Mid-Century Designer Focus: Mel Smilow

Originally published in 
as 
American Individualist
An unsung mid-century designer is poised for a triumphant revival.

Certain leviathans of mid-century furniture design routinely make headlines: Edward Wormley, Jens Risom, and Richard Schulz, for example. But Mel Smilow—another champion of enduring and affordable modern design—has flown under history’s radar. Though recognized and coveted by collectors, Smilow’s work remains little known to the mainstream.

Smilow designed his pieces, oversaw their manufacturing, and sold them in his own shops in New York City, White Plains, Long Island, New Jersey, and Washington, DC. A master of the art of merchandising, his styled room settings were renowned for being charming and enticing, incorporating housewares, art, and decorations. His philosophy was clear: Modern design should be good-looking, affordable, and timeless.

Smilow (1922–2002) was born in the Bronx, New York. He studied art at the Pratt Institute, but he left near the end of his first year to support his family. In 1948, he met Morton Thielle, a successful retail salesman who had the money to finance a partnership. The two were convinced that well-designed modern furniture could be made and marketed more economically by eliminating middlemen and designing and manufacturing pieces to sell directly to consumers. The duo produced well-made pieces—mostly crafted from sturdy American walnut and birch and built in Pennsylvania—and sold them for about 50 percent below comparable designs. “That Smilow wasn’t represented by the [major] circuits and stood alone and retailed himself is admirable,” says Ed Calabrese, a furniture connoisseur and retail design director whose clients include Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.

In a New Yorker article from the June 9, 1956, issue, writer Sheila Hibben swooned: Anyone who believed that all modern furniture was “either appallingly bad or appallingly expensive...[should] have a look at the pieces at Smilow-Thielle,” she wrote. Their designs ranged from a paper-cord armchair to a walnut sofa to a Formica-topped desk. By 1965, Smilow-Thielle owned six retail stores. The Smilow-Thielle partnership dissolved in 1969 and business slowed during the recession of the early 1970s. Smilow kept operating his stores—now under the name Smilow Corp.—until 1972, when his last shop closed. He continued to make custom furniture and work from home until the late 1980s.

Smilow’s appealing, tailored, unpretentious take on American modern has triggered a recent renaissance. His daughters, Judy (a product designer) and Pam (an artist), are returning his designs to the marketplace this year, under the name Smilow Furniture. Top priority was “finding a small family-owned American factory of which my father would have approved,” says Judy. A 50-year-old factory in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, fit the tall order. The initial ten-piece collection launched at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in May 2013.

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