Self-Made Men

The two dapper guys behind Hellman-Chang tell Amy Adams how they went from a fish tank to the Four Seasons.

Amy Adams
October 02, 2012

When Dan Hellman and Eric Chang stepped on stage at The Guggenheim to accept Interior Design magazine’s 2006 Best of Year Design award for their now iconic Z pedestal table, editor-in-chief Cindy Allen smiled, shook their hands, then leaned over and whispered, “Who the hell are you?” It wasn’t an entirely inappropriate question, considering the circumstances. Up
until that point, the two were known in rather small circles as childhood friends who shared a passion for creating modern furniture with an artisan’s attention to detail.

It started with a saltwater fish tank (“a cool one,” Chang assures me) in young Hellman’s bedroom that needed a cabinet. The $300+ price tags and ugly designs available at the local fish store prompted a “Hey, let’s make one!” moment. After several trips to The Home Depot for books, tools and wood, they ultimately wound up with a somewhat clumsy piece of furniture that cost several thousand dollars … and the thrill of crafting something by hand. From that point on, they were hooked. Post-college-graduation, they decided to rent an area-rug-sized space in a Brooklyn co-op that catered to artists and craftsmen — the first time the two had access to professional-grade tools and equipment. Being surrounded by professional furniture makers who didn’t mind sharing advice helped, too.

Over time, an aesthetic defined by dynamic surface details and serious handwork — as well as a business plan — emerged. The then 23-year-olds decided to enter Interior Design’s aforementioned contest, and the rest, so they say, is one of those overnight-sensation stories. Within a week of winning, they got a call from designers representing the Four Seasons, who needed 15 bar tables for the Seattle property, plus a coffee table for its presidential suite.

Today, the bespoke-suited duo now labor out of their own 11,000-square-foot facility in Brooklyn filled with classic woodworking equipment that still requires hand operation. They recently launched the very sexy Avery chair, a design four years in the making that represents their first foray into seating, as well as the Anora lamp, a graceful exercise in balance. Yet for all the industry buzz, the two remain proponents of the spoke shave (a tool originally used to create wagon wheels) that shears hardwood a hundredth of an inch at a time, an arduous process resulting in the twisting facets found in many of their designs. Responsibly forested wood is sourced locally. Within their workshop, they set aside co-op space for artisans with whom they’ve worked in the past. And, perhaps most importantly, they still exude the same enthusiasm found in their days spent in Hellman’s family’s garage: Just two dudes making furniture — albeit the kind more at home with a Manhattan on the rocks than saltwater. At David Sutherland Showroom;