Sam Maloof: A Master Craftsman Doing What He Loves

Sam Maloof: A Master Craftsman Doing What He Loves

As long as he can remember, Sam Maloof worked with his hands. As it turned out, there was magic in those hands. And today he’s one of the premier furniture makers in the world. His work is included in permanent museum collections and has found a home in some of the finest houses – including the White House collection and the Carter Center in Atlanta, GA. Yet Sam remains one of the most accessible and humble craftsmen of today. And at age 87, he spends every day in his studio creating prized and collected furniture.

Born in 1916 in southern California, he remembers first using a pocketknife to whittle cars and trucks around the time he was 10 years old. Sam also liked to draw, and when he got to high school, he was illustrating the school annual. After high school he got a job as a graphic artist, but soon discovered he still had an interest in woodworking.

“I started stopping by an industrial designer’s shop and watching him working,” Sam recalled, “He noticed that I seemed interested in what he was doing and hired me part-time. Then I quit my job and went to work for him full-time. This is when I really became interested in furniture, and I worked there until I went into the Army during World War II.”

Recognizing his drawing skill, Sam was assigned to the 65th AAA Battalion. He was later assigned to the 65th AAA Regimental Headquarters As a Staff Sergeant as a draftsman. A few months later he was made a Master Sergeant in charge of the Master Gunners office. Sent to Alaska Command with the 65th, he was in Kiska for a year and half. Then to Ad as operations sergeant. After 4 years in the army he never wanted to be regimented again. After he was discharged he again worked as a graphic artist in Los Angeles.

His first job back was in graphics, but he soon became studio assistant to Millard Sheets. Around that same time, he met his wife, Alfreda and they were married. He began to make furniture for their house.

“A railroad agent let me have the dunnage & wood they discarded when unloading boxcars. It was mostly red oak, and I used it to make furniture. A photographer friend saw what he had made for their small home. The story, photographs and drawings were published in a national magazine and it took off.

An architect then asked Sam if he would build the furniture for a house, leaving the design up to him. His work eventually appeared in six issues of House Beautiful. More and more people saw his furniture and business grew. Different museums asked him to show his work.

“I did 12 pieces for the exhibit “Please Be Seated” at the Boston Fine Arts Museum, and it was very successful. When I went to the show there was a long line of people & they could sit in all the chairs & and afterward they went into the museum’s collection (the chairs, not the people!).”

His emergence coincided with the beginning of a renewed interest in crafts. And the appearance of Fine Woodworking magazine in the 1970s created a new popular interest in cabinetmaking and fine furniture. But despite his growing fame, Sam worked in relative isolation from other woodworkers and wasn’t influenced by his contemporaries. And the fact that he was self-taught precluded any influence by historical designs.

“People ask me ‘who are you influenced by?’ I wasn’t even aware of anybody else until someone mentioned George Nakashima to me. We became very good friends, but they could make more of his chairs in a day than I make in a year. Other furniture makers became friends over the years, but I don’t think I was influenced by anyone. I have always been my own man and never let fashion trends bother me one bit.”

The style of his furniture is distinctive, and his designs have been published in several books, including his own Sam Maloof Woodworker published in l983 and still selling very well and a new book The Furniture of Sam Maloof by Jeremy Adamson. A lot of people have made copies of his work, particularly his rocking chair. And, provided it’s not a manufacturer, that’s OK with Sam.

“I can tell quickly whether it is a Sam Maloof original or not. It looks like my rocker, but it is not. I’m able to make a living and that is all that matters. I’ve been approached by commercial people and would be a very rich man if I sold my designs. But I’ve never sold anything to be produced.”

“I have a mental drawing of what I want to do, and I can change it while I’m making it. If it is a set of eight chairs I’ll make a prototype of one, and then the others follow suit. I never tire of designing in wood and putting it all together, and I always think something can be improved.”

Sam has given wookshops all over the world, but California has always been home. During his travels, he’s often thought that another place would be beautiful to live, but found he loved California more. When a freeway threatened the house he and first wife, Alfreda, built over 50 years, Sam had it moved and made into a museum. Then he built a new house.

“It’s an oasis.” Sam described his new home, “We [Alfreda passed away, and Sam remarried two years ago] have a lovely place about 2,500 feet up and look out over the entire valley.

Sam gets letters from all over the country and around the world from people who would like to see his shop and talk to him. And, despite his financial and artistic success, he makes himself available. What keeps him humble is the memory of a rejection letter he got early in his career. He’d submitted a piece to a museum and thought it would be a cinch. But the judges didn’t agree.

“I came home from the post office with my chin dropping down on my chest. My wife was washing dishes. She told me rejection was good for the ego and went back to doing the dishes. Freda was the heart and soul of what I do. She started laughing, and we both laughed, and I’ll never forget that day. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m very thankful that my work has been recognized as being good, but I’m still the same person I was when I first started my career.”

Sam will be 88 years of age next month and has no plans to slow down. He puts on several workshops each year at the University of California Riverside and at Anderson Ranch. In honor of his late wife, he provides 20 to 30 scholarships a year for attendees.

“I’ve never had a day where I said, ‘oh God I wish I didn’t have to go to the shop’, ” Sam explained, “I have never advertised, never solicited, but the business comes. I have been able to make a very, very good living through the years. I feel that everyone who is successful should give of his of her time to help others. I thank God for the privilege of being able to work and live as I do.”

With the help of three long-time shop employees Mike Johnson, Larry White, David Wade, his business manager Roz Bock, his wife Beverly, and his son Slimen, Sam still works in the shop every day. Putting in 8-10 hours a day, he still designs everything, still meets with clients, and still puts everything together in his shop.

“After I’m gone, I’m turning over everything to the employees. Each will own one sixth of the company.”

Sam is also in the midst of raising money for a new gallery on his property where he’s going to show the work of other craftsmen in all media – painting, sculptures, etc., where both new and established talent can be introduced to the public. He hopes to get going on the project in about six months.

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