Photograph by Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times
June 5, 2003: Sam Maloof, 87, works in his workshop which is attached to his home he built 50 years ago.
THE SUNDAY PROFILE
A Man of the Woods
Connoisseurs of heirloom furniture clamor for his creations. The
state clamors to move his rambling, treasure-filled home to make way
for a freeway. But Sam Maloof remains serene amid a changing world.
July 24, 1994
By BOB SIPCHEN, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Not far from the Alta Loma lemon grove harboring Sam Maloof's home and workshop, a shiny city sign proclaims Maloof Avenue.
street wasn't named for Sam, who is merely the region's, and the
world's, best-known woodworker. It honors, rather, a distant relative
who earned his fortune selling cars.
Now Southern California's
autopia is finally losing patience with the woodworker, who by most
indications is woefully out of step with the times.
developers can level a citrus grove and toss up a thousand-unit
"community" quicker than a tree trunk adds a ring, Maloof has worked
for four decades on a single, rambling home.
And that home stands squarely in the way of commuters restless to sprint from San Dimas to San Bernardino.
wide scabs of tumbleweed-strewn, freeway-ready landscape already rip
right up to an island of trees surrounding Maloof's place. You can
almost hear the honk of a million horns demanding that this stretch of
the Foothill Freeway go through.
But Sam Maloof is not a man to be rushed. Nor one to let eight lanes of concrete and Bott's Dots destroy his serenity.
45 years, Maloof has earned his living by creating furniture that
pushes hard against that snooty line segregating craft from fine art.
From the first chairs he chiseled, glued and clamped in the garage of a
small Ontario tract house, the evolution of Maloof's designs has been
slow and subtle.
"I was not overwhelmed," Jonathan Fairbanks, a
curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, wrote of his first
encounter with Maloof's furniture, at a New York exhibition in 1966.
In this age of artistic mega-extravaganzas and superduper-stars, that sounds like a slam. It wasn't.
introduction to Maloof's 1983 book, "Sam Maloof, Woodworker" (Kodansha
International), goes on to extol "the authority and intensity" of the
artisan's designs, while providing descriptions that other critics
echo: Quiet . Sensitive . Serious . Spare . Graceful . Timeless .
companies eager to mass-produce his designs have offered Maloof
contracts that would have earned him millions. He turns them down. With
the help of three assistants, he chips away at a 500-order waiting
list, crafting 50 to 60 pieces a year--less than a small factory might
do in a day.
"I've taken a very plodding course," the
78-year-old craftsman says in a voice as warm as well-polished walnut.
"I've never been interested in fads. A lot of young woodworkers are
very, very good. The sophistication and craftsmanship in what they do
is amazing. But a lot of the work seems not to have soul."
hand-carved sign that marks Sam and Freda Maloof's place is weathered
and hard to spot in a forest of shrubs. Visitors who drive past find
themselves wandering through the cultural context that has swallowed up
the Maloofs' incongruous habitat.
A few miles to the east, ghost
town-like relics emerge from the smog. Boarded-up stores and gas
stations built from river rock are scattered among neighborhoods where
rusted cars litter yards overgrown with brittle weeds. Keep going and
the graffiti starts. Drugs are dealt. Hookers stroll in the midday sun.
other directions, the same rocky soil optimistically sprouts baby boom
towns. Precisely landscaped streets link look-alike tracts to the
Nails-Wherehouse-Play Co.-Spires-Auto Express-Mervyn's-Chili's-Pep Boys
Wheel into Maloof's brick and concrete driveway, though,
and Southern California's Juiced-up, World-Cupped, flesh-eating,
yammering boom of hyperbolized banality is left snapping at the gate.
the second hand on a watch seems to spin more slowly. A thick canopy of
olive and avocado leaves caresses the car, cooling and oxygenating the
air. A whiff of citrus brings back another California, calming jangled
nerves like a pleasant, post-nap yawn.
Somewhere deep in the
lemon grove, a mockingbird yaks. Then, the soft chip-chip-chip of a
chisel cutting hardwood leads a visitor through one of several big
Inside his workshop, Maloof sits with his legs
splayed on the concrete floor, tinkering with a troublesome joint in a
Zircote wood rocker.
