Hellman-Chang, a furniture design company started by childhood friends Daniel Hellman and Eric Chang in 2011, has grown to become an internationally recognized—and beloved—brand in the world of interior design. What began as a weekend woodworking hobby in a small wood shop in Brooklyn has now grown into a 16,000-square-foot studio where all of the design-build magic happens. The self-taught duo also now has about 15 master craftsman from around the world working on staff. Here, Chang shares his story of the company’s humble beginnings, its meteoric rise to fame and the Z pedestal that propelled its growth. The personable and fashionable designer also addresses current trends in the industry, the idea of luxury and the future of Hellman-Chang.
How do your days usually start?
I do yoga on a regular basis. I find that it helps keep me a little grounded. My day-to-day can be pretty hectic and it’s just how I center myself. Carving away an hour for yoga a day, all the credit goes to my girlfriend. Yeah, she pulls me away and forces me to make time for myself.
How did Hellman-Chang come to be?
Daniel Hellman and I have been best friends since we were 10 years old. We met in sixth grade math class, instantly hit it off and found out that we were both huge nerds in high school and decided to teach ourselves woodworking. We both had a love for art and design. We enjoyed wood shop and we would go to the library, rent woodworking books and his dad would pull the cars out of the garage. We’d go in there in the summers of high school and college, and we would teach ourselves these old-school woodworking techniques like the hand chiseled mortise and tenon joinery, hand rubbed oil finishes, kind of the Shaker style of woodworking, and we fell right into it. We went our separate ways in college. I studied finance and marketing at NYU; Dan went to Northwestern for classical guitar performance. So it was the perfect segue to fine furniture. We met back up in New York, and we were hanging out casually talking about how we miss woodworking and thought, “Well, how are we going do this in New York City?” We found a wood shop out in Brooklyn that we could rent space from on Craigslist. And this is way before Brooklyn was considered cool and hip. We were going every night after work, meeting up at 6 p.m. and working until 2 in the morning, getting covered in sawdust, and every Saturday and Sunday. And that’s how we fell back into woodworking as adults.
How did you decide that it was time to start a business?
We turned this weekend warrior hobby into a business when we realized very quickly that a woodworking hobby in New York City is very expensive. So we thought if we could sell a couple of pieces per year, we could at least finance this thing. So we came together, we designed a couple of pieces in a small collection and randomly submitted our Z pedestal to Enter Design Magazine Specifier Awards. And before we knew it, we actually won in our category. The piece got published, and, a week later, we got a call from the designer for the Four Seasons Hotel.
They said, “We loved this piece. Can you redesign it as a restaurant bar table? We need 15 for the new Four Seasons Seattle.” And that was our first order. Our second client ended up being the set designers with Sex and the City. They had us redesign them as bedside tables for Karen and Big’s bedroom. Then our fourth or fifth client ended up being Gossip Girl, and we ended up designing a number of pieces for their set, and they actually ended up writing us into their script.
What really jumped us to full time was the moment that we signed the contract with our first designer trade showrooms and we said, “Wow, this is it.” We quit our day jobs and we just jumped all in. I remember, it was a Tuesday and I’m in my marketing office in SoHo, and on a Wednesday, I’m in a wood shop in Brooklyn with Dan standing tables. It was just like that, and we never looked back.
At what point did you feel as if you’d really become successful in furniture design?
That first contract with the Four Seasons, at the time we got it, we were literally in Dan’s basement apartment on the Upper West Side, on the phone with the designers. I remember giving Dan a high five and we were like, “Oh my God, how are we going to do this?” Fortunately, they had just broken ground. It was probably a year or so before they started construction. So by that time, we had a small staff of woodworkers working for us, but even then, it was a struggle to pump out these 15 pieces at once. Fortunately since then, we have now moved into our own 16,000-square-foot studio in Brooklyn away from the co-op where we design and build everything.
What do you and Daniel Hellman each bring to the table?
Dan and I make a really good partnership because we are completely polar opposites. I act more as a creative designer. I’m in charge of marketing, sales, PR and business development, and Dan is the technical designer and the production manager, and he’s in the shop with the guys basically making sure everything is built to the standards of quality and meeting our scheduled lead times.
What have been your goals since starting Hellman-Chang?
The mission of Hellman-Chang when we started was really to prove to the international design community that the best designed furniture and the best crafted furniture in the world doesn’t have to come from Europe. It doesn’t have to come from Italy or France. It can come right from America and from Brooklyn, New York. And we’ve always designed with the philosophy to have this international appeal with the highest standards of quality and unique timeless design, but crafted in America, and that’s where we’ve set our ship to go in, and I think in the past 10 years, and we’re in the 10th year now, that’s the reputation we’ve developed.
