When Marilyn Rolnick Tonkon entered a room, everyone knew it. “Word would go around the event: ‘Marilyn Rolnick is here,’ ” remembers Yvette Gonzalez, showroom manager at The Bright Group. The barely five-foot-tall designer possessed a commanding presence that belied her frame—the well-earned result of her storied 50-year career.
Upon hearing news of the Dallas design icon’s passing in August, friends and longtime business associates remembered Rolnick as a talented and uncompromising designer and a generous, fun-loving friend.
Born and raised in Dallas, Rolnick’s first design influence was her mother, to whom she attributed her impeccable taste. “She always cared about art and style, for as long as I can remember,” says daughter Jennifer Morrow. She founded Marilyn Rolnick Design Associates in 1971, at a time when women were often excluded from the brick-and-mortar side of the business. Not Rolnick, who frequented job sites and kept contractors honest. Richard Gordon, her business partner of 23 years, recalls her saying of those days, “You had to know what you were talking about, and you had to be tough. Otherwise, they didn’t take you serious.”
And tough she was. Says Gordon with a fond chuckle, “Everybody got their phone call from Marilyn.” He remembers overhearing one such call early in their working partnership: “I said, ‘Marilyn, you were really hard on that guy,’ ” he recalls. “And she said, ‘I have to be. It’s our name on the line.’ ”
But for as exacting as she was in her professional pursuits, she was equally engaging in her personal relationships. Says friend and fellow designer John Marrs, “At a party I would seek her out because I loved talking to her. Elegant and always beautifully dressed, to me, she was what a designer should look like. She liked to laugh too—we would always get tickled at little things.”
Industry titan David Sutherland recalls a tender memory from early in their 40 years of friendship: “Many years ago, Marilyn had just finished a design job with a very important client. She had seen some of my photographs and asked if I would photograph the project in hopes of finding suitable publications for industry presentation. I met Marilyn and her client one evening, and of course we started with a libation, then another. Finally we got on to the project. For whatever reason, none of the photographs I took were usable! I explained to her that I must have misread the camera settings—or perhaps her gracious servings had impacted my ability to create what we had both hoped for. She laughed and said we ‘should do it again sometime!’ She let me off the hook though I was mortified beyond words. That’s who she was: fun, talented, and forgiving.”
Many industry veterans can claim friendships that span similar years, like Cammie Marrs, now president of Pulp Associates, who first met Rolnick as a new hire nearly 30 years ago. “I was very young and intimated by all the new faces and my environment,” she remembers. “Marilyn was so kind. She was a class act and one of the most talented and knowledgeable Dallas designers.”
Janet Bottomley, owner of Antique Floors Inc., notes Rolnick’s longevity in an industry known for turnover. “I worked with her for 25-plus years, and many times, she was working with the same clients on different projects. Clearly, they loved the end results,” she says. “She seemed to never stop learning. I recently saw photos of a job she did probably 20 years ago, and it still looked fresh.”
Indeed, Rolnick was known for her belief that “good design shouldn’t date.” Up until the end of her life, work was a source of joy for the designer, who relished staying up to speed on what was new. “Her taste and style grew with the industry,” says Gonzalez. “She left most of her peers in the dust.” (Perhaps there were a few constants in her ever-evolving repertoire, suggests George Nash, owner of George Cameron Nash showroom: “Marilyn loved using brilliant color in her work. Purple was her favorite,” he says. “If a new fabric was introduced and a purple was included, we always answered, ‘Get the purple to Marilyn.’ ”)
Most of all, Rolnick was a loving wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Says Morrow, “In all respects, she was a caretaker—she made sure people had what they wanted or needed, whether it was work related or personal.”
It’s a sentiment to which those who knew her can attest. Notes Gordon, “There aren’t a lot of people who can say that they’ve done design work for 50 years, in the same city, and still had people who respected and liked them. She was just a real trailblazer in her time.”