The Craft Master

The houses of Sam Maloof are testaments to the furniture maker’s illustrious half-century-long career.

At the Sam and Alfreda Maloof house in Alta Loma, a rapidly suburbanizing ranch town 55 miles east of Los Angeles, nothing is hidden behind glass. “You’re welcome to touch the furniture,” a guide announces at the start of the twice-weekly tours. “You can pet it if you want.” Inside, it feels as if Sam and his beloved late wife, Freda, just stepped out. Half-full jars of spices still sit in the rack that he built from a piece of claro walnut. Snapshots and inspirational quotes remain plastered across the refrigerator, stuck on with a collection of magnets—an orange smiley face, a koala, a cross-stitched cross. Hanging plants thrive in the informal eating area, and the Maloofs’ endless collections—of everything from Mata Ortiz pottery to ceramic sailboats—crowd tables and shelves in artful disarray. The sounds of sawing and sanding drift in from the half-open doors of the workshop, where 91-year-old Maloof still works daily on every piece of furniture that bears his signature. Down the hill past the flowering garden, visitors catch a glimpse of a new second house, where the famed woodworker lives with his second wife, Beverly.

Most visitors take the Foothill Freeway to the com­pound. That part of the journey is usually quick, a smooth drive on fresh concrete that swoops down to Carnelian Street, where the vibrant oceanic blue roofs of the Maloof Foun­dation’s buildings are easily spotted against the snowcapped San Gab­riel Mountains. Without the freeway extension, which sliced straight through his old Rancho Cucamonga property, Maloof’s original house and workshops would still be in the 5.3-acre citrus grove where, over the course of 50 years, the rough-hewn redwood buildings evolved piecemeal from a chicken coop and a caretaker’s shack. But without that freeway, there would be no foundation and no new house.

For decades the Maloofs were reassured that the planned freeway extension would likely never ­hap­­pen, so they continued to add on to their house. But in the early 1990s, CalTrans began plan­ning the extension and asked Maloof to move. He refused—insisting that the freeway be routed around his property—and he had a pretty strong argu­ment: the labyrinthine house that Maloof designed and built himself, where he and Freda raised two children, was protected under the National Register of His­toric Places. After a decadelong battle, the state offered a deal. It would purchase land in nearby Alta Loma, dismantle his 10,000-square-foot house, move it to the new site, and build a new one according to his design, where he and Freda could live while the old house was being moved—provided he would allow visitors to tour it and agree to establish the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts.

It is Valentine’s Day, a fitting time to interview a man whose 50-year marriage was a love affair to the end, and who managed at 85 to begin another happy partnership. Still tan and active, Maloof, whose Lebanese parents raised him in nearby Chino, is wearing his signature thick-framed glasses, worn jeans, and a sweet smile as he tours the build­ings. When the move was being negotiated, though, Maloof was at a low point. “Freda went away suddenly one night,” he says, “and I was alone for about four or five years. When we were moving, somehow, someway, they said I had to start a foundation. I think if I’d been firm, we wouldn’t have, but Freda had gone and I didn’t know what I was doing. So I said, “Okay, sure.’”

Despite his resistance, Maloof seems to love the constant stream of company. He is an expansive soul, ready to invite anyone into his home. “Sam’s always joining the tours or inviting people into the workshop,” explains Ros Bock, the foundation’s business manager. “It slows things down. And it’s not a good thing if people hear about it from their friends and start to expect it.”

Besides the two houses and workshops, the foundation recently completed construction of an education center on the grounds that will serve as a gallery for some of the Maloofs’ extensive collections. With curved stone-and-concrete walls, a steepled roof, and clerestory windows, the new building looks like an updated version of the old guesthouse and showroom, built in 1958. That structure, done in redwood with clean lines and surrounded by a raised deck, has the feel of a Japanese pavilion. Today it serves as the staging point for tours, but now that the center is complete, it will revert to its original use.

For years, the Maloof house was emblematic of an ideal craftsman lifestyle: a rural retreat built of natural materials, open to the sun and sky, where work and life intersected. From the start, all of the furniture in the house—with the exception of one upholstered couch—was built by Maloof in his adjacent workshop, and the soulful, richly finished pieces still give the rooms a warm glow. Even without official tours, woodworking students and craft enthusiasts made pilgrimages to the house. “Dur­ing the 1950s the self-taught woodworker was an acclaimed member of the Southern California Mod­ern movement,” the former Smithsonian curator Jeremy Adamson wrote in his catalog for Maloof’s 2001 solo retrospective at the Renwick Gallery. And by 1970, “along with Wharton Esherick and George Nakashima, Maloof was widely recognized as a leading member of the ‘first generation’ of postwar studio furniture makers.”

To move the storied property, DMJM put together a team with a contractor, a building mover, and a structural engineer to undertake a yearlong study. Begun in 2000, the move took nearly two years to complete. “Oh, it was sort of heartbreaking,” Maloof remembers. “They cut it up into about eight pieces, and it took them forever moving it, but the house went back together just like a jigsaw puzzle. It was amazing.” Including the workshops, the structures were actually sliced into 11 pieces, roughly along the lines it was built.

As he walks through the original house Maloof describes the building process, which took so many turns over so many years that it quickly begins to feel like a jumble of dates and details. The frugal couple added to the house only as they had the cash—when Sam first began making furniture full time in 1950, he says, “I thought thirty-five dollars for a chair was a lot”—and they took a fluid view of the spaces. Many of the rooms shifted function several times over the decades. In the beginning, Freda, Sam, and Freda’s invalid mother lived in the existing caretaker’s shack. “But Freda fixed it up beautiful,” he says, pronouncing it “byoo-ti-ful.”

