Steven Heller | Essays

Heller on Heller

Heller packaging program, 1968, designed by Vignelli

When I was a kid the other kids in school used to joke that I was going straight to Hell because my name was Heller. If I heard it once I heard it a thousand times…a day. And I’d be lying — and probably would go straight to Hell — if I didn’t say the joke got tired very quickly.

Heller was a double-edged sword of a name. It was demonstrative (proud) and blasphemous (embarrassing). Other surnames were lyrical; some were poetic, but mine was a verbal command with certain negative connotations (if indeed you believed in Hell). Nonetheless, whenever I was called down to the principal, which was to say so often I had my own chair and desk in Mrs. Spellman’s office, I’d dread the sound of “Mr. H-E-L-L-E-R, get down to the principal now!” I didn’t have to even hear the rest, “H-E-L-L-E-R,” said it all; it was as though the teacher spoke in letter spaced all-caps Railroad Gothic. How I wished my name was more lower-case, like Smith, Jones or Boone.

But this story is not about me; rather it is about another Heller (in upper and lower sans serif) and Vignelli (in Bodoni). In fact, Massimo Vignelli lifted the yoke of H-E-L-L-E-R off my back. Free at last!

Heller Compact Stacking Cups, 1970
It was the late seventies when I saw the packages for Hellerware for the first time. Never before had I seen Heller composed in such handsome type. Upper and lower case, neatly letter spaced Helvetica printed in bright red. Most packages for dishware was relatively benign, often letters were set with elegant swashes or baroque curlicues. But Heller was bold yet simple, minimal yet weighted. In addition to it being eye-catchingly handsome, it was my name writ large. And on the smaller boxes it even said Hell on the front and er on the side. What audacity! What modernity! What an honor to have my name so beautifully displayed.

If you’re wondering whether the Heller of Hellerware and I are related, we’re not. It turns out that my real family name was Geller, changed when my grandpa got on the “H” line at Ellis Island. But even before that, it was changed from Gellermanovich. I guess things could have been worse. Just try turning that into Helvetica.

Posted in: History, Product Design

Comments [5]

Don't feel to bad my last name is butchered and gets snickers every time some tries to say it. In English in is pronounced Gara-pee. There are 22 various misspellings, the potential of a misspelling occurred every time a French-Canadian Gariepy with few writing/literacy skills immigrated to the US. Try living that one down.
Peter Gariepy

Small yet informative..I could not resist quoting the first line.Kids can be inventing and creative in a very cruel manner. Though, as I am one of the new generations, I could never imagine that Helvetica could provoke such impact and impression as it was regarded more of old-fashion sort of typeface. Yet it is always interesting and enlightening to know that you can be wrong, in a positive way.

Steve, you write that "my real family name was Geller, changed when my grandpa got on the “H” line at Ellis Island." I doubt that there were such lines, but I do know that there is no H in Russian. Consequently, Gelfand and Helfand seem to be interchangeable, and perhaps Heller and Geller were too. Or have you already looked into this possibility?
William H Helfand

William - You are absolutely right. Good catch. G + H are indeed one and the same.
Steven Heller

Surnames are odd. They are us but not us. "Rogers", as a fairly common name, had few derisive connotations. I was only vaguely aware of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood when other kids would try to taunt me with "Mr. Rogers", which I turned to my favour with a punch to the arm saying, "Welcome to MY neighbourhood" (CDN spelling).

Today I live in Toronto and inevitably see the "ROGERS" bold, all-caps type blazoned across the skyline on the Rogers Centre (formerly the Sky Dome, home to the Blue Jays). I don't identify with it all, preferring a something with more flourish and charm of a hand drawn face like the "dodgers" insignia.*

Note: Rogers, Rodgers, Hodge, Dodge, Hodgeson etc. all share the same Norman root so I feel justified coveting the Dodgers wordmark for my own name.
Peter Rogers

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