Where I Work: Hellman Chang

For this month’s Where I Work, we’re back in New York, at Hellman Chang’s studio in the industrial cool neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn. Here, we get an insider view of how design duo (and childhood friends) Daniel Hellman and Eric Chang go about creating their award-winning furniture—using tools that range from old-time hand saws to custom iPad apps. With an 11,000-square-foot-studio that includes some serious machinery, they’ve come a long way from the days  when they taught themselves how to build furniture in their parents’ garage.

Do you set aside quiet time each day to do the actual designing? 

Dan: I wish it were that organized. We’re very much growing the biz, so the bulk of our time is devoted to that. Eric comes up with the concepts, I do more of the technical design work. When he’s ready, we force a meeting go over things. But it’s not like every Monday at 10 we have a design meeting. We have to be flexible.

Eric: Designers don’t realize at first that you’re running a business 9-5. You don’t have a lot of time to sit down and do the design work you grew up loving. Sometimes it happens in the middle of the night or walking down the street.

It looks like you share a desk.

Dan: So much of our work involves making decisions together, so yes, we sit next to each other at a long partners desk. We built it with [architect] Piero Lissoni for the Showtime Show House, for The Tudors room. He was in charge designing the dining room. it’s a 13-foot-long table. We thought, “What are we going to do with this thing?” It worked out perfectly that it became our partners desk.

Tell us about the rest of the space. 

Eric: We’ve been in this studio about three years. It’s 11,000-square-feet, and was a wide open cement box. We spent two or three months building it out, adding hardwood floors, windows, and sliding barn doors to make closets. We have those Brooklyn loft windows you see in the industrial areas here.

We divided the space into different zones. We put in a glass wall to divide our front office from our production studio. We can watch the guys working on the products. We often go back there and work with them, talk to them. It’s a really good way to design and produce furniture.

Dan: We like the intimate hands on approach, because a lot of things can get lost in translation. We like that we control it in house and can change things on the fly as they develop. We have a bench room, and machine room, where we do the major cuts. Also a photo room so we can photograph new prototypes.

You’ve got a lot of machines.

Dan: Yes, it’s a fully functioning wood studio. The machinery we have is what you would consider classical woodworking equipment.  There’s a jointer, planar, and table saws. We have a beautiful old bandsaw from the 1940s that we bought at auction; it’s built like a tank. It’s about 3,000 pounds of solid cast iron, this is one of our favorites, very robust; they don’t make them like they used to. They’re all hand operated; there are no robotics involved. It’s old style operated by very skilled craftsman with a considerable amount of skill and training.

What happens after the heavy lifting?

Dan: The handwork is done in our bench room, using tried and true hand tools, including a spokeshave. That’s a tool designed a few hundred years ago to create the spokes of wagon wheels. It’s a small hand tool used to contour and shape solid wood. It’s good for smaller intricate surfaces, and a lot of our designs sculpt solid wood surfaces.

Can you give us an example of a piece on which you use the spokeshave?

Dan: The best example would be anything in the Z line, like the side table and also our new Avery chair (below).

You’re a very contemporary design shop, yet utilize quite old-fashioned methods.

Eric: We’re known for modern designs with unique surface detailing. We definitely execute it with traditional hand tools and time honored methods.

Dan: We use a handplane too. It’s similar in concept, but better for larger surfaces. And a rasp, which is the same thing, in conjunction with the spokeshave, to do a similar type process. Depending on the grain of the wood. The spokeshave is good when the grain is agreeable, but when it’s not the rasp is a great. We’re very much about the craftsmanship.

What are your favorite design tools? 

Eric: When we design new products, the best tool for us has just been paper and pencil. I have a handmade leather sketchbook that I got in Florence; it’s a favorite of mine.

Dan: As for favorite pencils, I’d have to say a sharp one.

Let’s talk about how you’re wired.

Eric: We’re not Mac computer users; we grow up on PCs and we love using them. We do use iPads for client presentations; we developed an iPad app—it’s in beta—for our own use for presentations. It tells the craftsman story behind each product, relying extensively on photography from their process and workshop. It allows clients at trade shows and showrooms to gesturally explore each product, from conception to birth. We have iPhones too. Salesforce has cloud-based software that can pull up info for clients when we’re on the road.

Which software design programs do you use?

Eric: AutoCAD has been vital in making all of our technical shop drawings. Without it, it would be difficult to translate the conceptual design into a working piece.

Dan:  That enables us to communicate with craftspeople and builders, to whom we take a pencil sketch. They translate it into a rendering that  can actually be built out of wood. We also use Solidworks and Keyshot. We always provide a 3D renderings for clients so they can really see their future piece.

Are the guys that create the furniture in the workroom proficient with design software? Or is is another team that does that?

Eric: Very much so. Most of our craftsmen have also been alumni of tremendously talented schools like RISD where they learn multiple design programs. The design process is long; there are sketches, discussion, then technical drawings, then we begin to build, but the design keeps going. We’re like sculptors. As we create the design prototypes, we make changes to them.

Dan: That’s a benefit to being hands on and having the work zones under one roof. We design as we go.

Eric . Yes, we design as we build. A lot of designers draw it and farm it out. For us, everything happens here.

Do you have a favorite piece?

Eric: The Avery chair. It’s brand new, four years in the making because the lines and the curves are so extreme. Figuring out how to produce it in solid wood was the first challenge, then we had to figure out how to turn it into a comfortable and functional chair.

Dan: A table just needs to be flat, but a chair needs to interact with the human body.

Do you have any Hellman Chang pieces in your own homes? 

Eric: A lot of the new prototypes just happen to fit perfectly in our homes. A lot of furniture get switched out quite frequently. Our homes are our own testing grounds.

Dan: The constant redecorating is sometimes good, sometimes not. I have a four-year-old. I built his crib and changing table.

Will there be Hellman Chang baby?

Dan: Everyone keeps asking. . .

Photos by Kate Glicksberg for Design Milk.

Marni Elyse Katz is a Contributing Editor at Design Milk. She lives in Boston where she contributes regularly to local publications and writes her own interior design blog, StyleCarrot.