Furniture making originally took place in the chicken hut, but by 1956 Maloof had a 20-by-40-foot slab of concrete poured for a new workshop, which he eventually covered with redwood siding. In 1957 an identical slab was poured for a single-story flat-roof house with a beamed ceiling. The core of the original house—warm furniture-filled rooms that visitors see at the start of the tour—was built at this time.

The house has a playfulness that belies Maloof’s strong, graceful furniture. A wooden Al­­freda is spelled out above a doorway in cheerful script and surrounded by colored glass. Each door handle (irregular knobs, organically shaped latches, polished pin-and-joint contraptions) is individually sculpted. A stylized wooden M is laid into the frame of the front door. There is both a tower room and a bell tower, fairy-tale touches that call out the woodworker’s sense of mischief.

In 1958 the guesthouse replaced the original shack. “I designed it, and my brother Jack helped me on it,” Maloof says. “He was a school principal, and he worked for me on Saturdays.” The final ­spacious master bedroom—with a central clerestory and exposed beams—was added in the 1960s; Sam and Alfreda’s bed sat at the center surrounded by items from their collections.

The mid-1970s brought rosier finances and home improvements. A second-story gallery was added. Maloof designed a system of pulleys for the hanging plants in the new glass-enclosed dining area, giving it the feel of a ship on a botanical mission and making it easier for Freda to water the plants. By 1980 the house was at 7,000 square feet, and Maloof had finished the spiral staircase that Freda had long requested. It leads nautilus-like up to the “tree house” room, an airy retreat that has a reading nook, triangular clerestory windows, and a raw eucalyptus beam overhead. “We were in the middle of nothing—just orange or lemon trees,” Maloof recalls. “But you could just see forever. On a good day you’d see Catalina.” Over the years the workshops were also expanded, but they always remained adjacent to the house, keeping the flow of life and work seamless.

The front door of the new house opens straight into a three-story atrium with a soaring roof and the signature clerestory windows. “We made a beau­tiful model for it, but I’m not a licensed architect, so I picked one to do the drawings, and he wanted to put his two bits in,” Maloof says, shaking his head. The architect eliminated a planned spiral staircase, but once the state-sponsored contractors left, Maloof had his staff build one immediately. It twists up to the second-floor gal­lery space, where more of his collections reside.

The houses act as a living repository of Maloof’s furniture. Though the 1985 MacArthur Genius award–winner’s rocking chairs now sell for upward of $25,000 apiece—and a double rocker in ziricote, a notoriously difficult hardwood, is going for a record $100,000—his first furniture-making ventures were driven by necessity. While living in Los Angeles before World War II, he gathered discarded freight-car packing material, usually red-oak boards, and bought some cheap plywood to build early examples of California Modern ­furniture—sturdy and utilitarian with clean, simple lines. A teacher at Chouinard, the idealistic L.A. art school that was a center of California Modern­ism, saw it and told the young Maloof that his work was good enough to sell. After he and Freda married in 1948, Maloof built similar pieces for their house, which were photographed for a 1951 Better Homes and Gardens feature on the well-furnished tract home. The article was accompanied by an offer of plans to make the furniture, which amateur woodworkers could buy for 25 cents. It was the first (and last) time his designs received any sort of mass distribution.

“I was offered twenty-two million dollars from a company, and I said no,” Maloof says. “I didn’t want to prostitute myself. That would have killed me—that would have been the end of my life, it really would have. The funny thing is, Freda told them I wouldn’t be a bit interested. The money part of it has never entered into it, it really hasn’t.”

Maloof still begins each piece that his workshop produces, giving it a rough shape and fitting the joints before it’s passed on to one of his “boys”—three middle-aged craftsmen who have been working with him for decades. “They do the hard work and the fine work,” he says of the shaping, sanding, and finishing. “I put everything together.” His early designs were more straightforward; they read as classic midcentury Modern, with clean, hard angles and a complete lack of embellishment. At first the warmth came from the finish, but over the years a more sculptural sensibility emerged, and Maloof began to develop his signature low arms, contrasting joints, and swooping forms. Each year he introduces a few new designs—by his count he has now created more than 200 different chairs—and like the house, the furniture is in a constant state of evolution.

The best example of this may be his famous rocking chair. Presidents Carter and Reagan each had one. Maloof was in the process of making a chair for Kennedy, but he was assassinated before the piece was completed. The Kennedy rocker is not the same as the Reagan model. The first was closer to traditional Shaker-style rocking chairs. Over the years the form became more organic and the spindles sleeker, until the grandmotherly chair was almost sexy, with overlong sinuous rockers that thrust out in back.

Maloof’s new house conveys a sense of openness and ease, the result of a lifetime of small fluid evolutions in craft and sensibility. At some modern intersection between a barn and a Craftsman bungalow, this house, designed for an imagined old age with Freda that never came to pass, is the summation of a life lived as a woodworker and an artist. Walking between the old house and the new, from the workshops to the gallery in progress, Maloof is not just a man in his element, but the man who created it. Tonight there will be a Valentine’s dinner with Beverly, tomorrow more workshop time with “the boys,” followed by visits from friends and fellow craftsmen, and shows to arrange in the gallery. Maloof looks at the redwood walls of the buildings as they glow in the late winter sun: “It’s been fun. Oh yes, it’s been beautiful.”

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