Born in Chino, California in 1916, Sam Maloof was a furniture designer and considered one of America’s finest woodworkers.
The New York Times describes Sam Maloof as “…a central figure in the postwar American Crafts movement.” The Smithsonian Institution named him as “America’s most renowned contemporary furniture craftsman. People Magazine tagged him “The Hemingway of Hardwood.” He always refused to identify himself as an artist and the title of his autobiography is Sam Maloof Woodworker.
As a child, his interest in woodworking led him to carve dollhouse furniture, cars, and other toys. He took his first woodworking class in high school in Ontario, California. Maloof’s teacher recognized his extraordinary skills in the carving and shaping of wood. Following high school, he worked as a graphic designer and printer.
Drafted into the U.S. Army in World War Two, he served from 1941-1945. Sent to Alaska along with 35,000 other soldiers, the assignment was to defend the territory against an expected Japanese invasion. Although not trained as a photographer, he was one of the few soldiers who had a camera. He developed excellent skills and took over 1800 photographs which later served well in the role of historic documentation. He also worked on drafting engineering drawings.
After the war, he returned to Southern California and married his wife, Alfreda. They settled in Ontario where Maloof set up a furniture workshop in his garage. He designed and constructed the furniture for his home and worked on a number of commissioned pieces. The Maloof’s relocated to Alta Loma, California in 1953. He added 16 rooms over the years to the original small house, as well as a studio and furniture-making shop.
In 1985, he became the first craftsman to receive a MacArthur fellowship, This is an annual award, referred to as a “genius grant”, given to between 20 and 30 citizens or U.S. residents working in any field who have shown “…extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-directions.”
The route of the new extension of the 210 Freeway in 2000 bisected his property and, as a result, the home and workshops were moved 3 miles to its present location.
The site, known as the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Compound at 5131 Carnelian Street, Alta Loma, is now the office of the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts as well as the Sam Maloof Historic Residence and Woodworking Studio.
In his more than 50-year career as a woodworker, Maloof created more than 5000 pieces of furniture including the iconic rocking chair he crafted for President Carter while in the White House. Jimmy Carter, a longtime friend with a keen interest in woodworking, said of Maloof, “There wouldn’t be more than five or six people in the world who have had a greater direct effect in my self-analysis, my deliberate effort to learn something from them and apply it in my own life.”
Sam Maloof’s Shaker-influenced work combined “the art of design with the necessity of comfort.” In the 1960s, offered 22 million dollars for the rights to mass produce his work, Maloof turned down the offer because he believed in the power of the handmade.
A leader in the California modern art movement, his designs were “sleek, minimal and organic.” They are considered to have a “sculptural quality but are also ergonomic and austere in their simplicity.” There were no nails or metal hardware to be found anywhere in his work. His favorite woods were black walnut, cherry, oak, rosewood and yew. He would use poplar on larger pieces in areas that could not be seen during ordinary use.
When his furniture designs appeared in Better Homes and Gardens and The Los Angeles Times, he found his work in great demand with long waiting lists. But he was dedicated to handcrafted work so produced only about 100 pieces a year. HIs work became not only “appreciated for its functionality, but later became highly collectible for beauty and attention to detail.”
In the years between 1945 and 1966, progressive architects such as Richard Nuetra, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen included his designs in the experimental Case Study Houses constructed around Los Angeles during those years.
In 2016, a new exhibition entitled Sam Maloof Woodworker: Life l Art l Legacy, part of a year-long celebration of the Maloof Centennial and including more than 60 examples of furniture, drawings, photographs, artworks, documents and other objects opened at the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts. This major event was envisioned as the most ambitious effort yet to “chronicle Maloof’s lifelong journey as an artist and craftsperson.”
The new book Sam Maloof: Thirty-six Views of a Master Woodworker by Fred Setterberg accompanied the exhibition and a tour of Maloof’s HIstoric Home and Discovery Garden was offered as part of Palm Springs Modernism Week 2016.
The Sam Maloof Historic Home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is part of the National Trust’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios and is a Smithsonian Affiliate. Docent-led tours of the Historic Home are available on Thursday and Saturday. Detailed information on tours, exhibits and events can be found on the website malooffoundation.org. His home and gardens are well worth a visit.
Sam Maloof’s work is in many private homes and in the collections of major museums and institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Sam Maloof died at the age of 93 in 2009. Sam Maloof Woodworker Inc. continues to carry on his legacy by the three craftsmen who worked closely with him for more than thirty years. They employ “the meticulous craftsmanship, the unique woodworking techniques and finishes that were Sam Maloof’s hallmark carrying on Sam’s legacy by continuing to offer his signature designs to established clients and a new generation of fine woodworking connoisseurs.”
When once asked by a Los Angeles Times reporter why his business card always said woodworker, Maloof replied, “I like the word. It’s an honest word.”
The Furniture of Sam Maloof. Jeremy Adamson, W. W. Norton 2006
Sam Maloof Woodworker. Sam Maloof, Kodansha International 2013
Sam Maloof: 36 Views of a Master Woodworker. Fred Setterberg, Heyday. 2013
Images by Lynnette Mager-Wynn, with permission from Rago Auctions