When Maureen Smithe returned from maternity leave after giving birth to identical twin daughters last August (children number five and six for those keeping count), she was puzzled by the pained looks she received from some of her colleagues. “I think people felt sorry for me, assuming that I wasn’t getting any sleep and having to come to work every day,” says Maureen. “But the truth is, I love coming to the office. Sometimes it’s the only quiet I get.”
Spoken like the daughter of a true “shop owner,” as her father Walter E. Smithe III, president of the eponymous furniture retailer, calls himself. His four daughters—Maureen, Meghan, Caitie, and Colleen—are now the new faces of this historic Chicago brand, a spot he and his brothers held for decades. Over the last 13 years, one by one, Walter’s daughters have been hired on at Smithe as the jobs became available. “The girls have all worked elsewhere before they came to work here,” says Walter of his daughters who have had careers ranging from merchandising to advertising. “In family businesses, that’s the only way to ensure a company’s continued success.” Today, Maureen is a buyer, Meghan is the director of marketing, Caitie is a designer and assists the merchandising team, and Colleen is the director of advertising.
The sisters are making their official debut in a new campaign they’ve recently launched called the “Smithe Family Makeovers.” Fielding countless applications, the Smithes choose a home where they redesign a space and showcase the full range of interior design services and furnishings Walter E. Smithe Furniture & Design offers.
“We’re really excited about this program,” explains Meghan. “This initiative calls for all hands on deck. In some of the footage, you’ll see my dad installing a dimmer or my uncle driving a truck. And you’ll see each of my sisters doing what they do best.”
The fourth generation of Smithe leadership is hoping that this young, fresh approach to advertising and marketing will resonate with a consumer base that hasn’t yet shopped with Smithe before.
“I’m stunned when people watch one of our makeovers and are surprised that Smithe carries so much of what they like,” says Caitie. “While we still have traditional pieces, our showroom appeals to a number of different lifestyles. People are buying a look, but they want it to feel curated and personal.”
It’s up to Maureen and Caitie to monitor the market, make sure the showroom reflects current palettes, while staying a few steps ahead of what is currently trending. “We see this country chic trend currently happening as a ‘design emergency,’” says Maureen. “This style is out there and we need to respond and get it on our floor. I presented my ideas for this two weeks ago and it will be out on the floor in three weeks. That’s fast, but it shows what we can do. Sometimes you have to act fast. We’re often building on what we see resonating in the market and what is interesting and beautiful at the moment.”
Walter E. Smithe Furniture & Design is coming off a successful year of strategic partnerships with Bravo TV’s Jeff Lewis and interior designer Cynthia Rowley. “We learned so much from these relationships,” Colleen says. “We’re a Chicago company that was given national exposure. We’re now getting calls from all over the world.”
Under Colleen and Meghan’s direction, Smithe now has a beautiful new lookbook in its marketing toolbox and a stable full of breathtaking photography, as they become the exclusive distributor for Ellen DeGeneres’ new furniture collection from Thomasville. “Ellen is very serious about design and had a definite voice in what this modern-rustic-meets-farmhouse collection would be. She is a celebrity who is genuinely interested in how her furniture will do and be perceived,” Maureen says. “It’s very much in line with our desire to offer the most beautiful pieces that are of the highest quality. My hope is to inspire people to slow down enough to talk with a designer and hopefully buy something.”
You could say that the Smithes are a bit obsessed with quality. Warehouse workers go over every piece of inventory awaiting delivery with a fine-tooth comb, looking for things an untrained eye would never see. “Walter has been known to take furniture for test drives,” says Meghan. “He’ll stand on things, jump on them, do his best to break dining chairs.” Nearby is a mangled lamp that will never find its way to a Smithe showroom floor.
When Smithe makes a furniture delivery, “It’s not uncommon for our crews to bring a 25-year-old sofa with a Smithe sticker on it back to this warehouse,” Meghan says. “It’s nice to see when a family is ready to replace a well-loved piece that they come back to Smithe to do it.” To date, there are 10 Smithe stores scattered throughout Chicago, and one in northwest Indiana. “We refer to Smithe.com as our 12th store, since many of our clients are doing their research online before coming to see us in person.”
The chemistry among this familial foursome is something parents can only hope for from their children. With 16 1/2 children among them (Colleen is due with her third baby this month), the sisters also find work as a time to be together—sans children.
“We don’t always agree on things,” Colleen says. “But I never forget that these are my sisters and I completely respect them. Sometimes we present to our dad as a united front and other times we need him to be a tie breaker. But always start from a place where we love each other and enjoy working together.”
To learn more, visit smithe.com.