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Sam Maloof doesn’t look like the kind of person you’d expect to see at an art opening. The 85-year-old master craftsman scrutinizes the array of his polished hardwood furniture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through un-fashionable horn-rimmed glasses that swallow his face. He has mechanic’s hands: a gash on his thumb has not healed and the tips of several fingers are missing—he, after all, wields a band saw, not a paintbrush.

Yet the art community recognizes this self-taught woodworker as America’s most renowned contemporary furniture craftsman, an artist one writer called "the Hemingway of hardwood." Examples of Maloof’s chairs, settees and tables grace America’s finest museums, including the Met in New York, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Maloof pieces auctioned at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York fetched ten times their original price. He remains one of only a few furniture designers and craftsmen who make their living working full-time with their hands. His elegant rocking chairs with their fluid, sculptural lines now command $20,000 or more and are owned by Presidents Reagan, Carter and Clinton.

Those who can’t afford a Maloof—as well as those who can—now have a rare opportunity to see 65 originals up close. The first ever retrospective of his half-century career will remain at Washington, D.C. through January 20, 2002.

Near the entrance to the show is the sleek maple-and-leather chair Maloof made for industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss in 1952, from the commission that enabled him to quit his job as a graphic designer and turn his hand to furniture. With its pipe-cleaner-thin legs and arms, the chair seems to float in space.

The collection allows visitors to follow the evolution of Maloof’s style: right-angled joints in his earlier rocking chairs became increasingly rounded; seats, arms and backs now flow into one another. Out of smooth expanses of wood arise clean ridges and hard lines.

Pictures simply can’t convey the power of his artistry, curator Jeremy Adamson writes in the exhibition catalog. "Maloof chairs silently cry out to be touched."

As artful as the furniture is, Maloof maintains a balance between beauty and comfort. "I want people to sit on my chairs," he says. To that end, a maple armchair with a roomy sculpted seat has been put aside for visitors to try out.

On a platform sits a trio of his famous rocking chairs, bearing tapered ski-length runners so finely turned that a nudge sends them gently rocking for more than four minutes. One rocker in the exhibition remains unfinished, its rough pieces clearly revealing Maloof’s signature flat spindles, which mimic the curvature of the spine. The son of Lebanese immigrants, Maloof served in the Army during World War II. After the war, he discovered his woodworking talent when he made a suite of furniture from scavenged plywood to fill the modest California tract house he shared with his wife and mother-in-law. Fifty years on, another home that he built room by room (a total of 22) in a lemon grove in Alta Loma, California, will soon be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

As the hands-on artist surveys the exhibition, he spots a deep-grained walnut cabinet. "This right here seems rough," he says, running a palm over the door. "Do we have any steel wool?"

—Tom Dunkel

Saving Asian Art
With seaweed, glue and bamboo

When Andrew Hare began his ten-year conservator training at Kyoto’s famed Usami Shokakudo Studio in 1990, he spent weeks observing masters restoring East Asian paintings before he graduated to sweeping the floor. "You’re never an individual but part of a group," Hare says.

As one of only three Westerners to complete the Usami apprenticeship, Hare, 38, now brings this cooperative spirit and his uncommon expertise to the delicate process of restoring artworks at the Smithsonian’s Sackler and Freer galleries, where he is the supervisory conservator of East Asian paintings. His staff includes specialists from Japan, China, France and the United States, as well as scientists who study art at microscopic levels.

"We’re very fortunate to have people trained in different traditional conservation methods," says Hare, who earned degrees in chemistry and East Asian culture at Oberlin College in Ohio. "We’re always learning from each other."

The expertise is due in part to the generosity of Ikuo Hirayama, the former president of the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music. A painter himself, he funds conservation courses and staff, and in 1991 established the "Red Cross" for Japanese art, which sent Freer works to Japan for restoration. As an apprentice, Hare had a hand in conserving those paintings.

While the Freer and Sackler hardly lack state-of-the-art technology, the most significant part of restoring East Asian works is done with brushes, beads, knives, aged paste, bamboo spatulas, seaweed gelatin and lots of patience. A 14th-century Buddhist silk wall hanging with a royal blue background lies facedown on a worktable, where an expert using tweezers will take an entire day to remove one deteriorated square inch of the painting. Bugs, smoke, mold, humidity, light and polluted air are enemies of the fragile silk and paper used for East Asian paintings, which are generally more susceptible to holes and creases than Western works rendered on heavy canvases and covered by layers of varnish. After the meticulous removal of damaged sections, restorers use seaweed gelatin to inset pieces of silk cut precisely to fit the area. Because the new, stronger fabric can pull apart the delicate original, the silk inset has been artificially aged and weakened by radiation.

In keeping with Asian traditions and conservation techniques, the museum staff carefully rolls up the restored ancient scrolls and stores them in boxes made of paulownia, a porous wood that guards against temperature changes. The boxes are often antiques, lacquered, inscribed and beribboned. "Just opening the box is an aesthetic experience," Hare says. "The box is beautiful, has a history, you can read the inscription. It’s an education before you even see the painting."

—Mary O’Neill

Movie Miniatures
Cutting bad guys down to size

Peeved by people talking, crunching popcorn and slurping drinks in movie theaters? While some patrons might respond by just staying home and watching videos, kinetic sculptor David Beck decided to have a little fun with the inconsiderati.

About a decade ago, the San Francisco artist created Movie Palace, an elaborate working miniature theater made of linden, walnut and boxwood marquetry, as well as mussel and ostrich-egg shells. Acquired last year by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the opulent movie house—2 by 3 feet and 7 feet tall—is on display at the Renwick Gallery. Its blue and gold-leaf exterior is a riot of cupolas, archways and reliefs depicting movie genres such as westerns and epics. Inside are painstakingly carved moviegoers of the kind you love to hate, complete with their spilled snacks and syrupy sodas.

Flick a switch and two hapless patrons crane their necks trying to see around a tall boor stuffing himself with popcorn. A few rows back, a handsome, dark-haired man, arms full of candy and treats, pops up and down looking for his girlfriend, a buxom blonde in a red dress waving back at him from her second-row seat. Another couple is necking while a man seated behind them leers.

On the screen, King Kong clings to the Empire State Building (and Fay Wray) while swatting at the planes buzzing him. Beck carved the scene in relief and employed gears, mirrors and strobe lights to animate it. He uses tiny mechanisms similar to those in music boxes to move the Movie Palace figurines. The technically curious can check out the intricate engineering by peering through a little window underneath the theater. (Demonstrations of the sculpture in motion are conducted by docents.)

Beck, 48, has created about a dozen major kinetic projects over his 25-year career, including a baroque opera house and a band shell with an animatronic orchestra. When he took American Art Museum director Elizabeth Broun to the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco, she recalls, "We spent hours pumping quarters into the old Wurlitzer, the mechanical baseball game and Susie the Can-Can."

Beck was studying painting and sculpture at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh when he began adding small objects and figures to his canvases. By the mid-1970s, he was building dioramas and soon after he added movement to them.

The artist himself once received a scolding in a theater: "My hair tends to stick up, and the lady behind said, 'Hey. Your hair is blocking my view,' and handed me a hairbrush. I told her I never brush. But I did try to squinch my hair down."

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