Alan Heller, Who Made Plastic Housewares Stunning, Dies at 81


Alan Heller, the maker of elegant, often whimsical but always affordable housewares and furniture that combined high design with prosaic plastic, died on August 13th at his Manhattan home. He was 81.

Barbara Bluestone, his companion who confirmed the death, gave no cause but said he had been in poor health for many years.

The son of a homeware manufacturer, Mr Heller retired a year after college in 1966 after a very brief career as an ironing board cover seller when he saw a set of stackable plastic dishes and mugs in a museum exhibit.

The dishes were the work of Massimo Vignelli, the Italian designer and graphic purist responsible for the New York subway map, Bloomingdale logo and other visual elements of the late 1960s and 70s.

The pieces were amazingly simple, like the Helvetica font for which Mr. Vignelli became famous. The plates had stackable rims, and the coffee cups, large enough to hold just a shot or two of espresso, had handles that sprout from the rims of the cups like curved water slides. The dishes won the Compasso d’Oro, the Italian Design Oscar, in 1964, and one set was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its permanent exhibition.

Mr. Heller was defeated. He went to see Mr. Vignelli, who had since moved to New York City, and the two agreed to produce the pieces again. (The original manufacturer, a Milan-based company that also made Mickey Mouse ashtrays, had ceased operations.) But a few changes had to be made first.

Americans liked their caffeine in large mugs (few drank espresso at the time), and they tended to fill those mugs to the brim, which meant Mr Vignelli’s nifty handle design and notched cup rim had to be modified to make hot coffee stop from spilling onto the American drinker’s hand.

“It was like tearing the wings off a butterfly,” Vignelli often said of these changes, as Michael Bierut, former vice president of graphic design at Vignelli Associates, recalled. “All you have left is a bug.”

But Mr. Vignelli wasn’t really bitter, and he, his wife and design partner Lella Vignelli, and Mr. Heller became lifelong friends and co-workers who, in many iterations, made Heller tableware, as they called it, spectacularly in rainbow colors. For Americans of a certain age, Heller tableware is just as strong a 1970s Madeleine as a Marimekko print.

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

When the cheeky French designer Philippe Starck wanted to make a toilet brush in the early 1990s, he turned to Mr. Heller to develop the technology for it and to produce special shapes. The brush, marketed as the Excalibur for King Arthur’s sword, was available in pastel shades and, when pulled from its sheath, looked like a flower from space.

A lightweight, molded plastic chair designed by Mario Bellini, the Italian architect and industrial designer in the late 1990s, was another hit for Mr. Heller – and his first piece of furniture. It’s an essentialist object, a frugal chair reduced to its purest form, originally priced below $ 100, in line with Mr. Heller’s ethos of achievable design.

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

(In 2009, Mr. Heller sued the company for tearing the chair down – the Bellini-Manque was named “Alonzo” and cost about $ 50 less than the original – as were a number of designers who were also copied. New management finished the practice, and the original Bellini chair is “still a selling classic,” said John Edelman, a former CEO of Design Within Reach.)

“Alan wanted to do something unusual,” says Gordon Segal, founder of Crate & Barrel, an early source for Heller tableware. “He never wanted to do what was easy. Light goods were difficult to manufacture and, due to their unique construction, cost twice as much as other plastics. “

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

Alan Jay Heller was born on May 13, 1940 in Port Chester, NY, and grew up in the nearby White Plains. His father, Jacob Heller, made aluminum housewares, particularly Heller Hostessware Colorama, a series of anodized aluminum pieces that included a set of rainbow-colored mugs – a mid-century classic – and a rotating cake stand that played “Happy Birthday” became. His mother, Ruth (Robinowitz) Heller, was a housewife who died of breast cancer at the age of 13. He graduated from the New School for Social Research with a bachelor’s degree in 1965.

An early marriage to Beverly Glassenberg ended in divorce. In addition to Mrs. Bluestone, Mr. Heller leaves behind his sisters Suzanne Heller and Faith Willinger, the food writer who lives in Italy.

In addition to the Vignellis, Mr. Starck and Mr. Bellini, Mr. Heller’s company Heller Inc, made a dramatic bright red sofa in the shape of a lip.

“Without guys like Alan,” said Lester Gribetz, then Vice President of Bloomingdales, in 1985 the design author Arlene Hirst, “this would be the most boring industry in the world.”