written by:
February 15, 2016
We’re proud to share that our own Dwell Store will now carry the timeless furniture designs of a company that we've admired throughout its influential history, leading up to a recent reincarnation that we couldn’t be more excited about.

Mel Smilow’s original designs stayed hidden in his archives until his daughter Judy discovered them. She promised herself she would bring them back to life. Courtesy of Smilow Design LLC.

Enter Smilow Design, a New York–based company that’s dedicated to creating modern heirlooms while putting quality and craftsmanship above everything else. Though it’s hard to get much better than that, what really draws us in is its nostalgic connection to a family history that developed closely in line with America’s midcentury design movement. Because of one woman’s inspiring dedication to reviving her late father’s work, you can now own an exquisite masterpiece formed from original midcentury designs and produced with similar techniques in the same area where it all started. We feel that a story like this insists on being told by someone who’s been closely ingrained in its history, so we asked Judy Smilow herself to help us bring it to life.

One of the quintessential Smilow pieces that Judy has reintroduced, is the Rush Dining Chair, originally designed in 1956. Available with or without arms, its structure is crafted of solid walnut and the rush seat is woven in a continuous fashion by experts in Pennsylvania. After discovering that rush weaving has become a dying trade, Judy worked with the SeatWeavers’ Guild in order to find a local producer that still practices the art form. Courtesy of Smilow Design LLC.

As the main force behind the brand, Judy takes us back to the beginning, where her father Mel Smilow conceived the company and first envisioned his enduring design principles. After serving in the U.S. army in World War II, Mel returned to America and launched Smilow-Thielle in 1949, a furniture manufacturer and retailer that he ran with his partner Morton Thielle. Mel went on to design modern furniture that stood out from what the consumer was used to seeing at that time. His designs were about keeping it simple and clean, with a concentration on details, quality, and proportion. Most importantly, he believed that good design should be accessible and should stand the test of time.

This photo of Mr. Smilow himself was taken in the 1950s, when he was the co-owner and sole designer of Smilow-Thielle. Courtesy of Smilow Design LLC.

Starting in the early ‘60s and lasting through the ‘70s, Smilow-Thielle ran this surprisingly modern and graphic ad in multiple publications. This is the same rocking chair that is once again being brought to market. Courtesy of Smilow Design LLC. The Rocking Chair is available by the Dwell Store.

Each piece was created by skilled craftsmen in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where he was deeply involved in the process. Judy points out, “There wasn’t a single compromise in quality. That was his goal from the very beginning.” Because of Mel’s dedication to this vision, he became a household name and his pieces can still be found within countless homes across America.

Smilow–designed furniture played an important role in American culture. Shown here is the September 1975 cover of the New York Times magazine, where the Rush Armchair took center stage. Courtesy of Smilow Design LLC.

So why is his name not so widely known today? A few years ago, Judy realized that somehow, her father’s work had slipped through the cracks of time, and that it was up to her to bring it back. When we asked her a series of questions that would illustrate her experience of reviving the brand, this is the story she told...

A Thoroughly Modern Family History

Judy’s family lived in Usonia, the Frank Lloyd Wright community in Pleasantville, NY, where she was surrounded by a completely modern way of living. She remembers, “For the families living there, ‘modern’ was not just a visual style, but it was a culture—a way of being that was connected to social and political aspects of life. Everyone in the community melded together and lived closely in line with nature. This legacy of modernism was passed down to me through my father’s designs, and it’s my responsibility to bring them back to life.”

Mel was a talented artist and frequently painted, sculpted, and made woodcuts. Shown here is an example of a sketch he made in the ‘60s of his beloved home in Usonia. You can browse through some other examples of his work here. Courtesy of Smilow Design LLC.

The Decision to Revive Her Father’s Work

She continues, “After my father passed away, I was going through his file cabinets in our basement and stumbled upon his archives that included records of most of his original drawings. When I started sharing my findings with some people in the industry, I received a phenomenal response, and knew that my suspicions were right—his designs were still relevant as ever.”

Mel’s design process always started with rough sketches, where he was able to get a better feel for the proportions. He would then translate them into more detailed drawings with precise dimensions and notes. Here is an exquisite example of his process from when he was developing the Woven Leather Armchair. Courtesy of Smilow Design LLC.

Bringing His Designs Back to Production

After starting with a couple special commissions for designers she was working with, she decided to bring a whole line to production, while making sure to produce it locally and responsibly. Since all of the old manufacturers her father worked with were no longer in business, she had to find all new sources. Luckily, she came across a close group of craftsmen in the same area of Pennsylvania where it all began. She excitedly points out, “I completely fell in love with the process. Just like my father, I’m closely involved with the production—I visit the factory every couple of weeks.”

Taken at the workshop in Lancaster County, this image shows how each piece is carefully produced from start to finish. One of the Smilow craftsmen is shown here making precise notches into a piece of American walnut. Photo by Nicole Horton.

A Ceaseless Dedication to Quality

“My goal was to make furniture that would last a lifetime. It should embrace you in a comfortable and sculptural way,” she says. To do this, she only uses solid American hardwoods and the supple leather is sourced from a Napa–based company. Both her upholsterer and the company that constructs the furniture are family-run businesses that take great pride in what they do. Consistent to what her father executed, each piece is finished to perfection, so it's just as beautiful from the back as it is from the front.

Mel’s Woven Leather Armchair from 1956 was one of his strongest pieces. Now available in the same dapper silhouette and made of solid walnut, it sits modern as ever with a matching ottoman. Photo by Nicole Horton.

Also part of the hand-woven rush collection is the Rush Bench, available in a black or natural seat. Along with the chairs shown previously, this line also includes a bar stool, counter stool, and ottoman. Photos by Nicole Horton.

The Chair That Represented America

One of the pieces that you can find at the Dwell Store is the classic Rocking Chair, —a design that Mr. Smilow invented in 1960 and that’s built out of solid ash. Judy was particularly excited to share that this stunning chair was chosen to be featured in the U.S. Pavilion dome at the Expo of 1967 in Montreal. Red and blue versions were placed in a circle in the V.I.P. waiting room, where they became part of the history of that illustrious geodesic dome.  

                            

Today’s rendition of the Rocking Chair, shown here in the natural ash finish, relies on its clean lines and meticulous craftsmanship. Photo by Nicole Horton.

                           

                           

Being included in the presentation of the U.S. Pavilion Dome was an important moment for the Smilow brand and its connection to American history. Designed by architect Buckminster Fuller, the elaborate dome was the perfect modern backdrop for such a simple, enduring piece. Courtesy of Smilow Design LLC.

We can’t wait to see how the Smilow vision continues to grow and develop, furthering its history with a whole new generation of design admirers.

Dreaming of bringing one of these special heirlooms into your own home? Take a look at our selection at the Dwell Store.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

45 dva 2270 persp1 cmyk 0
The prospect of retirement doesn’t just signal the end of a career; it offers the chance to recalibrate and re-prioritize in life.
July 25, 2016
18
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016