Smilow Design was founded by Judy Smilow to reintroduce the designs of Mel Smilow (1922-2002), a champion of affordable, well crafted, modern design and her father.
The company is a proud member of Be Original Americas and we invited Judy’s daughter, Maia Schoenfelder, to interview her about the challenges of reintroducing the original Smilow designs, what is was like to grow up in Frank Lloyd Wright’s cooperative community Usonia, and what she thinks of knockoffs.
Maia Schoenfelder: Did growing up in Usonia affect your family’s interest in design and your own interest in your dad’s business?
Judy Smilow: Living in Usonia was inspiring for my father and the culmination of a dream come true for a depression era kid from Brooklyn. We moved to Usonia in 1962, which coincided with a burst of creative energy and Mel’s most prolific period. He designed furniture, ran a business, painted, sculpted, was politically active all while finding time to be an involved father and community member—in a community that he considered to be heaven. I naturally absorbed my surroundings and his voice. It’s what made it so easy for me to understand, interpret, and reintroduce the brand.
Maia: What were some challenges you encountered while re-introducing the collection?
Judy: Smilow-Thielle filled a void that existed in quality-made modern furniture. It was available direct-to-consumers at a moderate price point at a time when modern furniture was mostly available “to the trade” only. Today, making furniture of this quality in America has proved to be a much more costly proposition. Repositioning the brand as a luxury line has been a challenge, and sadly has made the furniture out of reach for some. Most importantly for us though, we’ve been able to maintain the high standards, integrity and quality of these authentic designs.
Maia: Was it difficult to stick to the brand values and continue the legacy of Smilow Furniture in 2013 when you decided to reintroduce the collection?
Judy: The Smilow brand was founded on values concerned with integrity both in terms of design/quality as well as social integrity. Today we try to both continue and expand on those same values. Our integrity as a company is based on excellent personal customer service and standing behind our furniture 100%. We proudly make our furniture in family run factories that are as sustainable as possible. We are a member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council and also proudly support this terrific and vital organization, Be Original Americas.
Maia: What liberties have you needed to take (if any) in reissuing, expanding and growing the brand while still honoring the original designs?
Judy: My father was brilliant with his sense of proportion and design, so I have stayed very close to his drawings and original intent. Occasionally I have expanded or filled out a collection with pieces the market demands or offered a new finish or rush color. Our finishes have changed for the better, due to newer and environmentally friendlier offerings. All the choices I have made are in keeping with the original intent of the design.
Maia: How has the vintage marketplace impacted the re-introduction of the line?
Judy: Because my father rarely signed or branded any of his furniture, he was a well-kept secret, not widely known outside of this circle. It was only after I started reintroducing the collection that I was called upon to authenticate what were and were not Smilow-Thielle pieces in the marketplace. The vintage market has been a boon to the reintroduction in that it has helped propel the name and the enduring quality of his designs.
Maia: What were the challenges you faced in reintroducing the brand in terms of originality.
Judy: Inexpensive mid-century modern knockoffs (of our designs or others) contribute to a throw-away culture that we don’t endorse and that hurts our ethos that enduring and modern furniture lasts a lifetime—not a few years. Communicating the value of authentic design and quality construction of our furniture is an important part of our job. We belong to Be Original Americas because we share that mission and set of values. Investing in original design pays off. It keeps its value, is more durable and ages with beauty.
Check out more guest blogs from Be Original Americas members here.