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PST, A to Z: ‘The House That Sam Built,’ ‘In Words and Wood’

January 27, 2012 |  5:03 pm

Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.

Karl Benjamin’s "Abstraction"
Charles and Ray Eames may be the most celebrated PST designers, but two exhibitions centered on midcentury woodworker Sam Maloof give them a run for their money. “The House That Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley, 1945-1985” at the Huntington, and “In Words and Wood: Sam Maloof, Bob Stocksdale and Ed Moulthrop,” at the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation, both look at Maloof’s work in relation to the remarkable community of artists and craftspeople who gathered around him.

Like the Eameses, Maloof was a magnet for talent and creativity, but unlike them, he never embraced mass production. Instead, a piece of his furniture — always made by hand, to order — could be seen as a highly personal dialogue between its maker and its recipient. This stance might seem too rarefied, even elitist, but it’s also evidence of Maloof’s intense focus on personal relationships.

In the Huntington show, which closes Monday, this value comes across even in relatively early works. The basic shape of a 1952 chair created for the office of industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss was inspired by Danish modern design, but Maloof added an extra bar across the back, which actually made the chair less comfortable. As it turns out, this change came out of discussions with Dreyfuss, who hoped that less accommodating chairs would encourage shorter meetings.

Sam Maloof, chairElsewhere, Maloof’s creative affinities with other artists are evident in the many visual rhymes between his furniture and the artworks on display, which are often arranged as they might have appeared in the Maloof home (most of the works in the show are from the foundation’s collection). In addition to wood workers Stocksdale and Moulthrop, the Maloofs’ circle included sculptor Albert Stewart, enamellists Jean and Arthur Ames, ceramicists Otto and Gertrud Natzler, and many others.

In the late 1960s, Maloof developed a signature “hard line” in his furniture when his carving tool slipped and accidentally created a thin, sharp edge. He liked the mistake so much that he incorporated it into most of his chairs, transforming his rounded Danish-inspired forms into something more distinctive. An affinity for this “hard edge” can also be seen in early abstract paintings by his friend Karl Benjamin, but also in the work of figurative artists such as Millard Sheets (for whom Maloof once worked as a studio assistant) and Phil Dike, whose paintings of spear fishers are so full of sharp, curving lines, they look almost incised.

There’s a musicality to this interplay, both among the works on view and within single pieces of Maloof furniture: full, rounded forms taper effortlessly into sharp edges; solid, muscular volumes somehow fashion themselves into elegant, graceful curves. Nowhere is this fluidity more evident than in a music stand and practice chair that Maloof made for Jan Hlinka, principal violist for the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra in 1972. The chair is based on a pedestrian folding chair, but customized to accommodate Hlinka’s need for firm back support and a free range of arm and torso movements. The resulting piece has clean, economical lines and back legs that curve like an ascending musical phrase.

Simple elegance is also the dominant motif in the PST exhibition (Saturday is its last day) at the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation: a small selection of turned wood bowls by Stocksdale and Moulthrop, both friends of Maloof. Experts in wood turning — rotating a piece of wood on a lathe around a cutting tool — they made wondrously elegant vessels that feel guided by the wood itself. Moulthrop once said that his job was to uncover the bowl in each tree trunk, and many of the vessels seem almost like magical emanations of the waves and whorls of natural wood grain.

Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and CraftsYou couldn’t wish for a more perfect expression of harmony with nature, but these pieces pale in comparison to the Maloof residence in which the show is housed. The exhibition at the Huntington may re-create the artistic world Maloof fostered around himself, but his residence in the foothills of Alta Loma is literally the house he built. By hand. Room by room, as he and wife Alfreda could afford it, from 1953 to 2001, when the house was moved to its present location to make way for the 210 freeway expansion. Nearly every stick of furniture, every doorway arch and latch, even the kitchen counters, are all fashioned lovingly out of wood. The original home became a museum, and Maloof lived in a second house on the new grounds until his death in 2009.

The museum is only open to the public via docent-led tours. (Reservations are required). On a recent, sunny afternoon, our tour was led by Evelyn George, Maloof’s niece-in-law, who gave the proceedings a personal touch. She not only told us how former President Jimmy Carter had once dined in the house, but pointed out cat scratch marks on the furniture and revealed that despite the fine, silky finishes on all of their wood surfaces, the Maloofs never used coasters, tablecloths or placemats. If someone left a wet glass on the counter, Sam would simply sand and oil it back to its original glow.

Spiral staircase, Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and CraftsNeedless to say, the house is full of amazing pieces of furniture and custom, sometimes whimsical details: hanging plants are suspended on pulleys with ropes tied to handmade wooden cleats, a spice rack ripples across the top of the stove, and an amazing spiral staircase suggests a twisting spinal column.

The house feels organic, not only because many of its surfaces are wood, but because of the piecemeal way in which Maloof built it. At times it feels like a rabbit warren, with one room leading into the next, and the next, and the next. There’s a bit of the Winchester Mystery House about it.

It’s also packed to the gills with stuff — kachina dolls, books, Mexican folk art, rugs, ceramics. Alfreda worked as an art teacher in Indian schools in the Mid- and Southwest, and the Maloofs were keen collectors of Native American art. They also collected pieces from Iran, Lebanon and El Salvador, where Sam, who was of Lebanese descent, was employed by the State Department in the 1950s, teaching woodworking.

This eclectic taste is reminiscent of the Eames’ interest in folk art, and perhaps both couples saw these traditions as a counterweight to the forces of industrialization. While the Eameses championed the democratization of good design, they always tried to balance efficiency with a softer, human element. Maloof assiduously avoided the standardization that comes with mass production, but as our guide noted, he was also practical, mixing prefab elements with custom ones in his house as his finances dictated. Still, in the end, for Maloof it was about an intimate relationship: making a thing yourself and tailoring it like a gift to a particular recipient — the one who was going to use it, sit in it, live with it.

-- Sharon Mizota

The Huntington, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, (626) 405-2100, through Jan. 30. Closed Tuesdays. www.huntington.org

Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts, 5131 Carnelian St., Alta Loma, (909) 980-0412, through Jan. 28. Open for docent-led tours on Thursdays and Saturdays. www.malooffoundation.org

Photos, from top: Karl Benjamin’s "Abstraction" (1955) with Sam Maloof’s Settee (1959). Credit: Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © The Huntington.

Sam Maloof, chair, 1984, fiddle-back maple and ebony. Collection of the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts, Alta Loma. Credit:  The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts, Alta Loma.

Exterior view, Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts, Alta Loma. Credit: Sioux Bally of Heartstone Arts.

Spiral staircase, Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts, Alta Loma. Credit: Sharon Mizota.

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