Hellman-Chang is a New-York-based furniture line that makes their pieces the old-fashioned way: By hand. Tour their 8,000-square-foot facility in Brooklyn and you'll see mortise-and-tenons, glue-ups and lots of hand-planing. In an era when manufacturing is done overseas, the thought that you can have a not only workable, but highly successful furniture firm based in the city and using local craftsmen seems unlikely.
Even more unlikely is that founders and designers Dan Hellman and Eric Chang never went to design school. The duo seemed to come out of nowhere. When Eric stepped on stage at the Guggenheim to receive Hellman-Chang's first design award back in 2006, Interior Design Editor in Chief Cindy Allen shook his hand for the cameras, then whispered in his ear "Who the hell are you?"
Following that first Best of Year Award, Hellman-Chang carefully built a line that would eventually populate private residences, rooms at the Ritz Carlton, the offices of Sotheby's, the Presidential Suite of the Four Seasons. Building a successful business from the ground up takes talent, hard work, luck, and above all, tons of shrewd decision-making. In this business, as with many others, make the right call and you advance to the next level. Make the wrong call and you're finished. Dan and Eric's uncanny ability to consistently make those right calls is something many a start-up designer could learn from, and Dan and Eric have agreed to tell their full story in this exclusive, multi-part Core77 "origin story" interview.
To answer Cindy Allen's question, Who the hell are these guys? We'll start off by telling you who they were. Daniel Hellman and Eric Chang were two childhood friends from Maryland who wanted to pimp out a fish tank before they went off to separate colleges, where they'd pursue non-design-related fields. Here's Part 1 of their story.
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Core77: First, the cocktail-party question: What is Hellman-Chang?
Eric: We're a furniture line out of Brooklyn, based on a passion for designing and building furniture by hand. Stylistically we're into bold, modern, unique designs, but rooted in solid woods and traditional craftsmanship; we're known for unique surface treatments and a sort of sleekness. And there's that strong Brooklyn vibe. We fabricate in Brooklyn and find that's a major pull factor in our brand. It's a big reason why a lot of our clients are drawn to our projects.
I understand Brooklyn has influenced the company's ethos substantially, which I'm going to ask you about shortly. But first, what is Hellman-Chang's position in the marketplace?
Eric: We sell primarily to the trade. When we set out we wanted to tap into the high end market, and that's where we are: High-end residential, high-end hospitality, and a lot of boutique hotels as well. Our first client was the Four Seasons; since then we've had the new Cosmopolitan Hotel out in Las Vegas, the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, the InterContinental, the Ritz Carlton, Setai Hotels. Things like Presidential Suites or public spaces.
All being made in the shop right behind us here in Brooklyn.
Eric: And all of these pieces are made by hand, as you just saw in our shop. We're very much about high quality products and that perfect imperfection of hand built craftsmanship. Back in the shop we were just looking at some different pairs of Z-legs. Both pairs were shaped following the same form, they look identical. But if you go up real close you can see that each one is unique because they're done by hand. So you don't have that cookie-cutter effect you get when things come out of a machine.
Dan: The hint of hand craftsmanship is always prevalent in our product.
Okay, origin story time. I understand neither of you guys went to design school or have an academic design background.
Dan. That's right.
Any creative background at all?
Dan: Eric's been sketching his entire life. We've known each other since we were about, what, ten years old?
Eric: Yeah, about sixth grade. In school I was always known as an artist, and as a kid Dan was always into crafting stuff.
Dan: I was always tinkering around in the garage, building dream catchers and skateboard ramps and whatever.
And where was this?
We grew up in Maryland, right outside D.C.
So how did you first get into furniture design?
Dan: It was in high school. We had already been best friends for a long time and one summer we developed this hobby, this passion for designing furniture and wanting to see those designs come to life. We started in my parents' garage.
Started on what?
Eric: (Laughs) We were kids and really, like, into tropical fish. Dan had this really bad-ass fish tank and we were trying to find ways to make it even better, like going to the fish store and buying sea anemones and stuff for it.
Dan: And then we decided "Let's build a custom cabinet for it." Because it was just sitting on some random piece of furniture in my house. They sold cabinets at the fish store, but they were really ugly and cost like three, four hundred dollars.
But how did you learn how to build, did you guys have parents in the trades?
Dan: No. We actually taught our parents. Once we started doing this in the garage, my dad would be eager to come from work and see what we were working on. We learned everything from books and from making mistakes.
Eric: As far as learning to use power tools, we were both really into shop class in middle school and high school.
Dan: Those classes were really fun, and taught us basic techniques, how to operate a table saw, that kind of stuff.
Eric: So for the fish tank project, we started with books and tools from Home Depot. We saved up for a $125 "table saw" that you could fit in the back of your car, and some really rudimentary power tools. Compared to the stuff we've got sitting in the shop back there right now, you couldn't even call our early stuff machines.
