I was saddened to hear of the death of Sam Maloof on May 21, not just because of his loss to woodworking but because of the man he was.
I've met a lot of famous and successful woodworkers over the years, but I don't think any of them were as genuine and accessible as Sam. One of my favorite memories was when I visited Sam and his first wife Freda at their home. I was the editor of Fine Woodworking back then, and we had been working on a story about Sam's house in Rancho Cucamonga and his fight to save it from an oncoming freeway project.
I was really looking forward to the visit, having grown up in California in the milieu of sculptural woodworking that seemed to be everywhere around. People like Art Carpenter, James Krenov, and Sam Maloof were heroes to a new culture of craftsmanship that revered a more organic approach to working with wood. When I lived in Mendocino County in the early 1980s, it was shortly after Krenov took over the woodworking program at the College of the Redwoods.
Carpenter was holding forth down the coast in Marin County. Maloof was the farthest away in Southern California, but his impact was closer.
Early in his career, Maloof worked for the famous painter Millard Sheets. In his later years, Sheets lived about four miles from my home in the obscure little town of Gualala. I was working for the local newspaper and doing some woodworking on the side, mostly related to musical instruments.
Sheets was a big supporter of the local artist community. His son David and his wife had a gallery in town in addition to David's wife doing some part-time work at my newspaper. I heard stories about Maloof from both Millard and David, and David was starting to make some furniture that was clearly in the Maloof school. But it was more than a decade later that I actually met Sam at his home.
The grand tour
When we arrived at the home nestled in the middle of a lemon grove, Sam and Freda greeted us warmly. Sam, of course, had to give us the grand tour. Everywhere you turned in the house there was Sam's artistry. From the hand carved latches and door handles (every one different) to the sculptural beams and graceful curving staircase. And then there was the furniture. One moment I will never forget was how Sam invited us to sit in his chairs and then quizzed us sincerely about how the chair felt.
Was it comfortable? Gripping the arms that fell naturally where they ought to, you couldn't help but rub and caress the curves of the wood. I've sat in a lot of Maloof-wanna-be chairs since then, and no matter how nice they look, few stand up to the real test of sitting in them.
Temple of craftsmanship
As we toured the house, watched Sam as he and Freda bantered back and forth, and talked more with Sam over dinner at a local Mexican place, it all left a lasting impression. As much as Sam's furniture and craftsmanship dominated the home, it was also filled with the artwork of others. Maloof was absolutely smitten by beautiful turned bowls and collected many, particularly those of Bob Stocksdale. And Freda's collections of Kachina dolls, Navajo rugs and other Southwest art all fell into place, too. The whole was a temple of craftsmanship in reverence of both natural beauty and what can be created by human hands.
A giant, spreading avocado tree dominated the courtyard of the Maloof home, and other trees, gardens and of course the surrounding lemon grove all added to the organic feel of the place. When the deal was finally cut to move the house to make room for the freeway, the home was relocated in another lemon grove, but that beautiful old avocado tree couldn't make the move.
Down to earth
Throughout his life, Sam worked tirelessly for his craft and was extremely generous with his time and talent. He nurtured other craftspeople and freely shared what he had learned. While other famous woodworkers may have sought acolytes, Sam seemed more interested in sharing and learning himself. He joked about visiting with George Nakashima and questioning who had the bigger horde of spectacular wood waiting to be made into furniture.
He wasn't about techniques and traditions. When I visited, the shop was dominated by some big old Polish woodworking machines that he got a great deal on. Watching him send a piece through a bandsaw was nothing short of scary. And other woodworkers would argue tirelessly about Sam's joinery and whether it would last.
Sam brushed off all of that.
He was driven by the urge to create, not for money, not for fame - although he achieved those in some measure - but more by some fundamental instinct. Some people just have to make things. It may start from necessity, as it did for Sam when he made furniture from scrap wood for his first home because he couldn't afford to buy furniture. Or it may be part of fulfilling some innate challenge or passion -
can I do this better? Sam was a little of all of that. He worked for the work and was in the shop right up to the end.
When we had the chance to feature him in our March 2009 cover story, we had no idea that his death would come so soon. I'm just pleased that we gave him somewhat of a send-off. It's really small thanks to someone who has given so much of himself to woodworking and craftsmanship and asked so little in return.
Thanks, Sam. I'll miss you.
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