Author/restaurateur/TV host B. (as in Barbara) Smith is a familiar face to many.
But that wasn't necessarily the case in High Point, N.C., where she introduced her first furniture line - a 40-piece home collection with manufacturer Clayton Marcus - at the recent spring furniture market.
Smith's line, expected to be available in stores come the fall, is the first collection created by an African American woman for national distribution. It was not lost on her that of the roughly 80,000 people who converged on High Point for the market, there were relatively few blacks "anywhere, except for those lovely cleaning ladies you see in the hallways."
Because African Americans have been underrepresented in the home-furnishings industry and the design world, unveiling her "At Home With B. Smith" furniture collection feels groundbreaking, she says.
"This is a huge, huge turning point in my life. It's a triumph."
The collection has three furniture groupings, inspired by her contemporary penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park, her Sag Harbor beach house in New York, and her global travels, as well as her previous life as a model; at her opening-night party, she wore an elegant body-hugging polka-dot silk dress that matched an ottoman.
Her furniture received considerable attention at High Point - the showroom was packed with prospective buyers and members of the press, even though celebrity-endorsed collections are common at the twice-a-year furniture markets.
But during an interview in New York before the market, you could sense immediately that her furniture means more to Smith than just another chance to extend her brand as a lifestyle designer. It's also an opportunity to overcome stereotypes about minority women in the business world.
"She's a unique entrepreneur in America, and she's giving black women and women of color opportunities to see possibilities for themselves," says Smith's husband and business partner, Dan Gasby. "She has overcome a lot of obstacles and is breaking down perceptions of what [African American] women can do."
Smith, 57, grew up in Western Pennsylvania, the daughter of a housekeeper and a steelworker. In high school, she loved home economics. "I wasn't a great student," says Smith. "I loved cooking and sewing."
Because blacks weren't welcomed into the 4-H club, she started a home-ec club and made herself president.
After graduating, she went to modeling school, and her first career was as a model in Pittsburgh and later in New York, with the Wilhelmina agency.
"I segued from modeling into opening my first restaurant in New York in 1986," says Smith, who has a 21-year-old stepdaughter. "I've always had at least three jobs. I still do."
Over lunch at a restaurant near their apartment, she tenders the current issue of O at Home, the Oprah Winfrey home-decorating magazine. The front cover folds out to reveal a glossy six-page ad for GE products, featuring herself and Gasby entertaining in the "sophisticated GE Monogram" kitchens of their two drop-dead-gorgeous homes.
But getting here has not been without hardship, she says.
"I've had blacks and whites alike tell me to put a curtain up in the window of my restaurant because no one wants to see so many blacks in the window," says Smith, speaking of B. Smith's in Times Square. (Her other restaurants are in Sag Harbor and Washington.)
She acknowledges that "some people maybe won't buy [the furniture] because I'm black." But she says interest, so far, has been strong.
"It's well-done and attractive," says Ray Allegrezza, editor-in-chief of Furniture Today, the weekly business newspaper of the furniture industry.
"The Sag Harbor stuff is something you'd expect to see in a well-outfitted home in the Hamptons. The fabrics she used on her upholstery, maybe because of her modeling background, felt like they were something coming down the runway - vibrant and rich in color," Allegrezza says. "You got a sense she really was involved; this wasn't somebody just slapping their name on the stuff."
Her three collections - Central Park South (modern), Sag Harbor (seaside cottage), and Mosaic Treasures (globally inspired) - aren't "about my personality and my style so much as the way I put things together, as I have in my restaurants and my home," Smith says.
"Everyone's a designer now, watching design shows on TV. But when it comes to buying furniture and putting things together, it's not quite so easy for them. . . . If I can help people feel the way they want in their home environment, I've won the lottery in a big way."
Smith promises more details soon about her furniture on her Web site, www.bsmith.com.