At 93, famed furniture artist Sam Maloof certainly has earned a good rest. Instead, he continues to operate a thriving four-man furniture studio, crafting pieces for clients who have to wait at least six years for delivery. Not so long ago, Maloof remembers clients in their 70s asking him, "Will I get my furniture before I die?" More recently, he says, "They ask, 'Will I get my furniture before you die?'"
In an effort to make sure they do, Maloof is in the shop nearly every day. And while he may now need a little help lifting heavy boards, he still supplies the creative vision, organizational guidance and much of the hands-on touch needed in the shop.
Maloof's work commands as much as $250,000 at auction, and his pieces are on display at the Smithsonian, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Boston Museum of Art. He is the first and only woodworker to have won a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called "genius grants." But Maloof came to woodworking at an unusually advanced age. In his 30s, newly married, virtually broke and in need of furniture for his new home in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., he designed and built the furniture himself.
That original house where he and first wife Alfreda Ward Maloof lived for five decades until her death in 1998 is now a museum run by the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation, preserving the couple's legacy and fostering California arts and crafts.
Oddly, the house no longer is in Rancho Cucamonga. When an Interstate highway was routed through the Maloof homestead in 2000, the state of California moved the structure to Alta Loma, declaring the new property a historic landmark (the original home qualified for the National Register of Historic Places in 1990). The state even built a new home on the site, where Sam and his second wife, Beverly, now reside.
Maloof's designs were featured in House Beautiful magazine, catching the eye of industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. The wealthy and influential Dreyfuss commissioned Maloof to design all the furniture for his house. There was no looking back.
Maloof has become famous for infusing high art into functional pieces. "It doesn't matter how beautiful a chair is; if it doesn't sit well, it's a bad chair," he explains. Appropriately, he notes that designs are born in his head, but he builds furniture "by the seat of my pants."
Love affair with wood
One of nine siblings born to Lebanese parents transplanted to Chino, Calif., Maloof remains humble, giving thanks for a "power within" that enables him to do the things he does. Describing wood as "sensuous," with incredible ability to connect to human hand and body, he ascribes much of the beauty of his furniture to the inherent properties of wood. He uses many species but favors walnut for 75 percent of his pieces.
With 60 years of woodworking behind him, Maloof insists some of the best work he has ever done is being done right now. He continues to create new designs with an annual output of about three dozen projects.
His most popular pieces are his chairs, with organic-looking joints in which the legs and seat seem to flow from a single block of wood. Nine or 10 United States presidents have sat in Sam Maloof rockers.
Maloof was asked by a reporter how he achieves the curve in his seating. "He switched on a band saw and reached for a piece of hardwood. Moving it around the flying blade, he deftly produced a serpentine bend, and then matched it to another piece from which he extracted just the right shape. It was effortless," the reporter said.
Advice to woodworkers
Over the years, Sam has helped aspiring woodworkers and California artists. Recently he expounded on the wisdom of working with galleries. Given his status, he no longer has to, preferring to sell direct and avoid the commissions they charge.
Recognizing that many artists don't have the luxury of ignoring galleries, he advises that it is not always a valid artistic judgment if the gallery ignores you. Galleries are in business, he explained, and must focus on what they think is saleable, not on what they judge to be beautiful.
In the shop
Visiting Maloof's 2,210-square-foot shop, you'll encounter the members of his staff: 50-year-old Mike Johnson, 65-year-old Larry White, and 39-year-old David Wade. All have been with Maloof for 25 years or longer. His son Slimen also has sometimes lent his talents to the mix.
As skilled as all these people are, it is Maloof's creativity and credibility that are the main attractions.
Sam knew early that he had a gift for design. "When I was a little boy," he recalls, "my mother had a retail shop where I used to sit at a table, drawing and making things."
He continues to draw, with some 750 furniture designs committed to paper. "These may show side and top views," he says, "but never step-by-step diagrams of how something will be constructed." Maloof and his staff know how to build a piece once they understand what it should look like. There's something to be said for being on the job 60 years especially if one is a genius.
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