John Edelman’s tenure at Design Within Reach proved that a lot can change in a decade. Back in 2009, the store was at the centre of a lawsuit for selling knockoffs of the Bellini chair produced by Alan Heller’s eponymous furniture brand. Soon after, Edelman (originally of Edelman Leather fame) joined DWR as CEO. Within his first month, he met with Heller to apologize and outline his plan to rebuild the then-beleaguered retailer as a champion of original design. The two remained friends until Heller passed away in 2021.
Last May, Edelman (who left DWR in 2019) embarked on the next chapter of his design career, buying Heller and plotting an ambitious growth strategy. Here’s everything he’s accomplished in his first 12 months on the job. (As it turns out, a lot can change in a year, too.)
- John Edelman buys Heller: “They had an incredible collection, but it was under-marketed,” Edelman says of the 52-year-old company’s appeal. “I also loved their all-plastic production technique. Once you make the mould, you’re in business for the next 20 years.” Mind you, he has made one major update to Heller’s material palette, placing new emphasis on recycled — and recyclable — polymers.
- Heller takes the keys to a 1977 VW van: After signing a new licensing deal with Frank Gehry (who designed Heller’s Twist Cube back in 2004), Edelman was eager to reintroduce one of the company’s greatest hits. Before NYCxDesign, he bought a camper van on eBay and mounted Gehry’s cubes to the top. The van broke down a few days in, but it made a big splash on social media — and returned for NeoCon a month later.
- Anna Dawson exhibits a Swell prototype: While visiting the Launch Pad section of WantedDesign Manhattan 2022, Edelman spotted a wall-mounted catchall modelled after ocean waves by Anna Dawson, who was then in her final year at RISD. (Originally from California, Dawson is an avid surfer.) “I could hear trumpets going off in my head,” says Edelman. “It was meant to be a Heller product.” Sure enough, Swell launched for purchase back at WantedDesign this May.
- The Vignelli Rocker rocks on: While Alan Heller had previously exhibited Lella and Massimo Vignelli’s 2014 design — which rocks on a gently rounded base — it had never been widely available. “The legacy of the brand is incredible,” says Edelman. “And when something is modern, it could have been designed 100 years ago or 100 years from now.” Each chair is accompanied by a Digby-powered NFT to verify its authenticity for generations to come.
- Hellerware returns: Heller’s stackable, supersaturated dinnerware was a staple of 1970s kitchens. Its revival has been such a hit that MoMA Design Store has sold out of the collection three times.
- Heller launches two new chairs: Edelman found the perfect NYCxDesign venue in Chelsea’s Heller Gallery (no relation). Designed by Rodolfo Agrella, the brand’s “The Next Generation of Modern” exhibition featured polished aluminum totems that acted like giant mirrors. “It celebrated our commitment to industrial design, and the infinity effect spoke to the future of these products,” says Edelman. “Modern furniture belongs in your home but also holds its own in a museum.”
Heller used the space to showcase two new seats designed by Hlynur Atlason in response to Edelman’s three-word prompt: “Modern, comfortable and lounge.” Atlason’s team stress-tested their concepts — Limbo (left) and Bluff (right) — by taking them home and using them as movie night seating. The results prove that, with the right curves, plastic can provide long-term comfort.
The launch would prove to be just one of several exciting 2023 milestones for Atlason. In August, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum went on to award the studio with its 2023 National Design Award for Product Design.
- On the horizon for Heller: More reissues (including the Excalibur toilet brush that Philippe Starck designed back in 1994) plus another new chair by Jumbo Studio.
Charting Heller’s rapid re-emergence as one of the biggest brands in American design.