Famous for His Rocking Chair, Sam Maloof Made Furniture That Had Soul

A centennial appreciation for this master of mid-century modernism is underway with a California exhibition and an upcoming seminar

Rocker, Sam Maloof
The sensuous curves and subtle walnut grain of Maloof's rocker just seem to beckon and say “Come on in a sit a while.” SAAM

Sam Maloof, the legendary California woodworker and furniture maker, said this about his approach to craft: “I want to be able to work a piece of wood into an object that contributes something beautiful and useful to everyday life. And I want to do this for an individual that I can come to know as a friend.”

One of Maloof’s coveted rocking chairs, donated in 1997 to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by Roger and Frances Kennedy, gracefully displays this ideal combination of beauty and utility. Its sensuous curves and subtle walnut grain just seem to beckon and say “Come on in and sit awhile.” Maloof said he hoped his furniture had a soul to it, and the soul of this piece is instantly apparent. No other piece of furniture is as human as a chair, since it echoes the shape of a sitting person, and Maloof chairs show clearly the human touch.

Maloof hand-made every one of the more than 5,000 or so pieces that came out of his studio in Alta Loma, California. According to Nora Atkinson, a curator of the museum's Renwick Gallery, the artist had a few assistants over the years, but he did all the major work himself. He made chairs that seem as alive and organic as the wood he used to make them.

In 1985, Maloof became the first craftsman to be recognized with a MacArthur “genius” Grant, a signal honor, but on his business card he referred to himself simply as “Woodworker.”

And now honoring the centennial of the artist’s birth, the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts, a Smithsonian Affiliate museum in Alta Loma, is featuring more than 60 objects including furniture, drawings, photographs and other ephemera from the artist’s storied career. The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., in collaboration with the Maloof Foundation, will host a one-day symposium, September 16, 2016, to examine furniture design and production in light of changes brought about by the digital age.

Sam Maloof, rocker
A centennial celebration of the renowned craftsman is underway at the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation of Arts and Crafts in Alta Loma, California. Maloof Foundation

Maloof was born in 1916 in Chino, California, to parents who were immigrants from Lebanon. He took his first woodworking classes at Chafee High School in Ontario, and began to make furniture when he and his wife bought a house but lacked the money to buy furniture. So, as is so often the case, the mother of his first inventions was necessity. For the pieces he made for his home, his raw materials were discarded plywood and packing crates, not a woodworker’s dream material, but plentiful and free. 

From the beginning, Maloof learned as he went along, by doing. As he said when he was a well-established master furniture maker, “Many times, I do not know how a certain area is to be done until I start working with a chisel, rasp, or whatever tool is needed for a particular job.”

His pieces for his own house appealed to friends who visited, and soon Maloof was being asked to replicate them for sale to people he knew. Then came a request from Henry Dreyfus, the renowned industrial designer who gave shape to such iconographic household appliances as the Singer sewing machine and the Hoover vacuum cleaner. Dreyfus asked Maloof to make 25 pieces for his contemporary house in Pasadena. Plywood was put aside for walnut (his favorite wood) and other materials he could now afford.

The Dreyfus pieces led to commissions from architects who designed houses in southern California and the people who lived in them. Rob Forbes, founder of Design Within Reach, a purveyor of mid-century modern furniture, says that Maloof embodies the West Coast pre-modernism spirit: “Close to nature, materials-based, with excellent workmanship and care.”

Maloof’s rocking chair has a particular eminence. John F. Kennedy, perennially afflicted by back pain from his war injury in the Pacific, introduced a rocking chair to the Oval Office on the advice of a physician. The Kennedy chair was made by the P&P Chair Company, but it set a presidential precedent. Both Jimmy Carter and his successor, Ronald Reagan had rocking chairs made by Sam Maloof, much like the rocker in the Smithsonian collection.

Curator Atkinson points out that “Maloof’s elegant curves just grow and bend as his designs mature.” A good example of this can be seen in the Smithsonian chair, on which the rockers curve slightly downward at the back ends. While this has a safety purpose, preventing a too-energetic sitter from falling over backwards, the curve adds to the chair's elegance. Robyn Kennedy (no relation to any of the Kennedys previously mentioned), chief administrator at the American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, points out that the “way Maloof sculpts his elements gives even practical features an aesthetic feel.”

Kennedy mentions that Maloof was missing the tip of one of his fingers. “He didn’t use a guard on his table saw,” she says, “in order to have complete freedom of movement. I was told by another craftsman that a missing finger tip is the mark of a true cabinetmaker.”

“Sam Maloof Woodworker: Life | Art | Legacy” is on view through August 27, 2016, at The Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts & Crafts, 5131 Carnelian Street, Alta Loma, California. The one-day seminar on furniture design and production takes place September 16, 2016, at the Smithsonian American Art  Museum in Washington, D.C.

UPDATE 5/2/2016: A previous version of this article misreported the artist's total output, stating he created 100 pieces. Sam Maloof handcrafted some 5,000 works in his lifetime. We regret the error.

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