Alan Heller, who beautifies plastic household items, dies at 81

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Alan Heller, a maker of elegant, often whimsical but always affordable homewares and furniture where high design combines with bland plastic, died at his Manhattan home on August 13. He was 81 years old.

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

The son of a household goods manufacturer, Mr. Heller was returning from an extremely short career selling ironing board covers when, a year after graduating from college in 1966, he spotted a row of stackable plastic plates and cups in a museum exhibit.

It was the work of the dinnerware Massimo VignelliItalian designer and graphic purist responsible for the New York subway map of the 1960s and ’70s, Bloomingdale’s logo and other visual staples.

The pieces were surprisingly simple, like the Helvetica font that Mr. Vignelli would become famous for. The saucers had sides designed for stowing, and coffee cups that were just big enough to hold an espresso or two had handles that sprouted from the sides of the cups like curved waterslides. The dinnerware won the Compasso d’Oro, Italy’s design Oscar in 1964, and A set was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its permanent collection..

Mr Heller had been shot. He called Mr. Vignelli, who had moved to New York by then, and the two made a deal to reproduce the pieces. (The original manufacturer, a Milanese company that also made Mickey Mouse ashtrays, went bankrupt.) But first some changes had to be made.

Americans loved their caffeine in large mugs (few were drinking espresso at the time) and tended to fill cups to the brim, meaning that Mr. Vignelli’s elegant handle design and notched cup rim had to be modified to stop hot coffee. From pouring it into the hands of an American drinker.

“It was like plucking the wings of a butterfly,” Mr. Vignelli has often said of these changes, as Michael Bierut, former vice president of graphic design at Vignelli Associates recalls. “All you have left is an insect.”

But Mr Vignelli wasn’t really bitter and he, his wife and design partner, Lella Vignelliand Mr. Heller have been lifelong friends and collaborators, and Heller has made dinnerware in many iterations, in the most eye-catching rainbow colors. For Americans of a certain age, Heller dinnerware is just as powerful a 1970s Madlen as Marimekko edition.

“Alan understood how good design can make your life more fun and more enjoyable,” said longtime design writer Suzanne Slesin. Publisher and a former reporter for The New York Times. “He made plastic objects that have integrity and beauty – that you will want to collect and display – and are affordable. It was a design for everyone.”

In the early ’90s, when moody French designer Philippe Starck wanted to make a toilet brush, Mr. Heller for this is to develop technology and make special molds. Marketed as Excalibur for King Arthur’s sword, the brush came in pastel hues and, when unsheathed, looked like a flower from outer space.

A lightweight, molded plastic chair designed by Italian architect and industrial designer Mario Bellini in the late ’90s was another hit for Mr. Heller and his first piece of furniture. An essentialist object, a chair reduced to its purest form, and an affordable, original price of less than $100, in keeping with Mr. Heller’s approachable design approach.

When retailer Design Within Reach opened in 1999, the Bellini chair was a highlight in its first catalog and has been among the company’s bestsellers for years. It earned Mr. Bellini a Compasso d’Oro in 2001.

(in 2009, Mr Heller sued the company for overturning the chair – The Bellini-manque was called “Alonzo” and was priced around $50 less than the original – just as some of the copied designers did. John Edelman, former CEO of Design Within Reach, said the new management stopped the practice and said the original Bellini chair is “still a perpetually selling classic”.)

“Alan wanted to do the unusual,” said Gordon Segal, founder of Crate & Barrel, an early resource for Heller dinnerware. “He never wanted to do what was easy. Hellerware was difficult to manufacture and was twice as expensive as other plastics due to its unique structure.”

In those days, plastic was ugly and cheap. But Alan and the Vignellis had done something good, and that could be abused. You can put it in the dishwasher. You can leave. And it took forever. My family still has an original set. Shopping was difficult at first. We had to convince people that plastic was worth paying for. It takes courage to do what Alan did.”

Alan Jay Heller was born on May 13, 1940, in Port Chester, NY, and grew up in nearby White Plains. His father, Jacob Heller, specifically produced aluminum household items. Heller Stewardess Software ColoramaA set of anodized aluminum pieces that include a mid-century classic, a set of rainbow-colored glasses, and a rotating pie plate that plays “Happy Birthday.” His mother, Ruth (Robinowitz) Heller, was a housewife who died of breast cancer when Alan was 13. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the New School for Social Research in 1965.

An early marriage to Beverly Glassenberg ended in divorce. In addition to Miss Bluestone, Mr. Heller is survived by his sisters Suzanne Heller and Faith Willinger.

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

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

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