Renowned woodworker Sam Maloof reflects on a lifetime of inspiration.
By Heidi Kellenberger
“Craft is a dirty word to most people. It isn’t painting. It isn’t sculpture. But my pieces are sculptural pieces. I don’t know why people think crafts is a bad word,” says woodworker Sam Maloof. A self-taught founder of the modern studio craft movement, master woodworker, and teacher, Maloof has produced over 5000 pieces and has a waiting list of more than six years. His work is included in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian and other museums across the country.
He began woodworking over 60 years ago. “I had some hand tools that my father-in-law had left back. I didn’t have any power tools at all. The first job I did was for my own home. I didn’t have any money to buy wood, so I used plywood that they had been using for cement farms. I had a sander and sandblasted it.” In his early work, he also used scrap wood, or dunnage, found along the railroad tracks. Over time, he learned to work with a variety of found woods this way.
“I use mostly walnut. I use other exotic woods, but I’d say 60% of what I do is walnut.” He prefers black walnut because of the color and the way it handles. “I use very exotic woods also. I use fiddleback. I use a lot of Ziricote, which is a very, very hard wood and very beautiful. I use Macassar ebony. Well, I use all kinds of different ebonies. It depends on what I’m doing and what the client wants.” Even with the most exotic woods, the materials aren’t what cause his pieces to sell from $10,000 to $200,000. It is the design and labor involved in each piece. Every curve and every edge is done by hand.
In contrast to most commercial furniture, Maloof emphasizes joinery, visually celebrating the places where the joints are crafted. He combines hard and soft lines, which are most evident in the classic swoop of the arms on his chairs. Above all, he values function and sensuality, and each piece he creates is made to conform to the human body. “I hope it sits the way I want it to sit. You don’t know until you make it. If I make eight chairs, I make one and sit in it and see how it feels. Then we go ahead and do the [other] seven,” Maloof says. “But my rocking chairs, we make a lot of those. I don’t have to test those. I know exactly what it’s going to sit like.”
At 92, Maloof says, “I just have hundreds of things I want to make. I try to do two, three new pieces a year that I’ve never done before. One idea begets another idea. I may be working on something and I’ll say that the next time I do this [I’ll try something different]. But I do a lot of repeat and each one of them has its own character. Everything is trial and error. You make a new chair. If it doesn’t sit well, it’s a lousy chair.” He defines comfort as success, but also takes proportion and form into strong consideration. If a client requests an extra thick table, Maloof makes sure that the chairs are beefed up as well so they won’t appear too delicate next to the table.
Walking through his workshop, Maloof shows off a large menorah he’s working on and his first chaise lounge rocker, which lay in large pieces on a table. He explains that on any rocking chair, the rocker is the last piece to be added. He positions the unfinished chair on top of the loose rockers, and without attaching a thing, he finds the center of gravity, pushes the chair lightly, and sets it rocking. When he picks up the limb of a table and shows where it will attach to the base, he is confident of how the finished piece will turn out, even if it is still in burl form. Watching him, he places the wood pieces with such conviction, that the lines of gravity almost become visible. As he shows off his work in progress he says, “This may sound sort of cocky, but my clients have no say about how I make the chairs. I show them different things. I show them sketches. If they want it, fine then. If they don’t, well it’s fine. Sometimes a client tries to tell me how he wants it done. I say yes and then I go ahead and do it the way I want. This is a very, very individual-type business. I could put curlicues on something, but I just don’t work that way.”
The walls of his workshop are lined with layers of large wooden templates hanging from hooks, ready to be used the next time a similar design is needed. Maloof often works freehand as well, using the band saw as a pencil. He designs every piece himself and is involved in the construction of every component of the furniture. When asked what advice he would give to a younger woodworker, he says, “Just work really hard. It’s awful damn hard trying to make a living. I have a lot of friends who are very good and don’t know where their next job is coming from.”
In Rancho Cucamonga, California, at the Maloof Foundation, visitors can tour the house that Maloof designed and built by hand in 1953. The house features Maloof furniture and a wide variety of handmade arts and crafts. Today he lives just below the museum and walks back and forth between the properties, still tinkering with the way the artwork is arranged, bringing in new pieces that please him, and making the house still feel like a home that is very much alive. Speaking of his long hours, many creations, and the houses that he has built, Maloof says, “If it weren’t fun, I wouldn’t do it. It’s been a lot of fun. I don’t think very many people get to live their whole lives on their own grounds, have their shop on their own grounds. I’ve never had to go to work for someone. I don’t think I could do it.”
At the end of the hour-long tour of the museum, visitors are invited to sit in one of Maloof’s chairs. It is a blond chair with a beautiful glow and a deep, low seat that curves in the middle. The joints are a few shades darker, highlighting their precise connection, and the slope of the arms and headrest are classic Maloof. The surprise comes when each visitor sinks into the chair and smiles at how deliciously comfortable it feels. Woodworker or not, every visitor leaves educated by Maloof’s designs and inspired to continue crafting their own projects with an eye to function and sensuality.
Visit malooffoundation.org to learn more about supporting the artistic mission of the Maloof foundation and tours the property.
Check out woodfinder.com for a library of woods.
About the Author:
A renaissance soul, Heidi Kellenberger loves crafting, playing Boggle, and exploring new places. By day, she manages the custom packaging division at Walter Foster Publishing. By night, she is a freelance writer and editor satisfying her curiosity with a variety of projects. You can check out her latest project at heidisloveletters.etsy.com where she is sharing the art of the love letter and writing poems for beloveds around the world.