Those Sensational Smink Sisters

Styles of the Times: The Sminks at Knoll Farm, their home in
Oxfordshire, England, circa 1967.
From left to right: Dawn, Autumn, Jennifer,
Brad (holding puppy Tad), Bob, and Ann Smink.

Born to be chic . . .
"Our parents were fabulous. In 1962, we were one of the first to get a Saarinen table. All the neighbors were agog," relates Autumn Smink, who with sisters Dawn and Jennifer, co-owns the contemporary Italian furniture store on Dragon Street that bears the Smink family name. Their father was in the military, and at the time they were stationed in Lubbock. Their mother Ann bought the now classic modern table from a store in town run by two maiden sisters called Design Today, she says. "Our mother used to drag us through there on a regular basis," says Autumn, who has a degree in interior design from the University of Cincinnati. "In some ways, we've become like those two old ladies, selling furniture on the prairie."

Their mother was the family's arbiter of taste and culture. "I remember wearing white gloves with white patent shoes and a dress to the zoo," says Autumn. "We had to read the paper every day so we'd have something to talk about at dinner." Ann, who hails from Newton New Jersey, had been a Drake, and as the family history goes, a descendent of the legendary Elizabethan naval commander Sir Francis Drake. "You know those paintings of Sir Francis Drake wearing pantaloons? He looked like Uncle Bill, right down to the stubby hands," says Autumn.

Bitta outdoor sofa and chaise by Kettal. Designed by Rudolfo Dordoni.

Rena Menardi ceramics with Arcade glass. Living Divani pillow.

The Drakes were bakers, and one of the first to have automated machines to make cakes and breads. As it turns out, the baking Drakes also made history. After inventing recipes for the original Oreo and Fig Newton cookies sometime in the early 20th century, Drakes Cakes merged with the National Biscuit Company, now Nabisco. The origins of the Oreo cookie name seemed to have been lost to time, even to the Nabisco company's own records. But let's clear the mystery up right here and now. "The Oreo cookie was named after our great, great aunt Glendora. Everyone called her Orey," says Autumn. And the Fig Newton? "It was named after Newton, New Jersey," where the Drakes lived, she adds.

Their father Bob Smink hailed from Dutch textile merchants who had owned a store in New York during the 1800s. A geologist by training who was in the Air Force during Viet Nam, he moved the family across the country and across the pond to England to different bases. "That Saarinen table moved all over the world with us," says Autumn. "Sometimes it fit in, sometimes it didn't."

Moleteni & C bed and night table designed
by Rodolfo Dordoni. Hyunmee Lee painting.

Frighetto sofa, Zoe Luyendijk carpet, chair by Moleteni & C

The family rented a 16th century stone manor in Oxfordshire, where they were stationed during the mid-to-late 60s. On the weekends, the family would pile into their father's 1936 Rolls Royce and drive through the countryside looking for flea markets and book stores. They spent every Christmas break in London going to museums. "Mother loved anything that was modern and cutting edge," says Autumn. "She would give us a primer about what we were going to see while we were putting on our shoes at the hotel. It was that kind of upbringing."

Porro wall hung TV shelf and cabinet by Piero Lissoni.
Minotti coffee tables by Rodolfo Dordoni.
Arcade glass by Ivan Baj and Laura de Santillana. Painting by Dara Mark.

Moleteni & C side chair. Hyunmee Lee painting.

In 1988, the sisters borrowed money from their parents to open their first store, a tiny place on Mockingbird Lane across from SMU, which sold Italian furniture, gifts and greeting cards. "We chose Italian furniture because it's the very best you can get in design and quality," says Autumn.
At the time, modern furniture was heavily lacquered with lots of chrome, she says. "It was garish contemporary. We knew it could be warm woods, simple fabrics, streamlined, and blended with tapestries and textiles." And, while most fine furniture in Dallas was available through trade-only showrooms, the Sminks had other ideas. "We wanted the store to be mainstream, and everyone was welcome," says Jennifer, who has a degree in architecture from UT Austin. "Design should not be exclusive. The original Frank Lloyd Wright plans were published in magazines."

Living Divani sofa and coffee tables. Minotti Portafino chairs.

Kettal outdoor furniture (Maia chair and Landscape sofa).
Frighetto table. Menardi pottery and Arcade glass.

The Sminks eventually moved into a larger space in Inwood Village, eschewing greeting cards for Arcade hand-blown glass and tabletop accessories by Armani Casa (they've since dropped the line). The sisters might have been selling high-end design, but their aesthetic principles remained populist.

"One thing you don't see in Europe are closed design centers like you do here. It's very democratic. Why should it be that only certain people can purchase from your store?" asks Jennifer, referencing the longstanding policy of American design centers to sell exclusively to the design trade. That question is a rhetorical one that the Smink sisters settled years ago. When the Dallas Design District began to warm to retail stores mixing it up with wholesale furniture and fabric showrooms several years ago, they relocated in 2009 to an airy space on Dragon, a street that has recently attracted a number modern art galleries, including Craighead Green next door.

Minotti Breton sofa. Dara Mark paintings.

Minotti's Kline daybed, George sofa, and Berma chairs.
Diane McGregor painting.

The 11,000 square foot Smink showroom has museum-white walls, lofty ceilings, and plenty of room to showcase lines such as Living Divani, Kettal, Minotti, and Moleteni & C, for which they have an exclusive in Texas and surrounding states. The sisters hit Milan at least once a year looking for what's new, and "more if we're invited," says Autumn. "Italian furniture is the best you can buy, and it's all made in a tiny region outside of Milan," says Jennifer. "Most of the factory workers grew up together, some of them married each other. It's a family business."

Zoe Luyendijk carpet. Gary Faye photographs.

Minotti Huber coffee table and Zoe Luyendijk carpet.

After 23 years, the Sminks are selling furniture to a second generation of customers. Says Autumn: "I sold some furniture to a man the other day who used to come in with his parents when he was nine years old. I remembered him because he had a pet porcupine." Other clients, like the ones who are redoing a 50s modern in Dallas with architect Mark Domiteaux, have been buying furniture from the Sminks for 10 years. "Our customers know what they want," says Jennifer, who has shipped orders all over the world including Dubai, Russia, and Kenya. "They understand the idea of custom ordering a piece. They don't want to shop again for furniture in 20 years. They believe in investments, even if sometimes all they're buying is one really good piece at a time."

Minotti Anderson sofa and chairs. Gary Faye photograph.

Kettal Maia arm chair. Kettal rocker designed by Rodolfo Dordoni.

The Sminks have forged collaborative relationships with manufacturers, too. With Minotti, they're helping redesign upholstered furniture to better fit taller customers, without compromising the low profile that makes the pieces modern. This season's collection includes sofas and chairs with higher backs. "It's the best collection we've ever seen in 23 years," says Jennifer. "In a time of huge economic crunch, they've come out with new fabrics, new technology, and new designs."

All-new Minotti stock will be on the floor by September 13, says Jennifer, along with several new pieces by Living Diviani. Look for a redesigned Smink website and new blog by December, and some exciting big news this fall -- hush-hush for now -- or as long as the sisters can keep a secret.

As for the original Saarinen table that helped ignite the Sminks' passion for modern furniture when they were children? It's still in the family, at home in Jennifer and Autumn's Preston Hollow house. "We use it every day," Jennifer says.

Ann and Bob Smink at home in Oxfordshire during the 1960s