Built to Last

Like the Bauhaus artists who inspire him, Michael Heltzer has struggled to reconcile the creative and the practical. As an undergraduate he studied philosophy, then at Harvard University he pursued a master’s in theater arts. But the life of a playwright wasn’t for him, and he left Harvard to earn a law degree at Northwestern. While practicing law Heltzer enrolled in woodworking classes at the School of the Art Institute, and before long he discovered a passion for designing and building furniture. Now, ten years later, Heltzer runs a thriving business in handcrafted furniture, supervising a crew of 20 artisans in the former candy factory near Lawrence and Ravenswood that also serves as his home. In 1998 Heltzer & Associates grossed nearly $4 million, and it’s growing at an annual rate of more than 20 percent.

Last spring Heltzer took the bold step of opening a 4,500-square-foot showroom at the Merchandise Mart, where he occupies a prime corner penthouse space with high ceilings and lots of windows. “Merchandise Mart management wanted to give this choice site to a local designer,” says Heltzer, “and I was happy to get it. This is how I present my design vision to the industry.” But the showroom is also a huge investment: it rents for nearly $10,000 a month, and Heltzer had to hire sales staff. Judith Simon, former director of Klein Art Works, agreed to manage the showroom, hoping to make better use of her MBA: “Now I can help Michael with his marketing and sales analysis, among other things.”

Interior designers typically cite the simple beauty of Heltzer’s furniture as a major selling point. “I grew up in the midwest,” Heltzer explains, “so I think I naturally gravitated toward a certain simplicity in my designs.” He’s distinguished himself from his peers by working with metal (especially brushed stainless steel), marble, glass, and even concrete. “Back in the late 1980s there weren’t many furniture designers working in metal.” The Heltzer collection contains 180 different pieces, and now that he’s established the showroom, Heltzer wants to concentrate on adding new designs. Last year he introduced 20 pieces, and this year he plans to add another 40.

Those who’ve watched the Heltzer aesthetic evolve think he’ll have no problem sustaining the showroom.

Blackman by the Bay

Thomas Blackman, who orchestrated the enormous Art 1998 Chicago, is feeling some growing pains after trying to duplicate that success in San Francisco. A few years ago Blackman’s Navy Pier exposition edged out the last of his local competitors, and last year’s event drew 200 exhibitors and 37,000 attendees. The first annual San Francisco International Art Exhibition took place last October at Fort Mason Center, a shipping pier overlooking San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Blackman invested a great deal of time and manpower in the project, moving his family out to San Francisco early last year and ex-porting staffers from the Chicago office of Thomas Blackman Associates Inc. to work on the event. He sank a significant amount of cash into booth walls and electrical systems, hoping to lower setup costs for exhibitors at both fairs in years to come. “This was the first fair we had ever mounted outside Chicago,” notes Blackman, who admitted that his organization was under considerable pressure leading up to the San Francisco show.

Apparently the pressure was too great. Margaret Drewyer, a vice president at Blackman Associates, and Amy Theobald, who curated exhibits and oversaw fair catalogs, have both left the company in the last few months, reportedly because of tensions surrounding the San Francisco fair. Drewyer could not be reached for comment; Theobald said that after two years with Blackman “it was the right time” for her to move on to personal projects. The San Francisco fair attracted 100 exhibitors, but only 15 of them were from outside the U.S. “We had hoped for a larger international representation,” admits Blackman, though he believes that number will rise as the fair becomes better known. About 14,000 people attended, more than the 12,000 Blackman had projected but only about a third of the number that turned up in Chicago.

Livent Watch ’99

The holidays brought more bad tidings for Livent Inc., the bankrupt theatri-cal production company that rehabbed the Oriental Theatre. U.S. and Canadian courts have approved more than $24 million in emergency funding from the investment firm Angelo, Gordon & Company, which should buy time for Livent to reorganize its finances, but Livent has yet to release its third-quarter financial results or say when it will do so. And Parade, the dour new musical Livent coproduced with Lincoln Center Theater, opened last month to mixed reviews; the New York Times was only lukewarm.

More ominous, though, is the ticket discounting for the New York and Chicago productions of Ragtime, which suggests that Livent is desperate to preserve one of its few remaining revenue centers. In New York, $75 orchestra seats are going for $50, and $40 rear balcony seats have been marked down to $30. In Chicago, Livent is offering student rush tickets Tuesday through Thursday for $25 at the box office, and seniors can buy up to four tickets at the same price over the telephone.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.