Gnarled and missing the tip of an index
finger, Maloof's thick hands look as if they could squeeze syrup from a
hunk of maple. But his firm handshake is as gentle as the brown eyes
gleaming behind thick-lensed bifocals.
He makes interrupting his
work to show a stranger around seem like the greatest pleasure he's had
in weeks--although admirers from Presidents to Nobel laureates drop by
virtually every day.
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.
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.
"Here," he continues, stepping into another room, "I had to put a new roof on, so I decided to build an upstairs."
so the tour goes. As the house spills from one room to the next,
artistic surprises appear at every turn--from boldly dovetailed window
frames to the intricately carved latches and knobs Maloof has put on
massive sculpted doors and hollow Home Depot doors alike. Then there's
the hand-cut staircase that spirals up to a gallery-like loft.
standing still, a visitor finds it difficult to focus on one thing for
long. Turn a corner and a bronze hand protrudes from a corkwood wall,
mechanical wooden toys adorn coffee tables, mobiles of bleached bones
dangle in alcoves, intricate Native American baskets hover in the
rafters, kachina dolls float on a blue wall, and African weavings share
space with Freda's paintings of Hopi dancers.
The strongest presence in any room, though, is Maloof's own work--tables, cradles, chests of drawers, settees. . . .
one upstairs space, the craftsman nudges a rocker made of Makassar
ebony, and it's off and endlessly rocking, rocking, rocking in perfect
balance on a polished walnut floor.
"I think wood is the most sensuous material to work with," Maloof says.
But there's more to it than that.
furniture," Fairbanks wrote in "Woodworker," "embodies intangible
qualities that transcend the sensory delights of sight and touch."
Ela, director of Los Angeles' Craft and Folk Art Museum, takes a
similar view. "There's a universality about Sam's work," he says, "an
honesty about the way he uses materials and the way he communicates."
honesty gets its fullest expression in Sam and Freda's home, says Ela,
whose museum will host a major Maloof retrospective in the fall of 1995.
has a calm and spirituality that make it like an oasis. Anyone who goes
there is refreshed and moved. . . . His home is a wonderful testament
to how you can live life in a meaningful way by being true to yourself."
son of Lebanese immigrants, Maloof lived in several Southern California
towns with his parents and eight siblings before they settled into a
small house in Ontario. By all accounts, Maloof's tight-knit clan
generated sufficient warmth to embrace any neighbors who might be
From an early age, Maloof was the kid to call for
wooden toys and intricate dollhouse furniture, and his family still
uses the plywood-and-dowel spatula he built, at age 10, for turning
loaves of Lebanese bread.
Maloof never attended college. Except
for a high school woodworking course--which he failed because he
couldn't afford the wood, he says--his craft and design skills are
Sam and Freda met in 1947, when he was
working as a graphics art apprentice to the painter Millard Sheets and
she was about to enroll in a master's program at Claremont's Scripps
College, where Sheets taught.
As Freda tells the story, they
spotted each other simultaneously across a crowded quad, and she wove
her way through the throng to say hello.
Her blue eyes fix flirtatiously on her husband as he continues:
often asked her, 'How come you walked through that whole crowd to talk
to me?' She always answers, 'If you don't know, I'm not going to tell
you.' And she never has."
What Sam found in Freda, besides
talent and beauty, he says, was the deep moral support he needed to
finally try to make a living at the craft he loved. She kept him on
track when the rewards for his craftsmanship were slim.
though, word of mouth drew admirers. Now, most major art museums have
displayed Maloof's work--and some, including the Los Angeles County
Museum of Art, let patrons plop down on it.
A Maloof rocker was
the first piece of furniture to become part of the official White House
art collection--he has a photo of Ronald Reagan rocking in it.
photograph shows Jimmy Carter standing behind a Maloof chair, upon
which Rosalynn and a grandchild sit. Carter, who has been to the
Maloofs' for dinner, signed another photo: "To my woodworking hero."
"We've become good friends," Maloof says.
list of honors spans five decades: National Endowment for the Arts
grants, an American Craft Council gold medal, recognition from the
Kahlil Gibran Foundation. In 1985 the MacArthur Foundation gave him one
of its "genius" awards--$375,000 in his case.
Maloof recalls how
later that year he balked at the door of the auditorium where he was to
speak to the physicists, renowned poets and learned scholars attending
a conference of MacArthur fellows.
