Claremont Insider: Sam Maloof: Woodworker, 1916-2009

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sam Maloof: Woodworker, 1916-2009

Woodworker Sam Maloof has died. Maloof passed away Thursday at his Alta Loma home, the LA Times reports. Maloof was 93.

Maloof was raised in Chino and graduated from Chino High. The Daily Bulletin's obituary notes that while in high school, Maloof won a poster contest and that led to a job with Herman Garner, who owned a good portion of what is now Padua Hills and who built the Padua Theatre. Following World War II, Maloof worked for several years with the artist Millard Sheets, who was teaching at Scripps College.

The Times piece described Maloof's work:
The seventh of nine children born to Lebanese immigrants, Maloof in 1985 became the first craftsman to receive a MacArthur Foundation grant. His designs could not be categorized as Arts and Crafts, modern, Scandinavian or Italian. The self-taught designer would select a piece of wood -- walnut was his favorite because of its texture and durability -- and cut out parts freehand on a band saw.

Instead of following plans, he matched an image in his head. He refined the shape with hand tools to make the finished piece of furniture comfortable, functional and beautiful. He carefully considered the appearance of every angle of the piece, even chair backs and cabinet interiors, as well as grain pattern and his innovative joinery.

Pieces were assembled without nails or metal hardware. Even hinges and underbracing were wood. Once, to test the strength of the joints for a set of chairs, he made a prototype and dropped it from the roof of his garage onto his driveway. The joints survived.

Maloof's modern furniture fit handsomely in the post-and-beam dwellings blanketing new suburbs after World War II. In the postwar housing boom, the wood, leather, cork and other natural materials he used softened the hard edges of emerging minimalist architecture.

After construction on the 210 Freeway began, Caltrans moved Maloof's home and studio, which were in the freeway right-of-way, to its present location. Maloof's original house is now a museum and home to the Sam Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts.

A 1994 LA Times article described the house:
Like Simon Rodia's towers in Watts, Maloof's home is a monument to the creative impulse. Unlike those towers, which seem to reflect a reckless scramble for the sky, Maloof's home clings respectfully to the earth.

From the outside, its totality is impossible to grasp. What's clear is that the conglomeration of living space, workshops and studios have spread through the grove with the slow, organic aesthetics of a tree. A growing limb took an odd twist. Maloof sculpted an exterior post to mimic it. Where roots surface, walks rise in response.

Inside, big windows draw in the surrounding jungle and douse the warm redwood walls with cool light filtered through leaves.

"This was going to be a studio, then I decided to make a house of it," Maloof says, gesturing to a kitchen with cabinets and counters of mahogany, maple, walnut and a rock-hard wood called apitone, which a friend salvaged from packing crates and Maloof couldn't bring himself to burn.

When the freeway went through, the state proposed a number of options, including going over or around the house and studio, and Caltrans had to negotiate with Maloof before settling on moving the home to its present location, which was supposed to recreate, as much as possible, the quiet, secluded, rural feel of the original site.

The confrontation with Caltrans in a way epitomizes the artist's life. He didn't make concessions to many of the changes that modern life thrusts upon us. Maybe Flannery O'Connor's Haze Motes had it right: "They ain't quit doing it as long as I'm doing it."

Even in death, Maloof spirit remains in his work and in the work of all the people he mentored and taught in his workshops. The Times obituary quotes Maloof remembering an encounter with Ray Charles:
"Ray Charles couldn't see my furniture," Maloof told a reporter. "But he said he could feel that it had soul. When he asked about my rocker [at a friend's house], his host told him, 'That's a chair made by Sam Maloof.' Ray ran his hands over the wood shouting, 'I know this man! I know this man!' On his next visit, the first thing Ray Charles said was, 'I'd like to touch that furniture again that Sam Maloof made.' "

Maloof was a magnificent anachronism: a craftsman dedicated to unique handmade furniture in an age of dull, mass-produced sameness. Say this about the human spirit, it will endure.