Quality furniture is something that people are always searching for. Design duo Hellman-Chang creates furniture that uses quality techniques and delivers luxury that will last for generations. See what Eric Chang had to say about all things woodworking, as well as what it’s like collaborating with fashion brands.
Viyet: You often describe Hellman-Chang as the right way to make furniture. Can you elaborate on that?
Chang: Daniel and I had learned woodworking the old-fashioned way; first, in his parents’ garage in high school with books from the library, and then in a co-op in Brooklyn alongside some of the best craftsmen in the industry. There is an art and deep appreciation to the old-world techniques that define quality. At this level of luxury, it’s simply necessary to stay true to time-honored techniques that ensure such pieces will last for generations.
Viyet: Is there an all-time favorite Hellman-Chang piece that you have created, and why?
Chang: The entire Z line is a favorite here at our studio, and is also the most popular among our interior design clients. It’s the line that launched our company and has become synonymous with our brand. It’s simple, timeless, yet features expert handcraftsmanship, while being extremely unique to Hellman-Chang. It won the Best of Year Design Award that first got media attention, and has since then been featured in editorial, and mentioned in TV and film. It will stand the test of time and hopefully become a design classic.
Viyet: What is the usual timeline from creation to completion for a Hellman-Chang piece?
Chang: It varies from piece to piece. We have had pieces [I have] conceptualized that are then run through the technical design with Daniel, and then been fabricated within 2-3 months. There have been others that have become engineering feats, and have taken up to four years, like our first chair, the Avery.
Viyet: What do you consider the biggest challenge when creating a piece?
Chang: The goal for every Hellman-Chang piece is to be both unique and timeless. These are heirloom-quality pieces that are meant to be investments and handed down through time. As such, they should look elegant and beautiful today, and a hundred years from now, while staying true to Hellman-Chang’s recognizable design vision and passion. That’s a tricky balancing act to maintain, and keeps us on our toes and our designs fresh as we evolve.
Viyet: Can you share a few highlights of the pieces that you are consigning with Viyet?
Chang: Handcrafted is even more important today than when we started eight years ago. Consumers today, be it the top 1% or the general public, are thinking more about where their products and services come from. They appreciate the story behind each product if they are spending their hard-earned money on it, so more is at stake. And they understand the importance of supporting locally made and handcrafted objects. Nothing exemplifies this more than the food industry, where it has nearly become table stakes for reputable restaurants to be locally sourced and specially prepared for a more individualized experience. The story and the origin of our products today are focused on the experience of living with them for our customers.
Viyet: Brooklyn is a hotbed for creativity and design. Do you see other cities in the country or abroad that have a similar design confluence?
Chang: The creative structure that has made Brooklyn both a hotbed, and now nearly unaffordable, has been replicated in countless cities across the US that are now experiencing their own artisan renaissances and each in their own special way. You can see this in the craft and the food that is now coming out of Oakland, Portland, Detroit, Downtown Los Angeles, and even unexpected cities like Cincinnati. It’s going to be very interesting and exciting to see how American design develops and becomes more sophisticated over the next few years.
Viyet: You are one of the few designers to land a partnership with a fashion brand. How did the Canali ad campaign come about?
Chang: For a boutique line like ours to engage in a national advertising campaign was an extremely costly and risky endeavor. It was one of those campaigns that I knew could either make us or break us given the investment we would put into it. Therefore, I knew it was something that had to grow and develop our brand in the long-term, ensuring a greater return over time. I had this idea about four years before we started the campaign. It’s the only furniture ad that doesn’t actually show furniture, but it captures our brand extremely well in one very memorable image showing Dan and myself, how we started the company building furniture by hand together, working in our studio in Brooklyn, New York, but wearing these fine custom-made suits provided by Canali. You immediately understand the refinement, luxury, and bespoke character of our end product without ever seeing it, but can also see the dichotomy of its raw dusty origins in our process and our Brooklyn studio. It tells the story instantly in one very memorable and striking image. I knew that this would be a campaign that would strike an emotional chord and be recognizable, and that the concept could be leveraged even more so if we partnered with a high-end fashion label. I knew as someone who was close with the brand, which I’ve always respected as a lover of men’s suiting. They immediately loved the idea and jumped on board. We then produced a behind-the-scenes video of the shoot, which was then cross-promoted both in the furniture industry and the fashion industry, giving us greater exposure and tremendous brand associations on both sides.
