It was 2006 when Eric Chang and his business partner Daniel Hellman decided on a whim to submit their fledgling company’s Z Pedestal table to Interior Design magazine’s first-ever “Best Of” edition. To their shock, it won. At the ceremony, Chang received the award from editor in chief Cindy Allen, who handed him the plaque, then whispered into his ear, “Who the hell are you?”
At the time, Chang and Hellman were very much hobbyists. They’d met and bonded in high school over woodworking, and were only making furniture on nights and weekends. But following the award, their work quickly gained an influential audience—their second commission was a piece for the set of the first Sex and the City movie—and it didn’t take the pair long to carve out a name in the world of high-end, American-made furniture. The company’s rise was helped by the fact that Chang had a knack for, and some professional experience in, marketing. When the two launched a campaign featuring themselves—dressed to the nines in tailored suits, going to town in the glorious chaos of their woodworking shop—it immediately struck a chord, and suddenly Hellman-Chang was everywhere.
“There are a million stories to be told in design centers, [but] I came in and saw a barren desert of brand. Here we are [as an industry] creating the highest-quality product—we should be up there with Prada and Gucci. And to some extent, we are, but we haven’t told anybody about it,” Chang tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “We were two young guys, self-taught, making these pieces in Brooklyn, and we screamed those things from the rooftop. It perfectly aligned with what consumers were looking for.”
Fifteen years later, Hellman-Chang has moved from a Brooklyn woodshop to a facility in rural Georgia that has given the company the space to grow. The duo are still making high-end furniture by hand in America, but much has changed—and Chang is no longer a young outsider looking in. A former president of the Decorative Furnishings Association, he’s had a front-row seat to the challenges and opportunities of an industry in transition.
In this episode of the podcast, he discusses why he welcomes new technology in all its forms, from digital multilines to virtual showrooms; why the whole industry needs to work together to move forward; the pervasive issue of knockoffs; and—most importantly—why embracing transparency is the key to the future.
“[A lack of transparency has] choked the industry and choked where we could really be right now. … There’s a host of issues that come with the opacity of the business model,” Chang says. “I do know designers that still try to hide their resources. But I [tell them], ‘If you think you’re going to keep doing that and stay in business in five years, you’re going to be mistaken—because you can’t build trust with your consumer these days without transparency. It’s just not possible.’”
Homepage photo: Eric Chang | Courtesy of Hellman-Chang