Mel Smilow Biography

Mel Smilow




Mel Smilow was born in the Bronx, New York on March 5, 1922, the son of Irving Smilowitz and Claire Benes. He attended New York City public schools and enrolled at the Pratt Institute in 1939 with the intent of becoming a commercial artist. As a result of his father’s death that year, he was forced to withdraw and go to work as the family’s only breadwinner: at 17, he took over his father’s position selling wholesale furniture to retail stores in New York and Pennsylvania.

After an honorable discharge from the army, Smilow returned to his job selling furniture. In 1949, in partnership with a colleague, Morton Thielle, he founded Smilow-Thielle, a manufacturer and retailer of modern furnishings. As they started their business, the partners saw a unique opportunity: by purchasing quality furniture directly from a variety of American manufacturers and selling it at Smilow-Thielle retail outlets, they recognized they could eliminate the cost of middlemen and pass the savings on to their customers. Frustrated by the lack of available, good-quality modern design, Smilow began designing furniture for the company; with his acute interest in and eye for modern design, he soon became its sole designer.

Using American hardwoods, particularly walnut, oak, and birch, the Smilow-Thielle product line included chairs, sofas, tables, its trademark “floating” cabinets, bookshelves, lamps, and eventually, textiles used for upholstery and draperies. Large pieces, such as sofas, chairs and bookshelves, had finished backs, allowing them to be freestanding pieces in the open floor plans popular in mid-century America. Zippered fabric covers on loose cushions could be removed for dry cleaning or repair, a significant savings when compared with reupholstering or outright replacement. With the goal of producing furnishings that were functional, durable. By eliminating the middleman, Smilow’s pieces were designed to become family heirlooms, yet sufficiently affordable for average Americans.

As the Smilow-Thielle furnishings became increasingly popular, the number of their retail outlets increased: at its height, there were five Smilow-Thielle stores around the metropolitan New York area and one in Washington, DC. For more than 30 years, the firm’s flagship store was located on Lexington Avenue between 64th and 65th Streets in Manhattan. Examples of Smilow’s furniture were featured in publications such as The New York Times and discussed in The New Yorker magazine, and in books that chronicled modern designs of the times, including six examples in William Hennessey’s Modern Furnishings for the Home. The Pratt Institute included an ottoman designed by Smilow in its 1955 exhibit of well-designed furniture available for under $25.00. In 1967, Smilow’s Wooden Rocker, designed in 1960, was chosen as seating in the United States Pavilion, designed by Buckminster Fuller at Expo 67 in Montreal. In 1988, Edward Fields Carpet Makers and the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) awarded him first prize in their annual rug design competition for “Heartland,” with its textured and subtle geometric design.

In 1969, Smilow and Thielle dissolved their partnership. Smilow retained sole ownership of both the company, operating as Smilow, Corp. and later as Contemporary Classics, as well as his flagship store at Lexington Avenue and 64th Street. By 1981, he retired and closed the business, 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.

Smilow and his family moved to Pleasantville, New York, in 1963 to live in Frank Lloyd Wright’s planned community, Usonia Homes. The Smilows purchased a home that had been built for Roger Kahn the author of The Boys of Summer and designed by Aaron Resnick, one of Wright’s students. During the 1970s, he developed a growing interest in Japanese principles of art, specifically the concept of Shibui, the Japanese design philosophy. Eventually, he would create a Shibui collection of furnishings, which featured shoji screens, and finely detailed joinery on a simple floating platform bed, and accompanying low cabinets.

Mel Smilow died in Pleasantville, Westchester, New York on December 26, 2002.