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November 19, 2017

Must-have: ‘Heller’ dinnerware

100 home must-haves: number two. I personally wouldn’t want to eat off melamine over porcelain, however I’ve had a pair of Heller dinner plates for over a decade and I use them as trays everyday! The lipped edges and completely flat surface stop anything rolling off, the size is perfect for a cup of coffee plus snacks on your lap in front of the TV, and in crystal clean white, they are to me a definitive beautiful basic.

Heller white melamine dinnerware designed by Massimo and Lella Vignelli in 1964.

Heller white melamine dinnerware designed by Massimo and Lella Vignelli in 1964.

Manufactured in melamine, this stacking dinnerware was designed in 1964 by Massimo and Lella Vignelli. Produced by the American company Heller, it earnt the Vignelli’s a Compasso d’oro, Italy’s highest accolade for design, and was also later inducted into the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art.

So tell me more about the Vignelli’s? Both architects, the Vignelli’s were a legendary husband and wife partnership who founded a studio together in 1960s New York, having moved there from their native Italy. Together they were responsible for the graphic design of the New York City subway signage as well as many other iconic identities (think Knoll to the US department store Bloomingdales), they also designed homeware and pieces of furniture.

Quite unusual to be a husband and wife duo, non? Yes, and Massimo had to fight constantly to ensure his wife received equal credit for their work. As he put it in a 2010 interview at Virginia Commonwealth University, “For many years, our Vignelli office sent photographs of projects—with proper credits—to the magazines, but too often we would see the published material crediting my name only. This created a constant scene of embarrassment and frustration, to the point that I threw publications away to avoid unpleasant confrontations with Lella.” He continues, “It is not holding a pencil with four hands that makes a partnership; it is sharing the creative act and exercising creative criticism which is reflected in the end result.”

Heller dinnerware designed in 1964

Heller dinnerware designed in 1964

Looking at the dinnerware, one assumes they were quite the Modernists, with a capital ‘M’? Definitely yes. One of their oft quoted dictats was, “the life of a designer is a life of fight against the ugliness” and this extended from print to products. In his book, Vignelli: A-Z, Massimo wrote, “In the new computer age, the proliferation of typefaces and type manipulations represents a new level of visual pollution threatening our culture. Out of thousands of typefaces, all we need are a few basic ones, and trash the rest.” As such, he considered only the following five to be perfect: Akzidenz-Grotesk, Bodoni, Helvetica, Garamond No. 3 and Century Expanded. Then again, as Lella put it, “If you do it right, it will last forever. It’s as simple as that.”

Watch this! Such was their impact on the design world, a whole film ‘Design is One’ was made about them. You can watch a 2 min trailer here… designisonefilm.com

Where to buy. I bought my plate/trays from SCP but they don’t seem to carry them any more and as yet I’ve not been able to source an alternative UK stockist. Vintage ones are relatively prevalent on eBay and etsy. And if you don’t mind shipping charges, then Unisonhome seem to be the most economical for new sets with plate/trays for $11 or a whole 4-piece place setting for $36.



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Writer, Author, Brand Consultant & TV Presenter

Michelle Ogundehin is internationally renowned as an authority on interiors, trends and style. She is an influencer with expertise and the multi award-winning former Editor-in-Chief of ELLE Decoration UK.