Freda, he says, listened to his fears, then tore his prepared speech to shreds.
"I'll bet not one of these people can make a chair," she snapped. "Just get up and talk about what you do."
The speech was such a hit he gave a command performance, Maloof says, his voice tinged with both humility and pride.
Another Maloof yarn puts his sense of self in perspective.
day he was giving one of his standard lectures to a group of
woodworkers. "There is a communion," he said, "between an object maker
and the material he is working with. And there is a triune between the
object maker, his material and his client.
"And then," Maloof
continued, "there is something much greater, that transcends into God
the creator of all things, who uses our hands as his tools to make
these beautiful objects."
At that point, Maloof says, a man in
the audience fired up his hand and shouted, "Sam, you're all wet. God
doesn't have anything to do with it. You're the creator!"
laughed. But he held his humble ground. "I respectfully disagree," he
said. With typical directness, Maloof sums up his thoughts on the
matter: "Ego destroys."
Such modesty creates a void into which praise naturally flows.
A UPI columnist called him "the poet of the bandsaw."
The Boston Globe spoke of the strength, lyricism and "almost mystical simplicity" in his work.
magazine labeled Maloof "a Hemingway in hardwood" and quoted a curator
at the Smithsonian on his appeal: "With every piece they purchase,
people feel they've collected Sam as well."
The feeling, Maloof
says, is mutual. He counts most of his clients as friends, and in some
cases the relationships have gone on for generations, with the children
and grandchildren of original clients now commissioning work.
at the start, Maloof was uncomfortable charging the "obscene" amount of
$35 for a chair, he says. It has been up to Freda to keep his
generosity under control.
These days, Freda works in an office
off the kitchen, shuffling through the correspondence and orders that
conceal two walnut tables. Maloof stopped accepting down payments long
ago. "It put too much pressure on me," he says. Today, the price for a
basic rocker is about $12,000, with some pieces going for $30,000 or
But then, as Maloof reports with mild amazement, a table
that originally fetched $900, with a set of 10 $250 chairs, is rumored
to have just sold at auction for $150,000.
Peter Lynch, whose
success as a manager of Fidelity's massive Magellan mutual fund made
him an Ultimate Master of the Wall Street Universe, has several Maloof
pieces among the Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Queen Anne furniture in
his Marblehead, Mass., home.
But Lynch leaves no doubt that the
investment value of Maloof's work is far less important than the human
qualities and the friendship it represents.
"Sam's not what
you'd expect," Lynch says. "He's so down to earth . . . so
enthusiastic. My goodness, on a scale of 1 to 10, he's about a 303.
Whenever you talk to him or Freda, you feel better. . . . Sam's a
throwback to another century."
Judging from past interviews,
Maloof has polished and refined his thoughts over the years, but his
core philosophy remains essentially the same--especially now, as he
continues in physical therapy to recover from a heart attack four years
"My woodwork is very important to me, but it certainly
doesn't take the place of my family or my friends," says Maloof, whose
son lives with his family on the property and whose daughter lives
"People always seek material security. But I think that if they found spiritual security, everything else would fall in place."
few years after Maloof won the MacArthur, author Denise Shekerjian
wrote an exploration of creativity titled "Uncommon Genius--How Great
Ideas Are Born" (Penguin, 1991). The book examined the work of 40
scientists, artists, activists, writers and thinkers of big thoughts,
among them John Ashbery, Joseph Brodsky, Henry Louis Gates, Stephen Jay
In his signed copy, Maloof--the only designer
to receive a MacArthur--has underlined several of Shekerjian's
ruminations, including this one:
"Where do people turn for the
courage to run along ahead of the others or to lag behind awhile to
look more closely at something while the masses skip on, blithely,
Maloof is neither purist nor ascetic. Seated at a
local chain restaurant, he lavishes passionate attention on a gooey
barbecue beef sandwich, remaining oblivious to the fake wood table
under his plate.
He has a new Infiniti in his garage. And Freda has one too.
by all indications, Maloof's genius--and it has been called that--stems
from his courage to set his own pace, from his rootedness.
when he and Freda returned from a trip, she pointed out a eucalyptus
stump whose roots had been exposed by a storm. People had often told
Maloof that his pedestal tables "looked as if they had grown right out
of the earth."
