We admit it: We had never heard of Sam Maloof. Finally the answers are coming out of the woodwork . . . and from a new book. Maloof was one of the great masters of mid-century modernism. He was the first craftsman to receive a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, a man described by “The New York Times” as “a central figure in the postwar American crafts movement,” a man described by the Smithsonian Institution as “America’s most renowned contemporary furniture craftsman,” a man “People” magazine dubbed “The Hemingway of Hardwood.”
We found all so much more in “Sam Maloof: 36 Views of a Master Woodworker” (Heyday Books, $20). Published in collaboration with The Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts & Crafts, the book skillfully weaves together the words of family, friends and associates to present 36 perspectives on a great artist. One man who offers insight on Maloof is his friend and fellow furniture maker, former President Jimmy Carter. “He was not just the best woodworker that ever lived, he was a person admirable in all his characteristics,” he says. “He was a philosopher. He was deeply committed to basic moral values. I really have been inspired by Sam.”
Far from the solitary genius we often imagine a creative person to be, the person who emerges from these stories is both the proud product of the community from which he originated and an anchor of the Pomona Valley arts scene he helped create. Surprising and illuminative, Sam Maloof places not only art, but also the role of the artist, at the heart of our culture.
His pieces’ sensuous, inviting design and immaculate workmanship elide any distance in critical perception between craft and art, and his furniture is found in private domains throughout the world and in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian. Warm and gregarious, Maloof was loved by those who knew him. His Southern California compound became the hub of a rich network of artists and artisans; and today, six years after his death, thousands of visitors pass through his home and workshop to catch a glimpse of a life so rich in beauty.
His is perhaps most famous for his chairs that have a sculptural quality, yet are also very ergonomic and austere in their simplicity. Maloof tended to favor only a handful of woods: Black walnut, cherry, oak, rosewood and yew. You want to know something Maloof carved out in paper? His business card always said “woodworker.” “I like the word,” he once explained. “It’s an honest word.”