Carving Out a Niche in Furniture

Woodworker Sam Maloof hews to a strict ethic in building his pieces

Walk with me over fallen leaves and lemons to the home of Sam Maloof, America's most honored hardwood craftsman and designer. There seem to be doors leading off into every direction under the canopy of an avocado tree. I wander from door to door, knocking as I go, waiting for someone to answer. The house, located 40 miles east of Los Angeles in Alta Loma, Calif., looks as though it were built by some kind of woodworking hobbit.

When Mr. Maloof and his wife, Alfreda, moved here 47 years ago, they were unable to afford fine wood furniture. So Maloof taught himself to build pieces out of junked shipping crates.

Now, his work is in the permanent collections of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Art Museum, and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. He's the first living woodworker to have pieces installed in the White House collection of American furniture. In 1985, he became the first and only such designer to receive a MacArthur Foundation ''genius'' fellowship.

Finding an unlocked door, I step inside Maloof's workshop. At the back of a room filled with sawhorses, clamps, a band saw, tool racks and templates, is Maloof, working on a rough-cut chair. When we shake hands, I notice he is missing the tip of his index finger. Smiling, serene, there is also a certain toughness about him. After a tour, we talk about his work. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Did your family work in wood?

My family came to this country from a village called Douma in northern Lebanon and settled in Chino, Calif., in 1906. Although my father and mother weren't in the arts, my mother's family was well known as singers.

What was your training?

I've never had any kind of formal training. I think you achieve technical mastery through trial and error. I'm self-taught. When I was a child I carved all sorts of things. I made a paddle when I was 11 for taking bread out of the oven that had a dado joint. It was so well built it's still being used by my sisters.

How did you get started?

They used to ship cars by railroad in oak crates. They would just prop all the wood boards beside the railroad tracks, so I asked the agent permission, hauled them home, and took all the nails out. Later somebody gave me plywood that they had used for cement forms. I had to sandblast those to get them clean. I did the whole interior of our house with that plywood. A magazine heard about it and came to photograph it, that was my first real notice. Unfortunately I don't have any of those pieces left, I sold them all just to survive.

What has influenced you?

When I was a graphic artist, I never really gave furniture a thought. [Now] people try to read a lot of things into my [work]. I recall Elizabeth Gordon, former editor of House Beautiful, saw my pieces and liked them very much. She thought they were Egyptian in character. I didn't know what she was talking about until I visited Egypt a few years later, and I saw a stool and chairs from the tomb of King Tutankhamen.

People say my work has the same feeling as Shaker furniture. Well, they're not very good students of Shaker furniture, because none of my pieces look like Shaker furniture. Perhaps the simplicity, but I wouldn't draw any reference to [it]. Compare any of my pieces with Scandinavian furniture, and you'll see a huge difference. I was making furniture well before the Scandinavian craze hit the United States.

How would you advise younger woodworkers?

People write and visit me from all over the world, and the two most frequently asked questions -- and the two least important questions -- are: ''What type of wood do you use?'' and ''Do you use nails?''

Most people don't realize the importance of the day-to-day work. The importance of trial and error, of discipline. I've been working for 45 years, and for 25 of those years it was a struggle. So many people who work in the arts are very impatient. They are always looking for change and for something different. I think [sculptor] Henry Moore is a fine example: He would do 10 versions of pretty much the same piece, each a little bit different but working in the same direction.

I don't think you can ever build the perfect piece. You're always making subtle changes on a piece trying to improve it.

What is the hallmark of your furniture?

Soul has to be the most important thing one brings to his work. So much furniture is technically masterful, yet so awfully cold. It's meaningless really. One should invest so much love and time into a piece that it becomes part of you. Then it leaves you, and somebody else has the joy of living with it, touching it, feeling it.

How do you feel about people copying designs?

I never have written to someone saying, ''You're ripping off my furniture.'' I imagine if a large manufacturer started doing it, I'd try to put a stop to it, but when an individual does it, and is able to make a living from it, it doesn't bother me.

What do you think of the new Art Furniture?

I'm interested in the stuff people are doing. [But] I don't think I could live with a house full of Art Furniture. I've said time and time again, 'I want a table that's comfortable to eat off of.' I want a chair that you can sit on, that invites you to sit, that embraces you, that makes you feel right in the chair.

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