In the tree's roots, he now saw the unconscious blueprint of his design.
time, as they walked in a grove near Santa Barbara, their daughter held
up a eucalyptus seed: "Dad," she said, "look at God's sculpture."
his book, he writes: "I believe no man has ever designed anything that
approaches the complexity of the simplest flower or the grandeur of a
great redwood tree."
That connection to nature makes his imminent uprooting by a freeway all the more wrenching.
1991, as Caltrans accelerated its four-decades-old plan to complete a
route along the San Gabriel foothills, architects declared Maloof's
six-acre spread eligible for the National Registry of Historic Places.
Marsh--an attorney who usually litigates for endangered species with
wings, fins or fur--began working to see what could be done to save
Maloof's life's work.
The state Department of Transportation
explored the possibility of routing around the house, of building a
bridge over it or of tunneling underneath.
discussion, Maloof has tentatively agreed to let the powers that be
pick up his house and move it--lock, stock and spiral staircase--to
another lemon grove nearby.
As a Caltrans environmental planner
puts it, "that is not going to be an inexpensive thing to do." It is,
however, a solution he can live with, Maloof says.
day, he and a potter friend of 40 years drove to check out one possible
site. Standing on the edge of a ravine where rocks have spilled down
from Cucamonga Peak for eons, he points with enthusiasm at native
walnut and a scraggly eucalyptus that will offer shade.
of the deal, it looks as if the old house and workshop will be turned
into a cultural center, and Maloof will build another home on the site.
design it," he says, eyes lighting up. "Even at my age, I'm quite
excited about going out on an adventure like this, incorporating a lot
of ideas I have."
On the ride home, Maloof points out all the
orchards and chicken ranches that became housing tracts; the vineyards
that became strip malls.
By the time he steps into his driveway, he's again pondering the less cheerful side of change.
been an awful trauma," he says of his confrontation with the freeway.
"I've known about it for some years, hoping it would just go away. Now
I've resigned myself to it.
"But this," he says, gesturing to a
gate with intricately carved redwood facade, "is a hand-built house. So
there's a bit of me in it."
Out in the trees a crow squawks. Leaves rustle. The sound of a wind chime mixes with the ecstatic chatter of a rain bird.
landscape architect, Maloof says, is studying the possibility of
relocating the flora that is integral to his home's design. But some of
the trees are just too big and old to be moved.
He points up through the foliage to a towering sycamore, with limbs as thick as his own barrel chest.
years ago, I dug a sapling out of the wash during a storm," he says.
"It was the size of my little finger. Look at it now."
impressive is the avocado tree, a huge meandering hunk of living wood,
with branches that reach out and stroke the house. That tree, Sam says,
is the reason he bought the place. A limb that cracked off in a storm,
he says, is now a ceiling beam.
In the epilogue of "Sam Maloof, Woodworker," Maloof talks about the cyclical aspect of his work.
much of me goes with each piece that I make; how good it is that in
making each new piece a renewal takes place. So it continues: a renewal
in my commitment to my work and to what I believe."
house is finally moved, and the chain saw crew steps in, the sawyers
may want to pause, to think for a moment about Maloof's priorities, so
anachronistic to the times. The final photograph in Maloof's book,
after all, is not of a table, or cradle, or music stand or of Sam. It's
a full page, full color shot of that avocado tree's ancient and
Sam Maloof Age: 78
Native: Yes. Born in Chino, lives in Alta Loma.
Family: Married for 47 years to Freda Maloof. Two grown children.
Passions: Family, friends and wood, in that order.
his work: "Each time a piece goes out, I start on a new piece, so there
is renewal after renewal. It's like picking a flower: Each time you
pick one, a new one blooms."
On retiring: "My son and the
fellows who work for me will eventually take over the shop. But I'm not
going to retire, and I'll have to live to be a 100 to finish
everything. I still get as much of a kick going into my shop each
morning as I did 30 years ago."
On "trade secrets": "It upsets
me terribly when I hear of craftsmen saying, 'I can't tell you because
it is a secret.' I do not have any such precious secrets. What I know
is available for the asking. If nothing else, sharing my experience and
knowledge may save a struggling craftsman hours of frustration."
sharing: "If you do not give of yourself, then you gain nothing. . . .
I mean the spiritual giving. I have tried to do this. Perhaps I have
succeeded, perhaps not, though I hope that I have."