|By Carole Deutsch
He was the first contemporary artist to have his work added to the Whitehouse furniture collection and the first craftsman to receive the coveted MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship. He was acclaimed “America’s most renowned contemporary furniture craftsman” by the Smithsonian Institution and People magazine titled him “The Hemingway of Hardwood.”
Sam Maloof has been highlighted in a number of books on the subjects of fine woodworking and prominent studio artists. A Good Reads review, concerning the 1989 edition of the celebrated 1983 publication, Sam Maloof, Woodworker, by Sam Maloof, states in part, “What if Picasso had been a chair maker and Stravinsky a designer of tables? What would have been the impact of such intense creative talent on 20th-century furniture? Today there is a man with this quality of profound artistic vision and talent who has devoted his life to making furniture. His name is Sam Maloof.”
Sam Maloof (1916 – 2009), who was more involved with his craft than the many accolades that were attributed to him, referred to himself simply as a woodworker. His 60-year career has not only survived him, but continues to flourish. His California workshop is still up and running, producing his original designs by one of his longtime employees. The unique home that he handcrafted in the distinguished Maloof style now operates as The Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation of Arts and Crafts, also referred to as The Maloof.
Although he showed his innate talent for woodworking as a young child, it was not until after World War II that he began his professional career. It was the most inopportune time to sprout his creative wings. People were rising out of the ashes of the war and essential materials were in demand. Artistic creations were not the focus of the time. But at the urging of his newlywed wife, Alfreda, he used his garage workshop, which he set up to make furniture out of salvage wood for their first home, located in Ontario, Calif., to begin his career. In an interview with Fine Woodworking, Maloof said, “If it hadn’t been for her love for me and for what I do, this wouldn’t have happened now.”
After three years the couple moved to Alta Loma, Calif., to a six-room bungalow, which he used as his base camp to ultimately build his workshop, a sprawling 16-room house, and a guest house that stood on six acres.
Throughout the late 1940s and 50s his work showed a decidedly 20th century mid-modern aesthetic, as did many breakout artists of the era, but by the 1960s he hit his artistic stride and the definitive “Sam Maloof” creations emerged with unmistakable signature forms, the most iconic being the rocking chair. It was the rocker that marked the first modern furniture acquisition by the White House.
The Sam Maloof style is almost musical, in that it resonates with rhythm and grace, as well as precision woodworking that exhibits a delicate attenuation that defies the imagination. His work is simplistic and unembellished in its design, which underscores Maloof’s remarkable talent. He used barefaced tenon joints, which can only be achieved by a master, as the exactitude of the cut and accurateness of the joinery exemplifies the skill of the craftsman. Although he did use a minimal amount of hardware it was never visible. All of Maloof’s work was made of wood, yet it had the structural integrity of iron. Using hardwoods of black walnut, oak, ebony, tiger-maple, Brazilian rosewood, yew, and cherry he created sculptural furniture that was also ergonomically correct and fully functional. Form fitting backs and deep dish seats made his designs comfortable, as well as elegant.
In the 1960s the Young Presidents Organization commissioned Sam to design a rocking chair to be given as an award for their outstanding members. The organization is comprised of young individuals, 45 years of age and under, who have achieved high positions of authority in business. It was this rocker design that became synonymous with the Maloof signature style and ultimately attracted the attention of the White House during the Reagan administration.
From the 1970s on, until the time of his death, Maloof continued to receive multiple awards, be granted honorary degrees, and have exhibitions held at the most prestigious institutions in the country, including the Whitney, the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. He is reputed to be one of the most influential woodworkers of our time.
Maloof was a lecturer and a hands-on educator who freely taught his discovery techniques to other craftsmen, and while he had many opportunities to mass-produce his designs for substantial profit he declined them all in favor of making his original designs, which he produced without plans, utilizing the assistance of a handful of assistants.
His “share the wealth mentality” led him to make provisions to continue his work through his senior staff member, Mike Johnson, who was at Sam’s right-hand for almost 30 years. Johnson was named as one of the successors and as of this year he has acquired complete ownership of Sam Maloof Woodworker Inc. He has the exclusive rights to manufacture Sam’s original designs at Sam’s own shop, using his machinery, templates, patterns, and even his lumber.
“I learned from the best to do my best and it is my honor to carry on the work and legacy of Sam Maloof, who encouraged me to use my talent to the utmost.” Together, with his son Stephen, they are producing Sam’s designs in their authenticity. In addition, since the woodworking business cohabitates with the Maloof Foundation, visitors can see the ongoing operation and visit the Sam Maloof Woodworker showroom.
Books of particular interest include, Sam Maloof Woodworker, by Sam Maloof, in which he shares his personal story and his love for woodworking. The Furniture of Sam Maloof, by Jeremy Adamson, is a scholarly rendition of Maloof’s work as seen through the perspective of The Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery retrospective of the artist’s work in 2001. Moving Sam Maloof, by Ann Kovara, shares the story of the dynamic move of his home and studios at the same time he lost his wife, Alfreda. Maloof at 90, An American Woodworker, by the highly acclaimed photographer, Gene Sasse, is an outstanding photographic study of Sam’s work.
Owning a piece of Maloof furniture isn’t for the faint of pocketbook.
In a 2012 auction Bonham’s set a world record for a piece of Sam Maloof furniture when it sold a 1986 walnut and ebony rocking chair for $80,500. Numerous rocking chairs sold in the last decade have brought $30,000 and up.
In 2016 Rago auctions sold a Maloof music stand for $4,500 and in 2014 the same firm sold an armchair for $9,500. Wright auctions sold an occasional table for $4,750 in 2014 and a 1983 rocking chair this year for $40,000. In 2015 Wright sold a Maloof cabinet for $19,000.
For information on The Sam and Alfreda Foundation of Arts and Crafts visit www.malooffoundation.org. For original furniture and accessories designs contact The Sam Maloof woodworking studio at www.sammaloofwoodworker.com