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01/30/2013

Material Girl

While scores of designers and entrepreneurs have spent their careers trying to invent something new, Sandy Chilewich has spent hers making revolutionary products out of what's already there.

By Erika Templeton

 
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    Sandy Chilewich View larger

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    New selections from the 2013 contract flooring line feature both traditional and BioFelt backings. View larger

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    Cubby holes store materials that inspire new products. View larger

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    Chilewich's Manhattan headquarters span two floors and house 30 employees. Photograph courtesy of Chilewich | Sultan View larger

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    One of Chilewich’s employees hard at work. View larger

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    Samples from the 2013 tabletop line laid out for layering practice. View larger

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    Mood boards mix intriguing colors, shapes and textures as the team preps for 2014. View larger

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    Happy partners Joe and Sandy in her daily workroom. View larger

The design industry is marked by fast-paced manufacturing, material innovation and radical aesthetic shifts—the constant search for “what’s new” and “what’s next.”

While it may be seductive to envision the process behind these dynamic shifts to be as radical as its results, it is often the small but well-considered tweaks that shift and shape the industry.

Take Sandy Chilewich, a career change-maker with a resume spanning fashion, fine art, home décor, hospitality design and contract flooring. She has a consistently sharp eye for innovation opportunities hidden in plain sight.

“My passion as a designer,” says Chilewich, now creative director of her namesake brand, Chilewich | Sultan, “is about looking at a manufacturing process and what it’s making and realizing, ‘God, this could be so much more interesting if they could just change it a little bit.’”

Her Midtown headquarters are a tactile designer’s dream—an organized chaos of fabric swatches, material samples and idea books, all peeking out of cubbies and begging to be examined.

Sandy treats the dining table like a sit-in closet and designs tabletop lines as though they are fashion seasons going down the runway—to be collected and recombined over time. And now, as the company’s product line expands through upholstery, window coverings, wall coverings and flooring, new pairings can pop up just about anywhere.

“I’m just dreaming about the idea of this layering on top of each other,” Chilewich says. “It’s no easy feat, to take something that was designed as an upholstery and then try to have it work as a floorcovering. It’s been unbelievably hard, but satisfying.”

Prior to Chilewich | Sultan, her efforts were focused on more consumer-facing products. In 1978, she co-founded HUE, where she and her partner, “two young women in a 1970s loft in SoHo, making a billion mistakes and growing like crazy,” produced the first natural fiber stretch tights in an unprecedented range of colors. They had single-handedly changed hosiery from a commodity into a fashion statement.


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