August 1, 2021

Mid century modern designer

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A Mid Century Modern Designer Whose Name You Should Know: Mel Smilow

By Rain Noe From Core77

How a kid from the Bronx dropped out of Pratt and achieved entrepreneurial design success

If I asked you to rattle off some famous Mid Century Modern designers, I already know which names you’d say. Chances are it wouldn’t have included this fellow, but you should certainly know his name, and how his combination of design skills and business savvy led to a successful career. And how his deep portfolio has led to a recent resurgence of interest in his work.

Mel Smilow was a kid from the Bronx who, in 1939, got accepted into Pratt Institute. His plan was to become a commercial artist. Unfortunately, Mel’s father died that same year, and he had no choice but to drop out of school and take over the family business. His father had been a furniture wholesaler, a middleman between furniture manufacturers and retailers, and Mel took over the reins in order to feed his family.

Then came World War II, where Smilow traded a suit and tie for U.S. Army fatigues. After fighting Nazis in Europe under General Patton, Smilow returned with a Purple Heart.

After returning to New York in 1945, Smilow resumed selling furniture. Over the course of the next few years, he came up with a bold idea.

To explain: A furniture wholesaler, or middleman, had the then-important job of serving as the conduit between the factory and the retailer. Wholesalers survived by taking their cut of the transactions. That cut drove the price of the final product up. Smilow of course knew this, and he and business partner Morton Thielle had this thought: What if they vacated the middleman position, and instead served as the manufacturer–and the retail outlet? With this arrangement, the middleman’s cut disappears, and the price of the final product could be lowered.

They succeeded in setting up this arrangement by 1949, and opened their first storefront in Manhattan on Lexington Avenue.

Note: While the sign above indicates the business is called “Morton & Smilow,” this was eventually changed to the name they’d come to be known by, “Smilow & Thielle.”

Smilow was reportedly unhappy with the work of the designers that he had access to, and decided to design the furniture himself. This could obviously have gone wrong in many ways–what business does a furniture wholesaler, with no formal training, have designing furniture? But as it turned out, Smilow had a natural eye for proportion, and had apparently seen enough furniture to understand the importance of details, transitions, craftsmanship, material selection, et cetera.

Throughout the 1950s Smilow designed chairs, sofas, bookcases, tables, cabinetry and more. In 1956, this review of his work appeared in The New Yorker:

From one source or another, I had heard a good deal about the moderate priced modern furniture at [Smilow-Thielle], but [assumed] that the place was just one more outlet for debased copies of eccentric Scandinavian designs.

When I got around to visiting it, however, I found that the Messrs. Smilow and Thielle design and manufacture their own pieces and that these are by no means the blatant limitations one so often encounters in this copycat field; they aren’t even predominantly Scandinavian. Most of them are American in feeling, but without the unpleasantly self-conscious appearance of some mass-produced modern.

There is, for example, low and very broad armchair (you could call it an easy chair except that it isn’t upholstered) with a rush seat and back in a graceful frame of walnut-finished birch; the price is $29.95. The chair can be converted into it chaise longue by the addition of a square, rush-seated ottoman of corresponding dimensions priced at $21.95. The ottoman, which was chosen by the Pratt Institute last winter for an exhibition of well-designed objects costing less than $25, struck me as being surprisingly well-made, and so did the chair; the wood, being nicely grained, seems to have been selected with some care, the stretchers have been shrunk before being glued in place, and the rush seat and back are hand-woven.

While Smilow had been forced by circumstance to drop out of Pratt back in 1939, his work was now, some 16 years later, being exhibited there. There’s no photo in that 1956 issue of the New Yorker, but I assume this is the chair and ottoman they referred to:

“Furniture by Smilow-Thielle,” the New York Times wrote in later years, “was widely regarded in the decades following World War II as among the better examples of contemporary American design and workmanship.”

Below we see a newspaper ad for Smilow-Thielle furniture, circa 1959. To give you an idea of the cost savings engendered by the no-middleman approach, look at the small print beneath each price. For instance the final chair, priced at $29.95, has beneath it “If not made in our factories would be $59.” All of the prices are essentially halved. (In 2019 dollars, that chair would be $264 retail, vs. $520.)

“My father believed that working people should be able to afford modern design,” daughter Judy Smilow told Craft Council magazine in an interview last year.

Smilow-Thielle expanded into a chain of six stores, five in the New York area and one outside of Washington, D.C.

He did well enough that in 1963 he was able to purchase a home in Frank Lloyd Wright’s planned community, Usonia Homes, in Pleasantville (a suburb of New York City). Here’s Smilow’s sketch of the house he moved his family into, designed by Wright disciple Aaron Resnick:

The interior of the house was populated by Smilow’s own designs:

Smilow-Thielle continued to thrive throughout the 1960s and ’70s. In 1975, nearly twenty years after that positive New Yorker review, here were Smilow’s chairs being featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine:

Smilow’ success meant he was able to retire before he even turned 60. “By 1981, he retired and closed the business,” reports Annex Galleries, “but continued to offer custom furniture, cushions, and covers to his loyal customers while he pursued his passion for sculpting, painting, and printmaking which he had done for a while, selling his color woodcuts through his stores.”

I am not sure how many good years of retirement Smilow had, but hopefully they were manifold. Smilow was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and passed away in 2002.

Following his death, Mel’s daughter Judy was going through his filing cabinets in the basement, and discovered that he had saved all of his furniture plans.

Judy had grown up to become a designer in her own right–her flatwear designs are part of the Cooper-Hewitt’s permanent collection

…and she correctly deemed her father’s furniture designs still relevant to the modern-day consumer. She decided to relaunch a number of her father’s designs, but the economic crash of 2008-2009 temporarily stymied her plans. “Finally, in 2012, I had the chance to have a chair made,” she told Craft Council. “I found a factory in Pennsylvania to make it, and that’s the one we still use today.”

Judy Smilow managed to relaunch ten pieces at the 2013 International Contemporary Furniture Fair. The response was positive, and today Smilow Design is a going concern, with Judy having steadily put more pieces into production each year, drawing from her father’s archives. Today their site is populated with dozens of designs for sale.

One major difference between then and now is that “you can’t make furniture in this country [today] at the price point he did,” Judy told Craft Council. “So I had to rejigger the business as a luxury line.”

The gambit paid off, and Judy succeeded in getting her father’s work back on the map. “For many years, nobody knew who Mel Smilow was,” she said. “My father really slipped through the cracks, mostly because he never signed his furniture. But that’s all changed. I continuously answer emails about his work.”

Sadly, Judy herself passed away last yeard after battling ALS. But Smilow Design lives on, with Judy’s daughter Maia and husband Steven having taken over the reins. Judy’s flatware designs have been added to their offerings, and you can see it all here.

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