Hellman-Chang was officially founded in 2006 by Daniel Hellman and Eric Chang – lifelong friends from Potomac, Maryland who taught themselves how to build solid wood furniture in their parents’ suburban garage during their summers in high school. Going their separate ways in college, the two reunited in New York and quickly setup a new studio. Reviving their craft by establishing a brand identity and designing furniture for private clientele eventually lead to winning two accolades from Interior Design Magazine’s Best of Year Design Awards (for the now iconic Z Pedestal, and Tao Cocktail Table), as well as recognition in Home & Design Magazine’s Top 100 Designs of the Decade. As a result, their distinctive furniture line was exposed to the world and turned their weekend hobby into a full-time career. We sit down with Eric Chang, one half of the dynamic duo to get the inside scoop on his original designs, work ethic, Asian films, and more! Read below for the full interview…
Eric, in your own words, tell us what Hellman-Chang represents as a brand.
Eric: Hellman-Chang is about boldness, sophistication, and timeless quality and craft. Our designs are extremely unique, but they’re grounded in solid wood in refined finishes as to make them also extremely livable in the home. Each piece is also hand-made to order – all in our Brooklyn, NY studio; and all of our vendors and artist partners are within a 2-3 mile radius from us. Kind of like a finely tailored bespoke suit from Saville Row, our products have the spirit of being carefully hand-made with tremendous pride. Some elements can be perfectly imperfect, and our clients can see that and feel it the moment they touch it.
Tell us a bit about your designs and what makes them so unique.
Eric: Dan and I actually never went to design school – so I do believe that doesn’t give us a set of rules to be bounded by. We design with complete freedom and without preconceived notions of what is necessarily ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It’s about what feels right – emotionally, and what moves us. At this point, there’s definitely a unique look and feel to a Hellman-Chang piece that makes it instantly identifiable (in a lot of surface treatment, angles, lines, and finishes). Sometimes we can sketch out a beautiful design, but if we look at it and we can’t say “that’s definitely a Hellman-Chang piece” then we start over. 99% of the time when someone sees one of our pieces for the first time, their first response is to run their hands along a certain surface or swooping line. That’s a major element, and we always strive to create that emotional connection with people when we design.
Doing a start up with a friend can be a risky endeavor. Many things such as conflict of interest, egos, or even money can sour a relationship. What makes your partnership with Daniel so successful?
Eric: This is my second partnership with friends. I can tell you that it most definitely can sour relationships, it’s extremely risky. Knowing that, we had very long discussions about how the dynamic would work out before we even started the company officially. There was a lot laid out on the table in respect to expectations and personal beliefs. I think there needs to be honesty, and the ability to communicate well together. There also needs to be a great deal of level-headedness and empathy. Arguments or conflict points absolutely need to be discussed from a business perspective and an objective point of view as to not let personal feelings intervene. That doesn’t mean not to let it get personal because our business is based on our mutual passion for design which certainly carries some level of ego – it would be impossible not to feel close to something. However, looking through the lens of your business partner, keep things discussed on a business level and let out the personal steam when you need to talk it out. The most important thing though, is to find a partner who compliments your skill set. Daniel and myself have our own specialties – if we did the same things we would be an inefficient partnership and we’d be fighting over how to do a lot of tasks or stepping on each other’s toes – but that comes with a lot of trust. I have to trust that he’s doing his job well and he has to trust that I’m doing my job well.
Home & Design Magazine awarded Hellman-Chang one of the Top 100 Designs of the Decade. For such a young start up company that is no easy feat. Do you contribute your background as an artist to achieving these accolades?
Eric: Well my background as an artist is purely from a hobby perspective since I went to NYU for business school. I really love to draw and hope that I’m halfway decent at it, but I think my success so far as a designer comes from a real passion for art and the aesthetic. I don’t enjoy designing purely for function, it’s more of a form of personal art and expression for me. If it doesn’t move me on some emotional level, then it’s not going to get prototyped in our studio. Therefore, I think our individual pieces carry an essence and ‘spirit’ about them, both in the design and through the process of how they’re each fabricated by hand. People definitely recognize it when you design and craft something with pure passion and pride.
What brought you to study Finance at NYU if your passion was art all along?
Eric: I think what differentiates a lot of successful self-employed designers from the ones that continue to keep trying to break through is business savvy. There are a lot of good designers out there – we don’t claim to be the best designers by any means, but I do believe we are one of the best at what we do from a full 360 degree perspective – meaning the whole package of design, craftsmanship, business and brand. In getting to where we are today (and we still have ways to go to get to where we ultimately want to be), the day to day has been equal parts design passion and business aplomb. Having business school as a background gave me a foundation to assure me that I could actually run a business. My business just happens to be design.
What comes first – the materials or the design idea?
Eric: Being self-taught designers, we never really came up with a stringent design process. I’ve found that inspiration can come from anywhere. I may see a building that catches light in some beautiful way because I walked by it at just the right time of day, or I may see a tree with an interesting grain pattern that really emphasizes some form or growth. I rarely design because there’s a set method, it needs to come from an emotional reaction – that may be my only rule.
Organic growth is growth that comes from a company’s existing business as opposed to growth that comes from buying new business. Your line of products are still very young, so how do you plan on enforcing organic growth?
Eric: One of the first rules you learn in business is the 80/20 rule – 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers. Especially in the interior design industry – you’ll find that though we make product, we are really more of a service company. We really pride ourselves in our service – the process itself of ordering a Hellman-Chang piece, flipping through our various catalogs, customizing the piece if necessary, communicating with Dan or myself, receiving all the necessary materials needed to specify product for clients – it’s all supposed to be a positive and memorable experience. The sales cycle is long, and designers and clients deal with a lot of headaches when designing their home or a new high-end hotel. We make the experience as enjoyable and easy as possible. We always make sure we get the highest marks in respect to personal service and care. It’s something we take tremendous pride in, and as a result, all of the designers and people we work with come back and order more with us, and spread the word. We contribute most of our sales growth to repeat business and loyal clients – because they are also the ones that bring you new clients.
This is a film website, in addition to a culture site, so I have to ask…got any favorite Asian films?
Eric: At the risk of sounding too cliché, I would say In the Mood for Love. There isn’t any director fromany country more capable of capturing so much emotion in cinematography and story telling as Wong Kar-wai. You get sucked into his films and all of your senses get stirred with his methods. It’s really impressive. I’m also a bit of a sucker for Japanese Anime. The medium of animation gives you so much freedom to create a vision from scratch. They are extremely creative in developing fictional universes with immense depth and untold history. It’s evident in their attention to detail – in the environmental designs or the technologies they’ve created in these fantasy worlds. It’s really interesting to see it. Visual artistry at its best.
Any critical advice you can give for anyone who wants to turn their hobby into a full fledged operation?
Eric: Definitely do it for the right reasons. Meaning do it because you have a real passion for it. A lot of people will get into starting their own business mostly because they don’t want to work for someone or they’ve been laid off and looking for work. Dan and I started Hellman-Chang when we both had other day jobs. So pursuing it as a full time career was more about passion than making money. As a full operation, running your own business becomes exactly that –running a business. You end up doing business 85% of the time to make sure that you are continuing to grow, putting out fires, and maintaining profitability or vendor relationships. That’s the only way to make sure your operation becomes viable and long-term. But you’re doing it all for that 15% of the time that you get to go back and do what you were passionate about. That’s what drives us and keeps us sane. If you’re not passionate about it enough, then you may find that the headaches and challenge of running the business isn’t worth it.
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