Reach.)

“Alan wanted to do what was unusual,” said Gordon Segal, founder of Crate & Barrel, an early source for Heller tableware. “He never wanted to do what was easy. Hellerware was difficult to produce and cost twice as much as other plastics due to its unique construction.

He added, “Back then, plastic was ugly and cheap. But Alan and the Vignellis had done something beautiful, and it could be abused. You can put it in the dishwasher. You could drop it. And it went on forever. My family still has an original ensemble. It was difficult to market at first. We had to convince people that plastic was worth paying for. It took courage for Alan to do what he did.

Alan Jay Heller was born May 13, 1940 in Port Chester, NY, and raised in the neighboring White Plains. His father, Jacob Heller, made aluminum housewares, including Heller Hostessware Colorama, a line of anodized aluminum pieces that included a set of rainbow-colored tumblers – a mid-century classic – and a rotating cake tray that played “Happy Birthday.” Her mother, Ruth (Robinowitz) Heller, was a housewife who died of breast cancer when Alan was 13. He received a bachelor’s degree from the New School for Social Research in 1965.

An early marriage to Beverly Glassenberg ended in divorce. Besides Mrs. Bluestone, Mr. Heller is survived by his sisters, Suzanne Heller and Voluntary Faith, the culinary author based in Italy.

Besides Vignelli, M. Starck and M. Bellini, Mr. Heller’s company, Heller Inc., has made furniture for other designers, including Frank Gehry – Flinstonian indoor / outdoor sofas and tables in primary colors – and Studio 65, for which he produced a dramatic bright red sofa in the shape of lips.

“Without guys like Alan,” Lester Gribetz, then vice president of Bloomingdales, told editor Arlene Hirst in 1985, “it would be the boring industry in the world.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Alan Heller, who made beautiful plastic housewares, dies at 81
Alan Heller, who made beautiful plastic housewares, dies at 81
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