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This article is from Issue 3 of Woodcraft Magazine.
By John English
When it comes to woodworking, few are better deserving of the title “Master” than Sam Maloof. But while his work is world-renowned and his name has become synonymous with his signature style, not nearly so much is known of the man himself. We’d like you to get to know him better.
January 24, 1916 was a busy day. In what is now Serbia, King Nikola I of Montenegro surrendered his army to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And while cavalry charges thundered across the plains of Europe, a young Lebanese immigrant in California gave birth to a son. The boy was to become an integral part of “America’s Century.”
In his 89 years, Sam Maloof has witnessed a great deal of change, both in the wider political world and also in the more personal world of design. Sadly, there is one thing that has not changed: The Lebanon his parents left is still in the throes of anguish. On the day Mr. Maloof spoke with me by telephone from his Alta Loma, California home, some 150,000 Lebanese citizens were turning the funeral of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri into an outpouring of public anger against an occupying Syrian army. In spite of the turmoil, Maloof prefers to emphasize the positive.
“My parents came from Douma, a village near the Cedars,” he said. “I’ve gone back to the Middle East a couple of times. I spent three months there working in Iran, and another three months in Lebanon in the late ’50s. I went back there again about five years ago, and the government gave me a special medal for some work I’d done.”
A story of survival
The Cedars – known to the Lebanese as “Arz Errab” or, literally, “the Cedars of the Lord” – are about 80 miles northeast of Beirut, and are the survivors of immense forests that covered Mount Lebanon in Biblical times. The most famous of them are as much as 2,000 years old, fighting the wind some 6,000 feet above sea level at the base of Qornet Essawda, the highest peak in Lebanon.
Stubborn survival has also characterized the life of Sam Maloof. He has always chosen his own path, and in doing so has created an art form that is distinctly his. Anybody familiar with 20th-century American furniture instantly recognizes a piece by Maloof. Occasionally, when they recognize his style, they’re seeing it in the work of others. I wondered if he was bothered by other people copying his style.
“Well, there’s nothing I can do about that, is there?” he responded with a small chuckle before adding, a bit more seriously, “No, I don’t really mind. I do know there are a couple of people who sell patterns and such, and I think that’s absolutely wrong.”
“You’ve never licensed your furniture, have you?”
“Well, I have a copyright on it. I’ve seen several pieces and they resemble [my work], but that’s about all.”
“How do you feel about becoming a style – something along the lines of, perhaps, Stickley? Are you comfortable with that?”
The question brings an outright laugh.
“I’ve never sought that, never advertised. People think I only design chairs, but I’ve designed hundreds of pieces. I suppose it’s a form of flattery, to call it a style.”
Maloof, often acclaimed as the most widely admired contemporary furniture builder, taught himself both design and construction. His pieces are sculpture, elegantly flowing around the human form with a supple grace one doesn’t usually associate with wood. He turns a hard material into a soft form, and although his work is widely celebrated and exhibited in museums and galleries, Maloof doesn’t really consider himself an artist. In his mind, he is first and foremost a woodworker. Despite a half-century of accolades, the company of celebrity (he has built chairs for three U.S. presidents), and the reverence of the art world, Sam Maloof remains a simple, modest man.
“I used to live in a lemon grove,” he told me. “In a house that I built myself, and the shops, too. But the freeway was coming through, and we were relocated three or four miles away. So, we reconstructed the house and shops where we’re at now, up here 2,500 feet above sea level.”
“You must be used to the elevation, because you’ve had a lot to do with the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village. That’s at about 7,000 feet, just outside Aspen. Does the altitude ever bother you?”
“It used to, sometimes. It would take a day or two to get used to it. But the last few years, it’s been quite good.”
Maloof and his first wife, Freda, were strong supporters of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center. The tradition has continued with his second wife, Beverly. Every year the Maloofs contribute one of his pieces for the annual art auction held each August, which helps support the center and its scholarship fund. Last year, one of his low-back chairs sold for $65,000.
“I’ve been told there’s quite a bit of money in the scholarship fund now,” he says. “And after Freda went away, I set up a scholarship especially for female artists.”
More than chairs
While rocking chairs are perhaps his signature pieces, Maloof’s work covers the entire gamut of furniture making. He was already making chairs, tables and other pieces long before the idea of designing rockers ever came along.
“My first rocking chair,” he said with a chuckle, “was for a private client. He owned a mosaic tile company. We were looking at one of my dining chairs, and he asked if I could make a rocker in the same style. So, I cut the legs off and made some rockers for it, and it worked out very well. I believe it cost him $400. I often wish I could find that chair.”
Maloof’s first real break was a commission for Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972). Dreyfuss was perhaps America’s original industrial designer, whose career began in New York in 1928. One of the earliest influences on Maloof, he ignored the Art Deco rules of his time and created his own practical, streamlined style. Dreyfuss was the first to integrate anthropometrics – the study of human dimensions and capabilities – into his furniture and fixtures.
“Henry was a top industrial designer,” Maloof told me. “And he was sort of my hero. An architect friend of mine was a very good friend of his. He had a new house, and we were there for lunch and he asked me to design furniture for the house. I asked if he wanted me to design and make the pieces, and he said ‘absolutely.’ That was in 1949, or maybe 1950. There was a refractory dining table – I didn’t even know what that was, I had to look it up! – and several other pieces, including chairs and cabinets. The price was $2,600 and his wife thought it was a lot of money to spend, but he told her that they hadn’t bought new furniture in 20 years, and it was time.”
The paycheck wasn’t his only reward – the commission was the beginning of a long and rich association with Henry Dreyfuss.
