Q&A: Jerry Helling on the “Real” Issues Young Designers Face

For the better part of a decade, Jerry Helling has been a tireless supporter of young designers. Some of those efforts, I suspect, were born of frustration. In his role as president and creative director at Bernhardt Design, he’s experienced first-hand the disconnect between the dreams and visions of novice designers and the sometimes brutal […]

For the better part of a decade, Jerry Helling has been a tireless supporter of young designers. Some of those efforts, I suspect, were born of frustration. In his role as president and creative director at Bernhardt Design, he’s experienced first-hand the disconnect between the dreams and visions of novice designers and the sometimes brutal realities of the marketplace. Helling initiated ICFF Studio (Bernhardt’s annual collaboration with up and comers) and continues to work closely with students at Art Centre in Los Angeles. When planning our “So You Want to Be a Product Designer” story, we knew he had to be part of it. An edited version of his lively conversation with Barbara Eldredge follows.

What is the best way for a young designer to get noticed by a manufacturer?

It’s difficult in this country. In Europe, there is an infrastructure of organizations that support young designers. There are so many fairs, exhibitions, and publications—it’s much easier to get noticed. And there’s governmental support. Here it is more difficult, because there aren’t as many exhibitions, there’s no government support, no trade organizations supporting young designers. There are also fewer national publications. And those are usually the four main avenues for exposure. So in this country, it’s taking advantage of what we have in those areas and hoping somebody is going to see your work and respond to it.

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Do you think a designer should know about a company before they approach them?

They should know what you do, know what types of product you make, and have some sense of what is going to appeal to you based on the body of your previous work. That’s one of the real issues that young designers face. That’s why we started getting involved in design education and one of the reasons we started ICFF Studio, to help young designers present themselves. You need a good sensitivity regarding who you’re talking to and what they’re going to find appealing. Not that you shouldn’t show them some other stuff also because you never know—but you need to marry it to the point that it makes sense when somebody looks at it.

What are some of the other common mistakes young designers make?

It’s kind of on a scale of how long you’ve been in the business. When you’ve just graduated, some of your ideas might not be as practical. They might not be as well considered concerning questions like, “Can this be made?” “Is there truly a market for this?” Because when you work with a manufacturer in mass production, it’s not necessarily what might be personally inspiring to you. It has to be inspiring to the customer. Separating their motivations and ideas and what’s interesting to them into having it serve as just inspiration—knowing that they’re truly designing for someone else—that’s sometimes a hard bridge for young designers to cross.

How many submissions do you get a month?

In a month? Somewhere over 50. It could be more but I don’t want to be too dramatic. It’s a lot. And this isn’t just from young designers. It’s from the world at large.

Can you identify a young designer you collaborated with recently?

I’ve got projects that I’m working on with a couple of young designers right now. One of them is Angell Wyller Aarseth from Norway. They’re an incredibly talented trio of designers. And there’s a designer from Los Angeles named David Kim. I met him through our studios that we conducted at Art Center College of Design. After 8 years of teaching studios there, he is the first designer that we’ve asked outside of the studio to do a product for us. Then there’s Taylor Pemberton, this wonderful young designer that I’m working with. He has started a couple of businesses already. He’s from Savannah School of Art and Design. As soon as I saw his work, I flew down there two weeks later to meet with him while he was still a student. He started this company while he was in college called Cavalier. Everything in his entire presentation was so real that the Oscars called him and asked if they could buy his products to place in the Oscar gift bags. And he had to tell them, “All I have is one prototype of each.” He’d done such an amazing job on his website and his materials that it looked like a full-fledged company.  Now he’s actually started the company. Have you heard of wantful.com?  He’s the creative director and mind behind that. It’s a company for web gift giving, where you fill in all this information about somebody you want to give a gift to and they make recommendations from this curated package.  You can add any recommendations or delete anything and they send this beautiful book to someone. You open this book and select from 16 items which one you want to redeem as a gift. The entire thing is about the experience. The gift is really about the experience of receiving the gift, more than what the gift actually is.

That’s clever. And how did you find him?

This is the funniest story in the world. My brother sent me this email, saying, “The boy who cuts my yard is really talented and has done this cool project at SCAD and he’s looking for ideas about how to commercialize this project. Will you take a look at this stuff and see if you have any ideas for him?” The minute I got this stuff I called my brother and said, “Please give me his number! I’m calling him tomorrow.” I knew this guy was that one-in-a-thousand incredible talents across the board: conceptually, aesthetically, a business mind, just amazing. I show people his work and they ask, “How do you find this guy?” And I go, “I’m not really this great a talent scout. He cut my brother’s lawn.”

Has a young designer ever produced a bestseller for your company?

They have produced some well selling items, not necessarily the best selling products but legitimately successful products. I’ve worked with people who have never designed before. They   aren’t necessarily young, but they have produced our best selling products because often I am looking outside of the box, not necessarily looking just at furniture designers. Our best selling designers are Fabien Baron, who is a graphic designer, and Suzanne Trocmé who is a curator and journalist.

And that’s because they have a unique perspective?

Yes. They understand what will appeal to people. They understand form, proportion, symmetry, and the role that furniture plays in an environment—which isn’t necessarily to always be screaming and drawing attention. And part of that may be that they’re graphic designers. Fabien is always looking at the big picture, rather than just looking at one detail. Suzanne is the same way. She was a curator, a store designer, and a journalist for years, and is about bringing things together to make a whole rather than just focusing on one part, one piece of furniture.

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