Laurie Smithwick, designer, artist and teacher, wants to bring art to every corner of Charlotte — starting with her Plaza Midwood home.
by Page Leggett
While most kids were pledging to become doctors, teachers, and firefighters, Charlotte native Laurie Smithwick, 49, set her sights on being an art director.
Making mixtape covers was one of her earliest design efforts. When she was hired as a junior art director at a New York jazz label—one that represented Diana Krall and George Benson—she couldn’t believe she’d landed a job that blended music and typography.
Her next job at New York’s Red Herring Design was even better. A Smithwick design was nominated for a Grammy in 1998. The category: package design for a boxed set. The four-CD set, “Cuba: I Am Time,” was inside a package that mimicked a cigar box.
The design didn’t win, but Smithwick walked the red carpet, sat behind the Dave Matthews Band, and heard Aretha Franklin sing “Nessun dorma” live.
Birth of a dream
Smithwick was 12 when she began “working”—she used air quotes—for her dad, Henry Goldman, at his optometry practice. A visit to an art director’s office to approve new business cards changed her life.
“I couldn’t believe there was an outlet for this thing I loved doing—making words,”
“I loved hand-lettering signs for occasions at our house—happy birthday, bon voyage, welcome home. My mom [Author Judy Goldman] and I once made a 26-page alphabet book with a different illustration for each letter.”
After graduating from Charlotte Country Day, Smithwick headed to Duke University, where she worked in layout and design at the student newspaper and designed t-shirts for sororities and fraternities, and posters for Duke’s open mic night.
“I had a decent portfolio by the time I graduated,” she says. Still, she studied at the famed Parsons School of Design in New York after taking a year away from academia to teach sailing at Club Med, a job that allowed her to speak French. She’s still in touch with the French family she lived with during her junior year in high school.
It was in New York that she began dating and married Bob Smithwick, whom she’d known at Duke. He was a web designer; their work intersected. Before long, it seemed natural they should be business partners.
One move to Durham and a pair of twin daughters later, they did. It happened organically when Smithwick’s former boss called in 1998 and asked if she’d take on a design job for a major business magazine. The fee allowed her to buy a computer and scanner and launch LEAP Design, named after the leap of faith the couple took to start it.
They took another when the family moved to Charlotte in 2006. Smithwick wanted to raise Lucy and Zoe, now 16, closer to her parents. And she realized something: She left Charlotte thinking a creative career required moving. “It was this incredible surprise,” she says. “Preppy, churchy Charlotte had become fantastic in my absence. Charlotte is far and away the coolest town in North Carolina.”
She and Bob fell for a Plaza Midwood house they bought from a pair of artists—a weaver and a sculptor—who had bought it from an artist. “We feel it was endowed to us,” Smithwick says.
From the outside, it looks like a bungalow. But previous owners had torn out interior walls to create an open floor plan downstairs. “It lives more like mid-century modern,” she says.
The Smithwicks’ home is their canvas. “Bob’s a maker, too,” Smithwick says. He built the home’s three bookcases and his wife’s work table. Laurie painted “house rules” on the staircase. Her postcard collection, which she began as a teen, is on display in a kitschy postcard rack.
Putting family and art above technology
The design business thrived, but something didn’t feel right.
Designing is done by computer now—not by hand. Smithwick realized in 2012, long before it became part of the zeitgeist, that technology was taking over. “My whole life was lived in screens,” she says. “It was a terrible example to set for my daughters.”
Smithwick is innately upbeat. So, when she revealed her depression and anxiety disorder, she didn’t linger on the topic. She’d rather discuss the positive outcome. The upshot of depression, for her, was clarity. “All my life, I’d been setting goals and meeting them, setting goals and meeting them,” she says. “Suddenly I didn’t think I had any goals left.”
So, she set a goal of reducing her screen time. She used social media—she laughs at the irony—to extol the benefits of a tech detox. She launched stepawayfromthescreen.com in 2013 and began a Facebook group, in which she’d offer a creative prompt every month. At the end of each month, there’d be a show-and-tell session on Facebook.
Ironically, leaving the design business helped reignite Smithwick’s creativity. She’s given a TedX talk on where ideas came from. She and her friend, Jim Mitchem, partnered on the forthcoming “Gone Dogs,” a compilation
of essays from various writers about the dogs they loved
Signs of Smithwick are all over town. The WFAE and Charlotte Talks logos are her designs. The colorful signal boxes in South End? Smithwick had seen them in other cities and won a grant to make it happen here. She didn’t want just her designs on the project she named “Amplify the Signal.” She wanted it open to others. Nine intersections along the rail line—from Carson to Marsh—have a signal box covered in vinyl wrap with art by Sharon Dowell, Christine Dryden, and more.
Smithwick sees art everywhere. Last year, her “Wayfinding” project, which culminated in an exhibition at Camp North End, resulted in about 120 “street prints”—abstract works on paper of manhole covers, pavement cracks, and more of the hidden beauty beneath our feet. All were pulled directly from the asphalt of city streets.
“‘Wayfinding’ literally helped me find my way,” she says. “I hadn’t worked in a few years and wasn’t sure I what I wanted to be next. Now I know. I want to be an artist.”
Despite her success in the design field, Smithwick is humble. “I’ve worked as an artist since 1993, but I’m a beginner again,” she says. “I’m experienced and a beginner.” She notes the perfect timing: She turns 50 this year. It’s a good time for a reinvention.
And she’s savoring time with her girls—away from their screens—before they head to college in a couple of years. “Creating good humans,” she says, “is way better than a Grammy nomination.”