We’re fortunate that a lot of the milestones that we got were very early in our career. I mean, the first order of being the Four Seasons and then the second order being in TV and film with Sex and the City and then Gossip Girl within a year from that, hitting these milestones that designers dream of to get recognized and to get noticed, that really gave us a ton of confidence. I said, “Hey, we have something special here. We have something that we can really build off of,” and it allowed us to jump in full force.
How would you describe Hellman-Chang in five words or less?
Timeless, innovative, craftsmanship and American made. Those are the things we stand for.
How have you grown your line over the years?
The first piece that we designed was that Z pedestal and that’s what we entered into the Best of Year Awards. We’re not snobby about our design. We create something that we love, that we care about and we let interior designers reinterpret it. The Z pedestal turned into a bar table, to a round table, to a dining table, to a console, to a server. That piece has seen almost every iteration, and that’s kind of how the line grows. We love to collaborate with the best interior designers in the country and see how they reinterpret our collection. We are kind of in a bubble. We see our furniture in the context of a dusty old wood shop. But it is so refreshing and so inspiring to see how other designers look at the pieces and imagine them in different contexts, in different environments.
I had a wonderful experience collaborating with Michael Smith who took our Z quad dining table, but wanted it customized to be 20 feet long and to have the base in solid bronze. So we did a 13-foot base in solid maple, sent it to the foundry and it came back at 1,300 pounds. It had this beautiful bronze patina, and to see our designs in life, in bronze, and with this really interesting top that was completely gilded in 24 karat gold, it was a sight to behold.
What is it about the Z line that has such overarching appeal?
I think our Z line has resonated so well and connected so well with people in different designs and different environments because it’s simple, it’s clean, it’s grounded in solid wood and it’s very versatile. By applying a different finish, we have the ability to customize it for different spaces. We’ve seen just about every iteration of this piece that you can imagine, and it is endlessly inspiring to see all those different variations.
You work mostly with walnut, oak and sapele woods. Where do you source these materials, and why these types of woods specifically?
Most of the woods that we source are North American hard wood. The one non-native wood that we work with is sapele, it’s a cousin of mahogany, but it’s not in danger, which is why we like using it. But we do try to keep things more on the locally American forested side.
In addition to wood, what other materials do you like to incorporate into your designs?
We’ve begun to work with a lot of glass, stone and metal within our designs. Keeping the material classic and timeless is important to us, but expanding on our look of solely using wood, we’ve seen the line continue to evolve and it’s really helped grow our company.
What are you working on currently?
Hellman-Chang is really known for its dining tables and case goods. So we have a really cool lineup of new dining tables with metal, stone and glass coming out, as well as really interesting case pieces that are both clean and timeless, but that also have a bit of edge to them. So we’re super excited about getting those introduced to the market.
You are on the cutting-edge of furniture design. What can you tell us about the 3D visualization methods you use for products and the 3D renderings for custom orders?
To assist with a lot of the customization that interior designers do, we build all of our furniture first in solid works and then render them in full 3D with multiple views. If a designer is specifying something that we don’t have an image of, within 24 hours, we can actually get them a full presentation, four to five particular perspectives that they can simply print out and show to their client. So technology has been a really strong backbone for us in terms of pushing and assisting in the sales side and being on the more innovative side of things with designers.
Who or what inspires you?
I don’t often look at our industry for inspiration. I like to see what others have done in their respective industries that have pushed forward. I look at people like Ralph Lauren in fashion and what he has created, and how he has changed the way people feel about fashion in America. Elon Musk is creating the way electric cars are branded and utilized in America and the way Americans feel about vehicles and the future of that industry. Those are people that changed their industries. And I think those are inspirational people.
What are your main goals as president of the Decorative Furnishings Association? Why is the organization so important to the future of interior design?
My goal is to modernize our industry, much like StyleRow is trying to do. I think there are so many opportunities with technology, with efficiency and again, rebranding the industry and folding the concept of true luxury into the consumer’s mind. I think there is a lot of opportunity and designers in the past decade have really been asking questions about how we are going to move forward with the Internet disrupting the way we do business. Things like Pinterest and Instagram and the way the end consumer interacts and is involved with the design process, I can see how it can be daunting, but I see nothing but opportunity and growth with it.
The Decorative Furnishings Association is the only organization or industry that consists of vendors like myself, entire showrooms, entire design centers and, at this point, we’re actually folding interior designers into the conversation. And so collectively, we’re the only organization has all the leaders in all the facets of our industry, and finally we have a singular voice that can have the hard discussions that we need to have to create the right direction to move forward. I think it is the only platform that allows us to come together and create change.
How do you define luxury?
