written by:
June 17, 2013
Originally published in America the Beautiful
as
American Individualist
An unsung mid-century designer is poised for a triumphant revival.

Smilow’s house is located in Usonia, the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed community in Mount Pleasant, New York. The furnishings are all from Smilow-Thielle. Photo courtesy of the Smilow Family.

1 / 7

Mel Smilow, left, and Morton Thielle demonstrate the solid wood slide and groove construction of a drawer inside one of their creations (cheaper furniture uses metal slides). Photo courtesy of the Smilow Family.

2 / 7

A handsome sofa from the Smilow-Thielle Rail Back Collection is distinguished by walnut dowels surrounding the piece’s sides and back. Photo courtesy of the Smilow Family.

3 / 7

A Smilow-Thielle advertisement appeared weekly on page three of the New York Times in the 1960s through early 1970s. Photo courtesy of the Smilow Family.

4 / 7

The WAC-33 Rail Back lounge chair featured removable cushion covers to enhance longevity. Reupholstering is expensive, so Smilow- Thielle designed covers to allow consumers to easily refresh the piece. Photo courtesy of the Smilow Family.

5 / 7

Shot in 1968 at the Smilow-Thielle store in Manhasset, New York, a dining room vignette outfitted with decorations and housewares encouraged shoppers to feel at home. Photo courtesy of the Smilow Family.

6 / 7

“This is the lightest-looking and least cumbersome recliner on the market today,” the Smilow-Thielle partners wrote about the WAC-Recliner in their 1969 sales manual. The leg structure was an integral part of the hardwood frame and so did not need screw-in legs. Photo courtesy of the Smilow Family.

7 / 7
american individualist smilow house

Smilow’s house is located in Usonia, the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed community in Mount Pleasant, New York. The furnishings are all from Smilow-Thielle. Photo courtesy of the Smilow Family.

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.

american individualist rail back sofa

A handsome sofa from the Smilow-Thielle Rail Back Collection is distinguished by walnut dowels surrounding the piece’s sides and back. Photo courtesy of the Smilow Family.

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.

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