WIZARDRY IN WOOD. Award-winning artisan Sam Maloof creates furniture that is both art and craft

NEARLY 20 years ago, when woodworker Sam Maloof was struggling to chisel out enough chairs to pay his bills, a leading manufacturer offered him $22 million in advances and royalties to mass-produce his elegantly simple furniture. It was an offer the lively Lebanese craftsman couldn't refuse -- but did. ``Even though I wasn't in a position to turn it down, I did,'' Mr. Maloof recalls, rolling back gently in one of his now-classic black-walnut rocking chairs. ``I just didn't want to prostitute myself.''

The prospect of financial freedom was tempting, he admits with a humility that veils his stature as one of the world's finest woodworkers. But Maloof says he felt more deeply -- and still does -- that when he signs or designs a work, ``I want to be the maker of that piece, too.''

Such feelings have been as firm a fixture in his life as the dusty San Gabriel Mountains, which loom over his oasis-like ranch and lemon grove here 40 miles east of Los Angeles.

It is with some ironic justice, then, that this self-taught wizard with chisel and plane received what he calls ``a bolt out of the sky'' -- a call from the MacArthur Foundation in June saying he had been awarded a $300,000 tax-free fellowship to pursue any endeavor he deemed important. It marked the first time in the fellowships' four-year history that a craftsman had been chosen.

Maloof, whose furniture is displayed in several art museums around the country, crafts nearly 65 pieces a year in his shop, a 1,000-square-foot room neatly packed with tools, tables, and hanging strips of hand-cut wood waiting to be shaped into works of art.

That's a remarkable rate of production, given the fact that Maloof -- unlike many fine furnituremakers today -- labors over each detail, leaving only some of the sanding and finishing to his two full-time assistants. He stays with the process from the initial choosing of the wood -- 95 percent of his works are in black walnut -- to the final rubbings with linseed oil and beeswax.

His attention to detail goes into everything from lecterns to love seats, from tables to cradle hutches. But he is most noted for the comfort and subtle beauty of his rocking chairs. In 1981, one of these $4,000 classics was acquired by President Reagan.

But Maloof (whom George Nakashima, a tough-to-please, world-class woodworker, calls ``one of the only craftsmen I admire'') says he's not primarily interested in the money his furniture commands or the unadorned beauty it possesses. He is more concerned with its usefulness.

``I try to make my furniture utilitarian,'' he explains, gently rubbing his forehead with his callused hands. ``They are an everyday occurrence. They don't need a sign that says, `Do Not Touch.' I want my furniture to be touched, to be sat upon, to be eaten upon, to hold clothes or whatever.''

That very urge to touch his furniture, however, shows that it has artistry as well as utility, says Jonathan Fairbanks, a curator at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, where 14 pieces of Maloof furniture are scattered throughout the museum's American Decorative Arts wing.

Maloof's lively sculptural style, Mr. Fairbanks observes, comes from his mastery of ``the suave line, the line that moves from hard to soft edges, what the painter might call the move from crisp to blurred.''

Completing the connection to painting, he adds, ``Sam does chiaroscuro in wood.''

But ``the clue to a great master'' is the joinery, Fairbanks says. ``Sam tackles the transition points and makes something of it. He has fun with them.''

Maloof displayed the same sense of adventure when he tackled his life's major transition point: In 1948, he summoned the courage to abandon his well-paying job as graphic designer to pursue the unpredictable career of a woodworker.

He says that in making the move he was realizing the ``dream of being your own boss and breaking away from the day-to-day tempo on which most people live.''

But equally important was his urge to create something more tangible than graphic art, something he could shape with his own hands. Two-dimensional designs ``just didn't give me the feel I wanted,'' he says.

Working with wood has given him that satisfying feel.

In his 1983 book, ``Sam Maloof: Woodworker,'' he writes, ``Once you have breathed, smelled, and tasted the tanginess of wood and have handled it in the process of giving it form, there is nothing, I believe, that can replace the complete satisfaction gained.''

That gritty enthusiasm even shines through when Maloof guides visitors through his mazelike home, which sprawls under the shade of fragrant eucalyptus and lemon trees. He built every inch of this redwood spread himself, gradually adding to the single room he built in 1952, when he first moved here with his wife, Alfredack (without whose support, he says, ``I would have dropped out long ago'').

Each room is chock-full of wooden artifacts, from bowls and sculptures made by fellow artisans, to his own playful hinges and door latches, to the smooth, dark furniture. In one bedroom, a sleek spiral staircase -- made of scrap wood from a packing crate -- descends from a sunny loft above. Maloof shakes the staircase vigorously and smiles proudly when it doesn't budge.

Like any piece of his furniture -- or any part of his life -- the staircase is beautiful to Maloof because it serves its function efficiently and gracefully. This definition of beauty makes the California craftsman something of an anomaly in today's furnituremaking world, which he thinks has strayed from its duty by letting form run free of function.

``Too many of the works being produced today are made as works of art,'' he says. Today's furnituremakers ``are so art oriented that they forget that art and craft are one, and cannot be separated.''

Maloof is so busy demonstrating this conviction that he has little idea about what to do with the $5,000 a month he receives for the next five years as a MacArthur grant winner.

``I've got too much work to do to make plans now,'' he says with a chuckle. His only plan at the moment is to use the interest the checks earn to buy tools and supplies for local woodworkers and to set up a Methodist church fund to help feed poor Americans.

This kind of outreach is not unusual for Maloof, who participated in government-sponsored trips to Iran, Lebanon, and El Salvador in the early 1960s to teach builders there how to design and construct functional furniture.

The grant ``takes off a lot of the pressure'' for making ends meet, he acknowledges. It may even allow him freedom to experiment with the ``hundreds of mental drawings'' swirling around in his mind.

But for this man who has always chosen his own way of living and working, one thing is clear: ``The award will not alter the way I live -- not one bit.''

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