To me luxury is an experience. It’s understanding what actually goes on behind the scenes. It’s understanding the details, and, in that understanding, evoking emotion. So, for me, if I’m ready to go outside the industry, let’s talk about men’s suiting. There is a million ways to make a refined suit even though there’s only so many ways to cut it. Whether it is the Milanese buttonhole, it’s the minor details, collectively, that make a difference. To understand what goes on behind that, I think that to me creates a luxury product.
Can you share a bit with us about your experience working with Annie Leibovitz on the UBS Bank campaign?
Another great milestone was working with Annie Leibowitz who photographed me as a subject for UBS Bank’s global rebranding campaign. That was a surreal bucket list experience that I think most people wouldn’t imagine actually having on their bucket list. It was inspiring. It was terrifying. It was humbling. But at the end of the day, it was just a really fun experience. She was very down to earth, and it’s something that I’ll never forget.
How would you describe your personal style?
I have always had a passion for personal style. It started with my grandfather who was a General for Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, and he always imparted upon me the importance of presenting yourself the best way, whether it’s the way you dress or the way you speak to others. It was always for him a form of respect and therefore receiving respect from others. He’s always told me that since I was a young child, and I just grew up that way and I’ve always loved fashion because of that.
I always love walking down Madison Avenue on the weekends and going to the boutiques, and seeing where the fashion brands are taking us. I often get cues about new finishes based on perhaps a new suiting fabric that I see out there. I have a lot of suits in my collection, whether it’s Tom Ford or I work with a lot of the bespoke brands like Manolo Costa and Rich Freshman.
What are some of the current trends you’re seeing?
I think one of the biggest trends in fashion that I’m seeing is the Instagram effect. I think that you are seeing a lot of these major brands going for a lot of glitz, a lot of glam. It’s a little over the top, I won’t lie, but it’s because you only have half a second to capture someone’s attention in a little image on your phone. And that has led to so much pomp and circumstance, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of experiment with color and shape and media and textiles. And I think we’re seeing some of that go into the interior design parts of the world where I think people are going to get more creative with colors and with fabrics and patterns, and it’s going to let them be a little more experimental. And it’s okay if it’s on a pillow, hey, do it for the next couple of years, replace it later. It’s not a big deal. I think people are going to loosen up a little bit and create bolder style statements with their home.
Where do you like to travel?
I travel maybe eight to 10 months out of the year to all the showrooms that represent us in America, but, believe it or not, I love going back and forth between New York and LA. The energy of New York, when that starts to get to you, LA kind of grounds you, and then when you get the itch to get back into it, you go right back to New York and it’s a great balance of life.
When I’m in LA, my girlfriend and I will always make sure that we go to Little Sister downtown, one of the best restaurants in LA, I think, and relax in Venice or Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
What’s next for Hellman-Chang?
Hellman-Chang is uniquely positioned in a way that allows the brand to expand into other parts of design. Ultimately, I want Hellman-Chang to represent everything luxurious for the home. So in time, I hope that means textiles and fabrics. I hope that also means perhaps flatware and even at some point, interior design.
It’s funny, whenever I design a new piece for Hellman-Chang, it somehow magically fits in my home in New York City. I’m not sure how that happens, but I guess I’m fortunate enough to have a home full of Hellman-Chang.
What excites you most about StyleRow?
What really excites me about StyleRow is how streamlined it’s going to make the entire process for designers. When I came into the industry, I came from online marketing, and I realized that this industry is extremely antiquated. It is a market that I absolutely love. I love the creativity. I love the people. I love the style. I love the leading edge of things that our industry represents. But we are so backwards when it comes to technology, and StyleRow is one of those platforms that finally brings it all together, and it gets rid of the redundancies and streamlines the communication. I’m excited about its potential and what it’s going to do for our industry.
Designers today are designing differently; they’re shopping differently and we as an industry have to adapt to that. The fact that they can use a platform like StyleRow to be getting information 24/7, allowing my brand to communicate to them 24/7, ensures that we can be involved in the best projects and the best designers. I don’t ever want to miss an opportunity, and the more that I can communicate my brand and our product specifics to them in a quick and easy way, the better off this industry will be.
One of the great benefits of StyleRow as a brand is I’m able to upload every customization that we’ve ever done, which is extremely important for designers, and I think should help in terms of communication and removing a lot of the redundancies and the administrative part of the design aspect. I’ve heard designers spending as much as 80% of their time on administrative details because of the redundancies in our industry, because we’re antiquated, and StyleRow looks like it could be one of those platforms that’s really going to just completely change the way they do business. These days designers have very little time to come to the showrooms, and while that will always be a necessity for the instant gratification when it comes to information, StyleRow can be that method to get what you need instantly.