Mel Smilow may be a name you’ve never heard, however, when it comes to midcentury modern designers, Mel Smilow is a name you should know for many reasons. His incredibly successful career and thick portfolio should have led to more recognition in the MCM space, and yet, he is often overlooked.
A very talented artist, Mel Smilow was accepted to the Pratt Institute in 1939. He had big plans to become a commercial artist, but his father’s passing in the same year resulted in Mel taking over the family business. Instead of going to the Pratt Institute, he ended up running the furniture wholesale business his father had run before him.
A few years later, World War II again delayed Mel’s career. He joined the U.S. Army to fight in Europe. He returned home with a Purple Heart and resumed selling furniture in New York in 1945.
As a furniture wholesaler, Smilow had a bold idea for the times. His job was to act as the middleman between the factory and the retailer and he was paid by taking a cut of each transaction. This drove up the price to the end consumer. Recognizing this opportunity, Mel Smilow and his partner Morton Thielle decided to become the manufacturer and the retailer. Essentially, they wanted to cut out the furniture wholesaler to allow the end consumer to get a better deal on each piece of furniture. In 1949, the two men opened their first storefront on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.
While opening a storefront and cutting out the middleman proved to be wise, Smilow wasn’t satisfied with the designers he was able to work with. He decided to start designing his own furniture, even though he had no formal training. His natural eye for proportion and his experience working with furniture resulted in the incredible designs he is known for today.
The 1950s brought many designs from Smilow including chairs, bookcases, tables, sofas, cabinetry, and more. In a somewhat ironic twist, some of his best designs were featured in an exhibit at the Pratt Institute, where he had planned to attend 10 years before.
“Furniture by Smilow-Thielle, was widely regarded in the decades following World War II as among the better examples of contemporary American design and workmanship.”The New York Times
Over the years, Smilow-Thielle opened five more stores, five of which were in the New York area and one was just outside Washington, D.C.
The most impressive pieces from Smilow embraced clean lines, fine detail, in fictional quality. His furniture was designed to last a lifetime. Today, it is recognized that many of the classic midcentury modern pieces we think of today, were created by Smilow. The more famous pieces he designed included:
- Woven Leather Backed Bar Stool
- Woven Rush Daybed
- Rail Back Ottoman
- Rail Back High-Back Lounge Chair
- Rail Back Sofa
- Slatted Stacking Tables
- Pedestal Extension Table
- Six Drawer Dresser
- Classic Rocking Chair
The furniture stores did so well, Mel Smilow was able to purchase one of the Usonian Homes in Pleasantville, the planned community by Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1981, he retired and closed his business just under the age of 60. Still, he continued to design custom furniture for his loyal customers for many years after. He passed away in 2002, after which it was discovered he had saved all his furniture design plans.
The Smilow Design business was relaunched by his daughter, Judy. Starting in graphic design, then transitioning to glassware, she eventually made the leap to furniture. In 2013, she reintroduced many of the designs Mel had created based on the plans he had left behind. Before Judy’s recent passing in 2018, she transitioned the businesses and talent to her own daughter, Maia, and husband Steven. Today, the business is still running, creating new designs and honoring their originals.