President and Creative Director of Bernhardt Design, Jerry Helling, grew up on a ranch in a remote town with 11 people in his graduating class before venturing to USC and a potential career in Hollywood. A personal epiphany combined with serendipity rerouted him into the furniture business, resulting in a long and distinguished career as a keen mentor of talent, a champion of originality, a risk-taking, needle-moving industry voice, and a major benefactor of international design. Plus, he’s really nice! Listen:
What is your earliest memory?
I should probably ask a therapist what it means that my first memory is a violent one. I was two years old and opened a safety pin in my mouth. My babysitter was hysterical - running and screaming, while I bounced up and down in her arms. Years later, my parents couldn’t believe I could possibly remember this until I gave enough details to convince them.
How do you feel about democratic design?
I don’t really understand what democratic design means. Design isn’t inherently elitist. Companies choose to release good design or elect to make products which are tone deaf with respect to design. It isn’t strictly a price issue. Muji sells inexpensive products that are thoughtfully designed, as do many other companies.
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever gotten?
The two best pieces of advice I ever received were from my mentor Anne Bernhardt. First was, “Always keep your sense of humor in every situation.” Secondly, “In six months nobody will remember the details of the all-consuming catastrophic problem of the day - but they will remember how you behaved and responded to the situation.”
How do you record your ideas?
Sticky notes on my car dashboard while driving, on my bathroom mirror, in my bedroom while pretending to sleep, in my office, on a plane etc.… I leave a trail of yellow sticky notes.
What’s your current favorite tool or material to work with?
A Tombow Mono Graph pencil. I like to keep things loose and scribble ideas. Something about not using a computer to explore an idea, or writing with permanent pen, allows you freedom. When you commit a thought to ink or a computer, you are more likely to remain wedded to that idea, rather than just erasing it when a better thought comes along.
What book is on your nightstand?
On my nightstand is Paul Auster’s opus of life in 20th century America titled 4321. I had two favorite books this past year. The first was Andre Aicman’s novel Call Me by Your Name. Timothee Chalament and Army Hamer did an amazing job in the film. In the book, you understand all that was unsaid on the screen. The second was Bill Browder’s damming expose on investment bankers and Russians, Red Notice.
Why is authenticity in design important?
This might be a matter of semantics. I believe all designers strive for authenticity in their voice and vision. I’m more concerned about protecting original design and stopping design plagiarism which usually occurs in industry, not at the level of the designer.
Favorite restaurant in your city?
For the sake of this exercise, let’s say I live in London and may favorite is The Wolseley.
What might we find on your desk right now?
An IMac Pro and 345 yellow sticky notes.
Who do you look up to and why?
People who maintain relevant careers throughout their life. Those who are not interested in being the biggest name, who care for the work first and foremost. People like singer Emmy Lou Harris, Daniel Day Lewis, Duke coach Mike Krayzewski, James Dyson and Giorgio Armani. I really respect Jake Gyllenhaal, because he is building a wonderful body of serious work without the crutch of automatic weapons and marvel comic books. In the design industry, the person I respect the most has always been Chantal Hamaide the founder of Intramuros. She has launched and nurtured more incredible design talent over the years than anyone I know. Also, the late Linda Tischer of Fast Company who made design a relevant topic outside our insular design congregation.
What’s your favorite project and why?
Working with Charles Pollock before he died. He had been in the design wilderness for so many years and being able to help him relaunch his career at 82 was a very special experience.
What are the last five songs you listened to?
I can go on for 10 pages on this topic!
Two young British singers who aren’t getting the traction they deserve - Hollie Stephenson “Lover’s Game” and Cosima “Had to Feel Something”.
An amazing ballad from Irish singer Jamie Lawson, “Miracle of Love”. The OKTA Remix of Glasgow based Paolo Nutini’s “Let Me Down Easy”.
Two young American roots singers - Anderson East “This Too Shall Last” and Caleb Caudle “Trade All the Lights”.
“Belong,” by EDM artist Tender.
Finally, an amazing demo of Rebecca Crews “One Goodbye in Ten” remixed by Swedish DJ Oliver Nelson. I hope everyone checks it out when it is released.