Viyet: How do you see the relationship between fashion and furniture making?
Chang: The two are closely tied in that they rely heavily on visual proportion, textures, colors, and materials. Both are appealing to the same emotions for our customers, and so they rely on the same modes of thought when creating new products. To top it off, both must be supported by the level of craftsmanship, which is an artisan skill in great demand and low supply. I look more to the fashion industry than my own furniture industry for inspiration. Many of the finishes are inspired by men’s suiting, which closely follow.
Viyet: Both you and Daniel Hellman are self-taught furniture makers. When did you realize that you wanted to follow a path in design? Was that a difficult decision?
Chang: It was always in our blood. We taught ourselves how to design and build furniture as a hobby from a young age. It wasn’t until we got our first order from the Four Seasons Hotel, followed up by a phone call from the set designers of Sex and the City, that we realized we had a viable vision for a line and a brand that could become our full-time careers. It was a real-life story of a passion becoming a business.
Viyet: What would be your advice to anyone thinking of becoming a designer?
Chang: Anything you do must be done with the utmost passion and conviction. There are a lot of great designers out there, but only the ones that design from pure passion can be successful. It’s the one thing you cannot fake or hide, and in our industry, it is recognized and rewarded. Never lose sight of that. And that design voice must be yours.
Viyet: Is there anything in the current market, a trend or a type of design, you love (or hate)?
Chang: I love the possibility of the future of American design. Hellman-Chang’s mission has always been to prove to the global design community that the best designed and the best crafted furniture in the world can come from America and can come from Brooklyn, New York. When the world thinks of fine furniture, it automatically thinks of Italy or France, but we want to change that perspective. America is going in the right direction by focusing on quality and craft; it is the basis from which we will have the credibility to stand toe to toe with the rest. We have wanted to take it a step further by creating pieces that look as refined and sophisticated as what you may find in Europe, and lead the entire industry in new design directions. So I love the handcrafted movement. What I don’t love right now is some of the unoriginality. I respect the mid-century modern movement; it has given us great credibility in the past, but I think the retro-inspired designs are creating a massive swath of like-minded American design that needs to be broken out of. It has a look, but under the eye of the global design community, young American designers have to do more to become original thought leaders.
Viyet: Hellman-Chang became a recognizable name in 2006 with its first design award. How have things evolved since then, and what are the best and the worst aspects of experiencing growth?
Chang: We have begun to work with other materials that contrast and highlight the beauty of the solid woods we use. We have been staying true to the design philosophy, while slowly growing our vision. The pieces remain both unique and sculptural, but are taking on more proportions and shapes that can be more versatile with different environments and under the vision of different interior designers. The best aspect of growth is the ability to create more products that deepen our portfolio and round out our brand as we work with more designers and projects. The downside has been keeping up with demand while maintaining our lead times and quality. It’s a great problem to have, but a challenge we have been really enjoying.
Viyet: Hellman-Chang is known to cater to several private residences but also movies (Sex and the City 2), TV series (Gossip Girl), and high-end hotels (The Ritz-Carlton, Waldorf Astoria). How do you modulate your creative approach when addressing such different clients?
Chang: There has been no change in our approach thus far between high-end residential and high-end hospitality. They are getting the same products, manufactured with the same care and attention to detail. The only difference we might have done for some larger scale contract projects is use American Maple with a custom finish to help them reach their budget needs, but overall the quality and fabrication methods are the same.
Viyet: Except for the aforementioned projects, how often do you get to see your creations in situ? Is that a curiosity you have while creating a piece?
Chang: I travel a lot to meet directly with interior designers and sometimes see spaces. It allows me to see our products outside the context of our minds and our dusty woodshed. It’s quite eye-opening and inspiring to see how our pieces are placed and used, and in what kind of situations they’re included as decoration. It’s quite inspirational and helps expand our design thought and horizons. It’s also extremely important for us to create personal relationships with our interior design clients to better improve not just our products, but our services too. Part of purchasing Hellman-Chang is not just the beautiful product the client gets in the end, but also the amazing customer service experience you get from the beginning of fabrication to delivery to your home.