Dan: It was just to get our feet wet, and not have to spend $300-$400 on an ugly fish tank cabinet. Of course by the end, after getting materials and tools and wood—and not good stuff either, I mean terrible plywood, soft pine and just really poor materials—we'd probably spent close to $2,000.
That's either a very expensive fish cabinet, or a very inexpensive entree into the world of high-end furniture design. How did the fish cabinet come out, by the way?
Dan: It had screws all over the place, the color was all uneven. But it was a learning process and there was that rush you get from making your first piece of furniture. We were like "Wow, this is awesome, this is fun, we just made something." And we still get that today when we make new products, seeing it go from a sketch to the final product.
Eric: Few things are more fulfilling than that in the professional field. That's something that sticks with you.
Dan: And after that first piece we had the whole rest of the summer and all these tools we just bought.
Eric: So we decided to teach ourselves how to build furniture. We spent every day that summer just coming up with pieces and building them. Trying to make each one better and better and learning from it.
Dan: And this continued after we'd both gone off to college. We'd come back in the summers, the cars would come out of the garage and we'd make stuff for our college apartments.
Eric: Things like coffee tables and little chairs, benches. Like "Let's make a lamp for your room" or "I'll make something for my grandparents as a gift."
Let's back up a sec. Where did you guys go for college?
Eric: I went to NYU. I studied finance and marketing.
Dan: I went to Northwestern and studied classical guitar performance.
Art school never occurred to either of you?
Eric: At that point [our furniture building] was a passion and a hobby, but when you're that young and you think about the future, you're not sure if that's a viable career.
Was that a case of parental pressure, where you were encouraged to study something conventional? I know there's not a lot of parents out there going "Man, I really hope my kid applies to art school."
Eric: No, that wasn't the case for us.
Dan: I studied guitar. My parents always knew I was going to be fine doing whatever. I'd always had side businesses.
Eric: In high school Dan was always mowing lawns and making dream catchers and selling them.
Dan: I didn't want one of those basic high school jobs, and in college I didn't want to fold clothes at the Gap. I figured I could make more money and work less hours doing something else, so I set up this recording business. I was in music school and all of these students needed to record their end of year recitals and demo CD's for grad school. There was [one service that did this] but I put them out of business within a year. I knew everyone and was willing to go around and record everyone's recital at the different recital halls, so I was able to capture the whole market, essentially. And make demo/recital CD's for them with printed labels and stuff. It helped pay my way through college.
So you always had that entrepreneurial streak.
Dan: Yeah, very much so. I never had that notion of "You need to do X,Y and Z in order to succeed in life," I had more of the "follow what you love" mentality.
Eric, how did you choose where to go to college?
Eric: I had artistically oriented passions and hobbies, but wasn't sure if that was what I'd end up doing. So I was exploring different fields.
At NYU, you said?
Eric: [Initially] the University of Michigan to study business. But I had a few friends that were at NYU at Stern, the business program, and they said "You should come to New York if you want to do business." And even the people at Michigan business school said that New York had better opportunities. So I transferred to NYU and got into Stern my sophomore year.
I was never a fan of Finance, but chose it as a major because that was Stern's best program. And I did a double major in Marketing to get some kind of education linked to my creative side.
Junior year me and three other friends started up a marketing agency. We were doing online advertising and I started juggling going to school with full-time work at the agency. It actually became very successful.
Eric: We were named one of the Top 100 Fastest Growing Companies in the United States by Entrepreneur magazine sometime my senior year. The business was going very well, and so I did it after graduating college, too.
Did you enjoy it?
Eric: I enjoyed it a lot, and I learned a lot: The fundamentals of starting a business, hiring and managing employees, how to grow a business, keeping it capitalized. You learn that no matter what kind of business you're in, you're still doing business. So a lot of what I learned could be carried over into any other business. That definitely helped when we decided to set up Hellman-Chang.
Dan, at what point did you end up in New York?
Dan: After college I moved to New York to work in the music industry, at an agency where I booked classical musicians. I quickly learned I did not like that at all. I'd be sitting at my desk drawing things.
And it was this job that brought you to New York, there was no plan to start a furniture company with Eric at that point?
Dan: Right. Basically Eric and I were hanging out all the time, reminiscing over how it was just last summer that we were building furniture back in Maryland. Of course we didn't have a garage here, but we both missed it and started thinking "How can we do this in New York?"
Eric: We just had that itch to design and build stuff again.
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Coming up in Part 2: Dan and Eric go Bushwick, but find that scratching the design itch proves too expensive a hobby to maintain.
Building a Successful Furniture Business
» Part 1: From the Ground Up
» Part 2: From Bushwick to Best-of-Year Award
» Part 3: To ICFF or not to ICFF
» Part 4: The ICFF Brings a New Challenge
» Part 5: How Do We Take Over?
» Part 6: Growing Despite the Recession