Moms of 17 juggle the Chicago-based family business

Meghan Smithe was on maternity leave when she began working part time in the family business, long known for its infectious jingle: “You dream it, we build it.”

Still, she never dreamed of working full time for Walter E. Smithe Furniture, even while growing up in Barrington with her three sisters, Maureen, Caitie and Colleen. In fact, none of the sisters seriously considered having a career in the company, founded by their great-grandfather in 1945.

“We simply never had that conversation,” Meghan says. “We had no grand plan.”

As teens, the four sisters worked only part time in their father’s showroom or outlet store, selling furniture and earning their first paychecks along with other eager, cash-strapped teens.

“At that age, it was very exciting to come home and brag that we sold maybe hundreds or thousands of dollars in furniture,” Meghan recalls. “Our dad always put an emphasis on hard work, and it stuck with us.”

The sisters left for college with a few prized furnishings and a work ethic that became a permanent fixture in their lives. Along the way, they got married, had children (17 in all!) and became working moms in different industries.

And then fate gently tapped them on their shoulder.

One by one, each sister began working in the family business.

“It was an organic transition for each of us,” says Colleen, the youngest sister.

The transition took place over the span of 12 years as key positions became available in the company, starting with Maureen who became a merchandise buyer. It took the mother of six children a few years to figure out how to juggle her demanding career and busy home life. “I gave up sleep and TV,” Maureen jokes.

The Itasca-based company has 10 locations across Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana, where the sisters ply their fourth-generation talents. Meghan is director of marketing, Caitie is a designer and stylist and Colleen is director of advertising.

“Our learning curve has been steep and long, with a lot of challenges,” says Colleen, flanked by her sisters at the family’s Lincoln Park location, a 10,000-square-foot boutique store.

For decades, the public faces of the privately owned company have been the sisters’ father, Walter E. Smithe III—the 59-year-old grandson of the business’s namesake—and the sisters’ uncles, Mark and Tim.

The Smithe brothers used good-natured humor on countless TV commercials selling furniture. The Smithe sisters now serve as the face of the firm, offering a female perspective that better reflects the company, the industry and the country today.

“When I first came on board, our industry was very much a good old boys club,” says Maureen, who regularly travels to marketplaces around the country to buy merchandise. “It’s no longer that way.”

The sisters get together at least twice a week, traveling from their homes in Chicago, Barrington and Riverside, leaving behind their children, husbands and home duties.

“We’re not trying to portray an image that working mothers can pull off everything without something falling through,” Maureen says candidly.

“It’s unjust to think that women can somehow balance it all,” Colleen adds. “There is no true balance for moms in our situation.”

“We can’t be everything all at once,” Meghan says. “It takes work and sacrifice.”

For example, Meghan had to miss her son’s Valentine’s Day party at school this year, due to work responsibilities. To make up for it, she woke up early to make heart-shaped pancakes.

“Like most mothers, whether they’re working or staying at home, we do what we can,” she says.

The sisters can measure the span of their careers by their children’s ages and development, so they clearly understand what it’s like to worry about furniture at the mercy of young, messy children.

“Personally, I don’t want to stare at ugly furniture for all those years,” Meghan says.

As their father, the company president, has told customers for decades, “Life is too short to sit on uncomfortable furniture.”

The sisters laughed at hearing this family adage, knowing that home furnishing has been woven into the tapestry of their lives. As mothers, they’ve learned it’s not only possible, but preferable, to have a functional yet beautiful home.

“If you find the right furniture, it will last even through your kids,” Colleen says.

For instance, finding that perfect piece of decorative furniture that creatively doubles as a toy box for kids’ games, toys and video devices. Or using a new high-tech application to keep couch fabric truly “worry free” from children’s spills, everything from spaghetti sauce to Kool-Aid.

“As mothers, all of us have cleaned up a child’s spill, or even their vomit, from our furniture,” Colleen jokes.

“We understand that customers see a certain look on, say, Instagram and they want it replicated in their own home,” Colleen says. “We not only respect this, we embrace it.”

Spring refresh ideas

Caitie Smithe is a Designer, Design Coordinator + Stylist at Walter E. Smithe Furniture + Design. She has a few ideas for how to add a little spring to your home.

Embrace color.

Whether bringing in color as an accent or making a big statement with a lot of color, your home will feel instantly transformed and personalized. I always suggest going with whatever color or colors are most pleasing to you, but some big color trends this spring are oranges, pinks, sage green and pastel blue.

Texture, texture, texture!

Bringing new and various textures into a room can take it from plain and lacking in interest to exciting and memorable. Some ways to do this include mixing fabrics and leathers such as pairing linens with velvets, shag rugs, fur throws, organic elements such as rattan and bamboo… even the reflective-ness of chrome can add texture to a room!

Mix away!

Don’t burden yourself with the boredom of a matching wood set. Mix together different, but complimentary, elements such as woods, metals and stones…and feel free to mix various metals together. There is no rule book that says they all need to match—metals always compliment one another.

Go for the unexpected.

I love incorporating an unexpected element into a room. There are so many cool and unique materials being used to manufacture furniture these days—such as capiz shells, bone inlay, faux shagreen, concrete, rope and slate.

Give your outdoor space some love, too!

While it may not be usable 365 days a year, the days that your outdoor space are in fact usable should be embraced. Our lives can be overrun with technology, commitments and schedules. Give yourself time to just be in a comfortable and beautiful outdoor space. There is nothing like a day spent soaking up the sun and a good book or an evening with friends and good food and drinks under the stars.

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Chicago Parent. Read the rest of the issue. 

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