The personal side
Work still consumes his time, but there is a lighter side to Sam Maloof.
“I like most kinds of music,” he says. “Especially traditional and classical. I’m afraid I don’t like rock music. We play music in the shop, and it’s usually classical.”
“Yes, I read a lot. I like novels. Right now, I’m reading The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.”
(The Da Vinci Code plays on some of Christianity’s familiar mysteries.)
“That’s interesting. Are you a religious man?”
“I don’t know what you’d say is religious. I was raised Greek Orthodox, but I’ve gone to the same Methodist church for many, many years. It was Freda’s church. I told her I would start attending after we were married, and she said ‘Let’s start this Sunday,’ and I’ve been going ever since. It was a great comfort to me when Freda went away, and we’ve supported it very strongly.”
That sort of self-discipline and the rewards it brings are evident in every aspect of Sam Maloof’s life. His days are structured around work, even if he’s no longer putting in the 12-hour days that used to be typical for him.
“Well, probably more like nine or so. In summertime, I’m out in the shop by about seven o’clock. Beverly doesn’t like me to be out there alone, in case I get hurt.”
“You had a birthday just recently, didn’t you? In January?”
“Yes, I turned eighty-nine.”
“So, what is it that
keeps you going?”
“Oh, I’ve always been very active. And I love woodworking. I love what I do. That’s the important thing. So many people are miserable because they have to work only to survive, to pay their bills. I’m very lucky.”
“Do you still create things that surprise you?”
“Oh, sure. Sure I do. And people still seem to like what I do.”
“You still teach, too, don’t you?”
“Well, I give three workshops a year here. And I go to Aspen [to Anderson Ranch] in the summer. We have the public here, too. They visit on Thursday and Saturday afternoons, when visitors go through the old house and the gardens – not the shop, except on special tours. We have lots of requests to go through the shop, but it disrupts the work.”
“You seem like a very happy man. Is work a big part of that?”
“Oh, I think so. We were just talking about that. I’ve had three men helping me in the shop for many, many years, and we’ve never had an argument yet.”
“Speaking of the shop, how much of Sam Maloof goes into the pieces being built now?”
“I still design everything, and I assemble every piece.”
Like the cedars on the slopes of Qornet Essawda, passing years have only strengthened the character of Sam Maloof. A master of his craft, revered and celebrated by his peers, he is, at 89, a humble, extremely pleasant man with so much left to teach. In the February 1995 issue of the magazine Saudi Aramco World, author George Baramki Azar lauded his talents:
“Maloof’s crafting of black walnut, rosewood, ebony and teak has earned him a unique place among American master furniture-makers. A Maloof rocking chair, his signature piece, is the first work by a living craftsman ever to be included in the White House collection of American furniture.”
Seven years later, Arab-American Business, surprised that he was “still going strong at 86,” described him as “one of the most notable artists and craftsmen of his time.” The article also called him the California-born father of the studio furniture movement.
As if that was not praise enough, his own state legislature has designated him a “Living Treasure of California.”
Through it all, Sam Maloof has the last word.
“I’m just a woodworker,” he likes to say.
In much the same way that Arz Errab are “just trees.”
Originally from Ireland, John English is a trained cabinetmaker and the author of more than 500 magazine articles. He lives with his wife and two teenage sons in Casper, Wyo., at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. His Web site is woodezine.com
His Two Greatest Gifts: Talent and Generosity
By Susan Working
In Japan, they call certain of their most honored elder craftspeople “National Living Treasures.”
I suggest that Sam Maloof is one of our National Living Treasures. He is a deeply soulful man who combines extraordinary energy with extraordinary talent and generosity.
I first met Sam three years ago, when I was hired as the director of the Furniture Design and Woodworking Program at Anderson Ranch Arts Center. Sam helped establish our woodworking program some 35 years ago. He was the first instructor, and he remains deeply involved. He teaches a workshop here every summer, and every year donates a major piece to our annual art auction. These pieces bring anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 to the Ranch each year.
Sam’s generosity has been foundational to the success of our Wood Program. He has helped us to establish a strong scholarship program and initiate capital improvements such as building renovations and machinery upgrades; and he’s made countless spontaneous donations of equipment. (For example, about four months ago, a drum sander appeared on our doorstep, courtesy of Sam.)
Sam has taught me a lot about philanthropy and responsibility. I think it is the essence of who he is, his core value, his spiritual center. I’ve described his material generosity – which is extraordinary – but with Sam, it goes far beyond that plane. I’ve watched him in workshops. He gives away everything he knows. He has no sense of ownership, of technique or even of design. He regards his gifts as gifts, and he wants to make a present of them to others. He’s a natural teacher who is interested in everything and everybody.
Sam is now 89 years old, and in the course of a two-day workshop, he generally builds at least one chair and a couple of tables. He literally wears out me and my staff. And yet, on Sunday afternoon, he will stay at his bench until the last student leaves, signing their books, looking at pictures of their work, answering their questions. He is totally present.
This generosity of spirit permeates his work – like him, it’s loose, comfortable and graceful. If you watch Sam work, you’ll rarely see him use a tape measure. He’s an artist whose technique is always in service to his vision. He doesn’t seem to care whether the arms of a chair are exactly the same length, or whether a table is 27” or 28” high. He has an internal guide, and he finds where he’s going by looking and touching. Sam pays close attention to the flow of color, grain and line in a piece, and he grounds it all in a deeply intuitive knowledge of the body.
If you’ve ever sat in a Maloof chair, you know what I’m talking about: Big, tall, fat or small, every body finds it comfortable.
Susan Working is program director of the Furniture and Woodworking Program at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, Colo.
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