If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It

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Vintage mugs designed by Massimo Vignelli and manufactured by Heller Inc.
Photo by Kentin Waits / Money Talks News

Shopping thrift stores, flea markets and estate sales can be overwhelming. With the sheer volume of stuff, how do you know where to start? How do you spot gems amid all the … well, junk?

As a professional reseller who’s been combing through thrift stores for the better part of 30 years, I can help. If you’re ready to cut your shopping time in half, score bigger bargains or walk away with brag-worthy finds you can flip for cash, read on.

From hard-to-find household items to resale money-makers, everything featured in this series qualifies as a BOLO (Be On the Look-Out for) item. When you find it, buy it!

Featured find: Heller dinnerware by Massimo Vignelli

This month’s thrift shopping mantra: Plastic is fantastic … well, at least some plastic. In a sea of old Tupperware lids, melted spatulas and stained sippy cups, one type of plastic stands out — Hellerware.

In 1971, Heller Inc., a consumer products manufacturer in the United States, launched a line of stackable plastic dinnerware designed by Italian-born architect Massimo Vignelli. The modern, bright-colored pieces, originally designed in Milan in 1964, were already a hit in Vignelli’s home country.

In the U.S., Vignelli’s dinnerware collection, which came to be known as “Hellerware,” quickly became an icon of innovative design. It’s even part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, among other museums.

Luckily for you and me, Vignelli’s masterwork can still be found in the wild. Most thrift stores group all plastic in the same mental category — cheap and disposable. That means these prized pieces are often overlooked and sold for pennies.

Why buy it?

If you’re even mildly interested in good, practical design, you’ll appreciate Hellerware. Here are just a few features that make it easy to own:

  • Modular design: Compact and stackable, sets are ideal for small spaces.
  • Durability: Made of a dense plastic called Melamine resin, Heller items are tough as nails.
  • Color: When was the last time you ate off of a purple plate or had coffee from a bright green mug? The colors are bold and joyous, and they work well together.
  • Smart details: The lip around Heller plates doesn’t just make stacking easier, it makes eating easier. And the mug handle groove is designed to fit the human thumb perfectly. In an age of fast and cheap everything, intentional details like these make Hellerware unique.

Pro tip: If you’re buying for everyday use, be prepared to wash Heller dinnerware pieces by hand. Repeated exposure to a dishwasher’s high heat and heavy detergents will damage the plastic.

If you’re buying to resell for a profit, Heller dinnerware pieces fit right in with the midcentury modern aesthetic that’s shaping so many design trends lately. And because plastic is undervalued in the secondhand market, it’s common to find individual pieces priced at a dollar or less. Last winter, I bought six green coffee mugs for $2.99 in total and flipped them for $10 apiece.

Of course, a full set of Hellerware is the holy grail of secondhand finds. With all serving pieces included, complete sets in a single color can bring nearly $1,000. This partial set of white plates, bowls and mugs sold for $240 on eBay, and this lidded serving bowl is currently listed for $62 on Etsy.

What to look for

The most distinctive feature of Vignelli’s Heller dinnerware pieces is their vivid colors. Though the full line included black and white, the most common hues are:

  • Orange
  • Purple
  • Blue
  • Green
  • Yellow
  • Pink

Later additions to the dinnerware line included a set of pastels in:

  • Yellow
  • Pink
  • Blue
  • Aqua
  • Gray

Don’t be fooled by cheap copies. Ingrid Ltd. produced a line very similar to Heller dinnerware, but the quality (and resale value) isn’t comparable.

Authentic Heller pieces have a substantial weight to them and are finished flawlessly with no obvious mold marks or seams.

Though slight variations exist, the Heller logo typically comes in three main forms. The underside of mugs will read “Heller Maxmug Designed by Massimo Vignelli.” Other pieces may be embossed with “Heller Design by Massimo Vignelli” or simply “Heller.”

Like all vintage items, condition is everything, and resellers should avoid imperfect pieces. The most common damage to Heller dinnerware occurs on the spout of the pitchers (chips), the surface of dinner plates (utensil scratch marks) and mugs (melt marks from setting too close to a heat source).

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