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Voices -- Sam Maloof, 1916 - 2009

May 22, 2009 |  6:20 pm

Sam Maloof
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.


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


Not far from the Alta Loma lemon grove harboring Sam Maloof's home and workshop, a shiny city sign proclaims Maloof Avenue.

The 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.

Here, where 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.

Long, 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.

For 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.

Fairbanks' 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 .

Furniture 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."


The 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.

In other directions, the same rocky soil optimistically sprouts baby boom towns. Precisely landscaped streets link look-alike tracts to the sustaining In-N-Out-Soup Plantation-Kragan-Payless-Petco-Blockbuster-Chuck E. Cheese's-Wienerschnitzel-Nurseryland-McDonald's-Daily Donuts-PIP-U.S. Nails-Wherehouse-Play Co.-Spires-Auto Express-Mervyn's-Chili's-Pep Boys sprawl.

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.

Abruptly, 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 wooden doors.

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.

"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.

"Here," he continues, stepping into another room, "I had to put a new roof on, so I decided to build an upstairs."

And 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.

Even 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. . . .

In 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.

"Sam's furniture," Fairbanks wrote in "Woodworker," "embodies intangible qualities that transcend the sensory delights of sight and touch."

Patrick 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."

That 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.

"It 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."


The 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 lacking.

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 entirely self-taught.

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:

"I've 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.

Gradually, 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.

Another 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.

Maloof's 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.

One 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!"

Maloof 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.

People 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.

Even 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 more.

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 ago.

"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 nearby.

"People always seek material security. But I think that if they found spiritual security, everything else would fall in place."


A 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 Gould--and Maloof.

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, contentedly?"

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.

Still, by all indications, Maloof's genius--and it has been called that--stems from his courage to set his own pace, from his rootedness.

Once, 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.

Another 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."

In 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.

In 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.

Lindell 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.

After long 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.

One muggy 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.

As part 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.

"I'll 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.

"It's 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.

A 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.

"Forty 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."

Even more 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.

"So 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."

When the 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 magnificent trunk.

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.

On 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."

On 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."