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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

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