An Icon's Legacy is Revived by a Father-Daughter Bond

An Icon's Legacy is Revived by a Father-Daughter Bond

By Paige Alexus / Photos by Smilow Design
We’re proud to share that the Dwell Store is now carrying 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.

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.

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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. 

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.

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. 

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.


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