Sandy Chilewich says she owes everything to something a stranger blurted out when she was young and struggling to break into the art world. Standing in front of her abstract collage, he told her that her work had a distinctly commercial quality. She was crushed.
Fast forward 30ish years. Today she produces over 40,000 placemats a week, but she’ll always identify as an artist first and foremost. In fact, she offers the same advice to every interviewer she’s ever met: Look at your table as a canvas. And if it helps, start with the placemat like it’s a mini canvas. That’s less intimidating.
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Technically, Sandy’s made waves (weaves?) in her industry twice. First, as co-founder of the hosiery manufacturer HUE in 1978 (freeing women’s legs from smothering nylons and introducing cotton tights in zillions of colors). Then, by taking on the larger world of textile design after selling the company. Many zippered bags and structured bowls later, she settled on placemats. Flat was easier. But she wasn’t about to start cutting up lawn chairs to get the look she wanted. So she started at the source: a factory in Alabama that had been in the patio furniture industry since the 1970s agreed to make exclusive weaves for her in colors and patterns they’d never heard of before.
Years later, every Chilewich design—now including an expansive tabletop and floor line—still starts from scratch at the skilled hands of master weavers before going to the industrial loom. What makes the yarn unique is that it’s extruded, meaning it’s got a core with a vinyl outer casing (read: practically indestructible, easy to clean, but inexplicably elegant with a textile quality).
Apart from her unusual choice of materials, what really made Sandy stand out from the crowd was her commitment to unfussy minimalism at the table—a kind of winsome nose-thumbing toward all the bulky layers that usually went into place settings. And her ideas took off. Her big break came in 2000, when Tom Colicchio commissioned her mats for his unabashedly bare tables at Craft, the then-brand-new Flatiron restaurant. She was on the cusp of a redefinition of fine dining, one that now considered white tablecloths stuffy and anachronistic.
The phone didn’t stop ringing after that.
When asked if she had a dream customer (fictitious or not), she replied, "Oh, that’s already happened to me." In May 2016, her glossy off-white table runners were selected to be at the Obamas’ Nordic State Dinner. "It was breathtaking," she recalls. "I’m in the program and I have a picture of the President with my placemat."
Her designs were snapped up by other Michelin star restaurants, and the Museum of Modern Art began selling her wares in their store.
When it comes to everyday table setting guidelines, she says to keep it personal: "You have no idea how much fun it can be once you get into it—it’s really so much easier than dressing yourself." Sandy even encourages the use of everyday objects in the mix of the necessary plates and utensils. When taken out of context, things like perfume bottles and eclectic containers from you jewelry box can transform into bespoke vases and salt cellars.
"The thing that most resonates for me is how emotional people sometimes get about this product," she muses. "I think the reason is that we are putting so much thought and creativity into a very humble product."
Or maybe it’s because her pieces are made to stick around. And, somehow, they support our human instinct to connect with something beautiful that’ll last. Sure, it’s made from vinyl. It’s not precious. You don’t have to iron it or send it to the dry cleaner. But it makes an ordinary Wednesday night dinner feel downright special.
Written by Maggie Slover for Food52
Related Reading: 6 Simple Ways to Mix and Match Chairs at Your Dining Table