Object Lessons: Heller Dinnerware by Massimo Vignelli

An icon of sixties utilitarian chic, Massimo Vignelli’s stackable melamine plates and mugs tower on. Made in the US by Heller in their heyday, they’ve been reissued thanks to demand. And though we don’t usually get behind plastic, Hellerware, as it came to be known, is an exception.

I myself grew up in a house outside of Boston laden with the stuff–it provided the perfect companion to my mother’s Marimekko tablecloths from Design Research in Cambridge. (And though some of the plates and bowls are admittedly looking a bit less pristine of late, my mother still uses her stack.) Vignelli, who died just last year–and with his wife and design partner, Leila Vignelli, left his imprint on everything from NYC’s subway signage and maps to the Bloomingdale’s bag–would not be surprised. “If you do it right,” he said, “it will last forever.”

Four to Buy

Above: Made in the US by Heller (using the original molds and a BPA-free techno polymer), the classic Heller Dinnerware Set–dinner plate, salad plate, soup bowl, and mug–is available for $46 from Unison, which also sells the pieces individually starting at $9 for a bowl. Sets and individual pieces are also on offer at DWR, MoMA and Design Public.

Above: Vignelli created the first of his melamine tableware in his native Milan in 1964, and it won that year’s Compasso d’Oro Award for Good Design. He explained to Edible Manhattan:

“I had a client making plastic tiles. I went to see the factory and noticed that they were also using the plastic to make ashtrays with Mickey Mouse and things like that. I thought, ‘Can’t you make anything better than that?’ And a set of compact dinnerware came to my mind. I went back to the office, and in two hours I had the design fully completed.”

 In 1971–the year Massimo and Leila founded Vignelli Associates in New York–Alan Heller’s new company introduced the line in the US as its very first product; the white tableware has since never been out of production.

Above: Vignelli designed the signature box for Heller in his beloved Helvetica (and later explained his affinity for the typeface in the documentary Helvetica). Heller Clear Mugs are $12 each from DWR.

Alan Heller told to us how his company came to be synonymous with the design:

“I met Massimo and Lella in the late sixties and we all fell in love. In one of our conversations, the dinnerware design came up. I was excited, even though the Italian manufacturer had gone bankrupt. I decided that I’d fly to Italy and find out what had happened to the bankrupt company. The assets had been sold to another company, and most of the production was those Mickey Mouse ashtrays. I found the molds and negotiated with the new owners to buy the unused molds and have them produce the dinnerware again; they were delighted, since the molds had just been sitting in a corner of their warehouse. 

Six months after we introduced the dinnerware it was accepted into the Museum of Modern Art permanent design collection. The business grew, and in 1975 we decided to move the molds to the US because of horrendous labor strikes in Italy.” 

Above: Vignelli’s original tableware was in bright yellow; Heller introduced a range of bold colors in the mid-seventies and created a best seller. Over the years, Vignelli also designed additional pieces for the collection, including these mugs. 

Rainbow Mugs are $60 for a set of six from MoMA. They’re also available at DWR. Photograph via Placewares, a design shop run by a couple who met at Design Research.

Above: Vintage pieces are easy to find on eBay and Etsy, by the piece and by the stack. Look for ones that have had little use. And Alan Heller says his company “plans to produce the dinnerware forever.” Photograph from Etsy seller Object of Beauty.

For more iconic modern tableware, see our Object Lesson on Finnish designer Kaj Franck’s Teema Dinnerware, and 10 Easy Piece roundup of Architect-Designed Flatware.

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