Alan Heller, the manufacturer of elegant, often whimsical but always affordable homewares and furniture that combines high-quality design with prosaic plastic, died August 13 at his Manhattan home. He was 81.
Barbara Bluestone, his companion who confirmed the death, gave no cause, but said he had been in ill health for many years.
The son of a household goods manufacturer, Mr. Heller, who had graduated for a year in 1966 and had an extremely short career selling ironing board covers, saw a set of stackable plastic plates and cups in a museum exhibit.
The dinnerware was the work of Massimo Vignelli, the Italian designer and graphic purist responsible for the New York City subway map, Bloomingdale’s logo, and other visual staples of the late 1960s and 1970s.
The pieces were astonishingly simple, like the Helvetica font that Mr. Vignelli would become famous for. The plates had rims designed to be stacked on top of each other, and the coffee cups, large enough for just a few shots of espresso, had handles that sprouted from the cup rims like curved waterslides. The service had won the Compasso d’Oro, the Italian design Oscar, in 1964 and a set had been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its permanent collection.
Mr. Heller had been beaten. He sought out Mr. Vignelli, who had since moved to New York City, and the two struck a deal to re-produce the pieces. (The original manufacturer, a Milanese company that had also made Mickey Mouse ashtrays, had gone out of business.) But first, some changes had to be made.
Americans liked their caffeine in large mugs (few then drank espresso), and they tended to fill those cups to the brim, which meant that Mr. Vignelli’s refined handle design and serrated cup rim had to be modified to make hot coffee. stop spilling on American drinker’s hand.
“It was like pulling the wings of a butterfly,” Mr. Vignelli often said of those changes, as Michael Bierut, former vice president of graphic design at Vignelli Associates, recalls. “All you’re left with is a bug.”
But Mr. Vignelli wasn’t exactly bitter, and he, his wife and design partner, Lella Vignelli, and Mr. Heller became lifelong friends and collaborators, making Heller dinnerware, as they called it, in many iterations, most spectacularly. in rainbow colors. For Americans of a certain age, Heller dinnerware is as powerful as a madeleine as a Marimekko print until the 1970s.
“Alan understood how good design can make your life more fun and enjoyable,” said Suzanne Slesin, a longtime design writer and publisher and a former reporter for NewsMadura. “He made plastic objects that had integrity and beauty – something you wanted to collect and display – and that was affordable. It was a design for everyone.”
When the sassy 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 create its special shapes. The brush, marketed as Excalibur, for King Arthur’s sword, came in pastel shades, and when unsheathed it resembled a flower from outer space.
A lightweight, molded plastic chair designed in the late ’90s by Italian architect and industrial designer Mario Bellini, was another hit for Mr. Heller – and his first piece of furniture. It is an essentialist object, a chair reduced to its purest form, and economical, originally priced at less than $100, in keeping with Mr. Heller’s ethos of feasible design.
When retailer Design Within Reach opened in 1999, the Bellini chair was a featured product in its first catalog and was one of the company’s bestsellers for many years. It earned Mr Bellini a Compasso d’Oro in 2001.
(In 2009, Mr. Heller sued the company for throwing it off the chair — the Bellini manque was dubbed the “Alonzo” and cost about $50 less than the original — as did a number of designers who were also copied. New management stopped the practice, and the original Bellini chair is “still a consistently selling classic,” said John Edelman, a former chief executive of Design Within Reach.)
“Alan wanted to do what was unusual,” says Gordon Segal, founder of Crate & Barrel, an early source for Heller dinnerware. “He never wanted to do what was easy. Hellerware was difficult to produce and cost twice as much as other plastics because of its unique construction.”
He added: “Plastic was ugly and cheap at the time. But Alan and the Vignellis had made something beautiful that could be abused. You could put it in the dishwasher. You could drop it. And it lasted forever. My family still has an original set. In the beginning it was difficult to sell. We had to convince people that plastic was worth paying for. It took courage for Alan to do what he 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, manufactured aluminum housewares, most notably Heller Hostessware Colorama, a line of anodized aluminum pieces that includes a set of rainbow-colored cups—a mid-century classic—and a revolving “Happy Birthday” cake plate. His mother, Ruth (Robinowitz) Heller, was a housewife who died of breast cancer when Alan was 13. He received 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 Mrs. Bluestone, Mr. Heller leaves behind his sisters, Suzanne Heller and Faith Willinger.
In addition to the Vignellis, Mr. Starck and Mr. Bellini, Mr. Heller’s company, Heller Inc., made furniture for other designers, including Frank Gehry – Flinstonian indoor/outdoor sofas and tables in primary colors – and Studio 65, for which he produced a dramatic bright red couch shaped like lips.
“Without guys like Alan,” Lester Gribetz, then vice president of Bloomingdales, told design writer Arlene Hirst in 1985, “this would be the most boring industry in the world.”