In an era of 3-D printing, robotic manufacturing and digital simulation, why make anything by hand? For an eloquent answer, consider the life and art of Sam Maloof, whom Jimmy Carter called “the best woodworker that ever lived.”
Maloof was born in 1916 in the Pomona Valley, east of Los Angeles, to parents who had emigrated from Lebanon. English was his third language, after Arabic and Spanish. After service in the Army during World War II, he returned to the Pomona Valley, where he found a vocation and a wife. The woman he married, Alfreda Ward, would be his emotional mainstay, business manager and champion until her death 50 years later. From the outset, she supported him in the work he felt called to do, which was to fashion furniture out of wood — patiently, elegantly and ever in search of perfection.
Published to coincide with the centennial of his birth, this richly illustrated book, “Sam Maloof: 36 Views of a Master Woodworker,” offers a multifaceted portrait of the man and his work, as viewed through the eyes of people who knew him. Each of the short chapters, based on interviews conducted and ably interpreted by Fred Setterberg, is preceded by a close-up photograph of wood: 36 different specimens, the color and texture and grain of each one as distinctive as a fingerprint or a face.
Those who share their memories of Maloof in these pages include his son, his second wife, several former apprentices, the pastor of the Methodist church he attended, a physician, a schoolteacher, a college president and a former U.S. president. We also hear from younger artists who were inspired by him and from older men and women who belonged to the same community of artists, striving, as he did, to fuse utility with beauty.
Self-taught, with only a high school diploma, Maloof started by furnishing their house. Then he began trading chairs or tables for the work of painters, ceramicists, fiber artists, wood-turners and sculptors who lived nearby, many of them associated with the Claremont Colleges. Early on, he worked in a garage. As his reputation grew, he began selling his furniture, often in response to commissions, and eventually he was able to build a shop and hire a small crew.
In 1985, he won a MacArthur “genius” grant, the first practitioner of a craft — as opposed to a fine art — ever to be so honored. Indeed, his work helped to blur the often patronizing distinction between craft and art. His cradles, tables, stools, music stands and especially his rocking chairs are exquisitely fitted to human use, but they are also sculptures, pleasing to see and touch. Unlike the stamped-out products of factories, each of his pieces is unique, in part because he kept refining his designs, in part because he respected the stubborn character of wood.
Wood talks back to the woodworker, inviting certain shapes and patterns, resisting others. Its grain and fiber carry the evolutionary legacy of a species and the record of an individual life. Although Maloof bought lumber from Brazil, Malaysia, Tasmania and elsewhere around the globe, he drew primarily on American forests, for cherry, maple, oak and — his favorite — black walnut.
He continued working right up until his death at the age of 93, in 2009, and he left behind enough seasoned wood to last the lifetimes of the men he had trained. All told, he designed and made — or closely supervised the making of — some 5,000 pieces of furniture, which earned their way into daily use in spaces from boardrooms to bungalows and also into the White House, the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and scores of other collections both public and private.
Meanwhile, through barter and purchase, he amassed his own museum’s worth of paintings, carvings, weavings, baskets, bowls, masks and rugs, roughly 2,000 items altogether, many of them created by the Pomona Valley artists whose companionship nourished him throughout his career. To display that burgeoning collection, he kept adding rooms to his house, which itself became a grand work of art, nearly all of it handmade, from the roof beams and spiral staircase to hinges and latches.
Several years before his death, and much to his dismay, the house and workshop were moved a few miles away from their original site, to clear the path for an expressway. As part of the move, ownership of the property was transferred to the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts, and the buildings and collections were opened to the public.
What the public can sense there, in the house and furnishings and artifacts, is the “drive to add to the world’s beauty.” The phrase emerges from Setterberg’s interview with a woman who, as a girl, had a crush on the captivating woodworker and who grew up to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Her lifelong friendship with Maloof taught her to see “the mystery of creation endlessly echoed in works of art.”
Scott Russell Sanders’s latest book is “Dancing in Dreamtime,” a collection of eco-science fiction stories due out this summer from Indiana University Press.
By Fred Setterberg
Heyday. 249 pp. $20