Funiture maker Sam Maloof is uncomfortable with the term "artist in wood," a somewhat highfalutin description many of his admirers and collectors have thrust upon him.

"I just don't know what art is," says the humble woodworker, the term preferred by the 1985 MacArthur "genius" award winner (the first craft artist so honored). "It's all in the mind of the beholder."

Beholders, or prospective buyers, of Maloof's work these days must be willing to shell out serious money, something that is, at least on one crass level, a certain measure of accomplishment. Two of his pieces sold last summer at Sotheby's for $280,000 for the pair, and a dining room table and eight chairs that earlier in his half-century career went for $8,000 have just been appraised at $400,000.


"That's what I say," laughs Maloof, a one-time commercial artist who taught himself woodworking. Even at 85, and with his work celebrated around the world, he says he can still sometimes hardly believe his success. "I never dreamt it would be like this. I think I would do it even if I couldn't make a living at it."

He tells a story about an interview he once gave to former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving. Instructed to give short answers, Maloof was asked why he turned down a $20 million offer from a famous European furniture manufacturer to license his designs for mass production. "Prostitute," was his one-word reply.

Putting in 10, sometimes 12, hours a day with a crew of three assistants, Maloof still assembles all his furniture by hand, always using individually made pieces and not the stock of pre-cut arms, legs, seats or table tops that some have surmised he must. It is the beauty and individuality of the wood, knots and all (and sometimes even embedded buckshot), that keeps him from getting bored. "I let the wood speak for itself."

Describing what he does as a kind of hopeless quest for the unattainable, Maloof says that when he looks at a finished table or chair, he always thinks, "This is pretty nice, but I can do better."

"I know this sounds corny," he says, "but God is the creator of all things. He just uses our hands as his tools. That's how I feel about my work."

On Saturday and Sunday at 2, in conjunction with the Renwick Gallery exhibition "The Furniture of Sam Maloof," the artist will talk about his life, his work and the three hand-crafted houses he has made and lived in in California. The free talks take place at the Renwick, 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW (Metro: Farragut West). Call 202/357-2700 (TDD: 357-1729). The exhibition remains on view through Jan. 20.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

Sam Maloof -- who describes himself with the humble term "woodworker" -- in his studio.