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Master Craftsman Sam Maloof Is the King of Rockers Because He Works by the Seat of His Pants

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It was the sort of deal for which most furniture makers pine: A major manufacturer offered Sam Maloof a multi-million dollar contract for the right to mass-produce his designs, and yet the craftsman, now 69, refused. “I didn’t want to be designing for a machine rather than for an individual,” says Maloof.

Thirty years later, his old-fashioned virtue has been amply rewarded: Last June he became the first craftsman to receive a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, a no-strings, tax-free $300,000 award that puts him in the lofty company of author William Kennedy, choreographer Merce Cunningham and Nobel prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock. The grant is bestowed solely on the basis of talent.

The windfall affirmed what lovers of good design have known, that Maloof is one of the world’s leading artisans—a Hemingway in hardwood whose work has been graced by the bottoms of some of the top people in the country. President Reagan relaxes in the Maloof rocking chair he installed in the private quarters of the White House. Jimmy Carter and Anthony Quinn own Maloof rockers. Gene Kelly has three bar stools and a pedestal table made by Maloof. Even the serious art world has taken notice. The Smithsonian hopes to acquire a Maloof for its permanent collection, and an estimated 200,000 visitors have sat on one of the Boston Museum’s seven Maloof armchairs, two benches and two settees. Says Bruce Sharpe, head of the American Crafts Council: “Sam is the dean of American woodworkers. People treasure his things as some of the finest produced in the 20th century.”

Maloof’s work, like the craftsman himself, does not scream for attention. His furniture is known for its exposed joinery (nails are never used, screws are hidden by wooden plugs), and his designs (there are about 400 in all) are characterized by the contrast of soft curves with hard lines. His pieces are both functional and elegant.

The proof, Maloof says, is in the sitting. “When I make a chair I want it to embrace the person. I want it to comfort them and add beauty to their homes.” To this end he spends 30 hours a week in the tool-cluttered, 1,000-square-foot workshop adjacent to his home in Alta Loma, Calif. He works mainly in American black walnut, which is slowly shaped with carving tools and then sanded. A single chair can take up to three days to complete. Like a chef who shuns measuring cups, Maloof rarely uses a tape measure. At the end, each work gets a special home-brewed finish of beeswax, boiled linseed oil and raw tung oil—a mixture concocted by the designer. Even with the help of two apprentices, he turns out no more than 70 pieces a year, each with his burned-in signature.

The furniture is appropriately costly. The rockers, for which he is best known, go for up to $8,000. A six-by-18-foot conference-room table with a trestle base fetches $35,000. For babies, there’s a $5,000 cradle that looks like the ribbing of a Viking ship. Maloof says that because of the long hours and high overhead, woodworking does more for the soul than for the pocket-book. “You don’t make an awful lot of money working with your hands,” he says. “You can only produce so much. If I net $40,000 a year, I’m doing real well.”

The son of a Lebanese dry goods merchant in the small farming community of Chino, Calif., Maloof was carving when most kids were still on their first paper airplane. “I can’t remember when I didn’t work in wood,” he says. “As a little boy I always carved objects.” After high school he found work as an industrial designer, then as a graphic artist. A teacher at the Chouinard Art School in L.A. happened to see his woodworking. “She said ‘Sam, I think you could make a living making furniture.’ That was the first seed that was planted.”

Maloof speaks of wood as a lifelong mistress. “I go out to my shop and let all the cares of the world go by,” he says quietly. “Wood is a very warm material, very sensuous to the touch. It has a sensitivity that clay or glass don’t have.” His chairs have another quality most art lacks: You can sit in them when they’re done, as Maloof always does to test them. That personal touch is symbolic of his style. “With every piece they purchase,” says Lloyd Herman of the Smithsonian, “people feel they’ve collected Sam as well.”