Ari Smejkal, the can-do-anything-with-wood craftsman featured on HGTV’s “Windy City Rehab,” knows exactly where his loyalty lies when it comes to the rift that’s torn apart the relationship of co-hosts Alison Victoria and Donovan Eckhardt.
“Alison is my friend and my boss,” Smejkal told the Sun-Times on Tuesday as the finale of the show’s second season was set to air. “I just talked to her, she called and said thank you for sticking with me and thanks for being a friend.”
Smejkal said that he doesn’t know much beyond what’s been disclosed on the show: mainly that Victoria accused Eckhardt of misappropriating thousands in construction funds and called it quits on their partnership.
The show has been based on their formula of buying homes in Chicago and flipping them.
“I just keep my nose down and work my a – – off. But when somebody’s down you can feel it, and she’s always been there for me, and I’ll be there for her, too,” he said.
Asked about the authenticity of the show’s drama, Smejkal said it’s all real and almost completely off the cuff, he said.
A series of well-documented lawsuits stemming from the show, as well as problems with the city’s building department, have also provided an viewers an unobstructed peek behind the scenes.
“This is her real life story, a woman making it in what’s traditionally been a man’s world of construction, showing that women are coming on strong,” he said.
“I told her she needs to start promoting more women in construction and carpentry. Female carpenters kick a – -. I’m actually telling my daughters to become carpenters,” said Smejkal, 57, who has six kids — three boys from a previous relationship, and three daughters brought into his life by his fiancee, Lara. The brood ranges in age from 28 to one. And Smejkal has two grandkids.
Smejkal is in talks with a couple networks about possibly hosting his own do-it-yourself woodworking show. Sometimes he wonders how that’s possible, and how he’s come to occupy a major role on “Windy City Rehab.”
“I guess I’m likable on camera, you know, which I never would have thought,” he said.
Worked on more than 100 Chicago restaurants
Smejkal is an accomplished designer and builder in his own right — with everything from safe rooms for rich suburban executives to lavish man caves under his belt.
He owns and operates Hammer Design Group and has built interior spaces for more than 100 restaurants in Chicago, including the Clark Street Ale House and Gene and Georgetti’s.
He’s also designed and built furniture for several decades. Chicago Blackhawk Brent Seabrook and actress Joan Cusack have bought pieces from him.
His phone has been ringing off the hook lately.
“I’m getting 20 to 30 calls a day, everything from fixing a broken latch on someone’s cupboard their dad built 50 years ago to building multi-million dollar homes,” he said.
He’s been working seven days a week and is booked well into 2021 with projects, including a 26-foot outdoor trestle table made of old reclaimed 200-year old timber for a client in Hinsdale and the rehab of 19th century cabin in North Carolina.
“I love unique projects no one else can do,” he said.
In between gigs, Smejkal has been painting and sculpting. His work is currently on exhibit at The Gallery in Lake Forest.
Smejkal grew up in Fox Lake and studied landscape architecture at Southern Illinois University before dropping out to bartend and bounce.
But woodworking was in his blood, beginning with his great grandfather, and he found his way back to it.
“I framed my first house in high school,” Smejkal recalled.
A few other takeaways from the chat with Smejkal:
- He sold his home in Logan Square two years ago, gave up his shop in the West Loop because rent got too expensive and now lives on a farm in Germantown, Wis., about 30 minutes from Milwaukee. He has 18 chickens, two goats, two dogs (Lucky and Willow), three cats…