The Master Craftsman of Modernism
Sam Maloof’s extraordinary furniture is shown in its creative context at The Huntington this month.
By Bettijane Levine 09/01/2011
When Sam Maloof died in 2009 at 93, he was renowned as one of America’s foremost furniture makers and
a leader of the California modern arts movement --- in short, an artisan whose extraordinary handmade pieces were celebrated as both craft and art.
Maloof’s simple, practical hardwood tables, hutches, cradles and chairs are prized by major museums and private collectors. His iconic saddle-seat, lumbar-support rockers have soothed the backs and bottoms of Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton. Books have been written about the sensuous curves and swoops of his designs and the genius of their construction: Each wood segment was designed in his head and cut by his hand, and the various parts were joined invisibly, without the use of nails or hardware. Reporters and magazine writers have rhapsodized on the brilliance and utility of his creations. In 1985, he became the only craftsperson to receive a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. And yet, up until the end of his life, Maloof’s business cards identified him simply as a woodworker –– a craftsperson proud to work with his hands.
Maloof’s work has been exhibited many times across the country. But from Sept. 24 through Jan. 30, 2012, The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens will show it in a totally new context. “The House That Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley, 1945–1985” will spotlight art made by Maloof and 35 of his friends. It explores Maloof’s contribution to California modernism, the evolution of art in Southern California and the vibrant interchange among artists and artisans who worked and lived near him in the rural Pomona valley.
The exhibition is part of “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. from 1945–1980,” a unique collaboration with the Getty Research Institute that brings together some 30 cultural institutions across Southern California to chronicle the roots of the regional art scene.
Sam Maloof was a huge presence all through those years, the core of an emerging group of painters, ceramists, weavers, wood turners and artists in various other media –– all of whom thrived in the Pomona Valley, in relative isolation from urban L.A., and away from the usual thoroughfares to fame and fortune. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times obituary for Maloof states that he had “turned down multimillion-dollar offers to mass-produce his original designs.” That’s because his life’s goal was to help people appreciate “what it was like to live with a handcrafted object in which there was a kind of union between maker, object and owner,” Jeremy Adamson, author of The Furniture of Sam Maloof (Norton; 2001), told the Times. The Pomona Valley artist group that formed in the late 1940s was one of many that sprouted across postwar America as the country turned from manufacturing weapons to mass-producing goods for civilian life. Many young artists and designers left the military and returned to making art, but the ones who settled in the Pomona Valley differed from their counterparts in Los Angeles who enjoyed beach life and proximity to Hollywood glamour. The Pomona circle sustained itself on friendship, the beauty of nature and the resources of the nearby Claremont Colleges, which provided employment for many of the struggling young talents. The Huntington’s curator of American decorative arts, Harold B. “Hal” Nelson, who curated the Maloof show, was also editor of the handsome companion catalogue. “The presence of nationally prominent educational institutions in the Pomona area –– particularly Pomona College, Scripps College and the Claremont Graduate School (now known as Claremont Graduate University) –– furnished a rich intellectual context for this community,” Nelson says. Nelson notes that the Claremont professors and students, many of whom stayed in the area after graduation to pursue careers in the arts, formed the foundation of an artistic community that continues to flourish in the Pomona Valley.
Maloof himself never went to college, nor did he have any formal training in his craft. He liked to say that furniture-making was a gift that came naturally to him. He dreamed up the design, cut the pieces freehand with his bandsaw and joined them together seamlessly in a manner deemed extraordinary –– even soulful –– by connoisseurs and critics.
Maloof’s work stood apart from that of his peers. “So many other important designers, such as Charles and Ray Eames, were working with new materials, such as plastic and molded plywood, designing for industry and mass production,” Nelson says. Maloof ignored new trends in styles and materials, preferring his own simple
designs crafted by hand to suit clients’ individual needs. His work differed from much of mainstream modernism, instead adding clean curves and other modern twists to traditional forms.
Born in Chino one of nine children of Lebanese immigrants, Maloof was recognized as gifted early on, by an art teacher at Chaffey High School in Ontario, where he took his first woodworking class. He was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, and after serving in the Pacific theater and Alaska, returned to the Pomona Valley in 1945. He took a job as an assistant to prominent painter and muralist Millard Sheets, also a Pomona native. Maloof soon met and married his wife, Alfreda, and when their first child was on the way (and his salary from Sheets too small to raise a family), he decided to go into business for himself as a woodworker and furniture maker. His workshop was his garage in Ontario until 1953, when they moved to Alta Loma.
The Maloofs forged friendships with their artist neighbors and often dined, traveled and exchanged works of art with them. The couple’s home became filled with his own furniture creations, along with drawings, paintings, weavings and ceramics made by others in their close circle. The circle included his former employer, Sheets; sculptor Albert Stewart, ceramists William Manker, Harrison McIntosh and Richard Patterson; enamelists Arthur and Jean Ames and weaver Marion “Hoppy” Stewart.
The group focused on improving and perfecting their work, enjoying the process as much as the end product. Maloof, it appears, became famous almost in spite of himself. His life revolved around his wife, two children and the workshop he eventually built on the grounds of the family home, which he also built by hand, continuing to add onto it throughout the years.
The Huntington show is designed to approximate the intimacy and artistry of that expansive home setting, says curator Nelson. “The House That Sam Built” features 116 of the circle’s works from private and public collections. Among them are 35 Maloof furniture pieces in a display that integrates his work with pieces by friends and colleagues who worked in other media.
As Maloof’s fame increased, his fortune did not always keep pace. It took weeks to make each piece of furniture and he was frequently backlogged with orders whose cost in time and energy did not necessarily match the relatively modest price tags he placed on his creations. At the age of 69, when he received the tax-free MacArthur “genius grant” of $375,000, to be delivered over a five-year period, he was reported to breathe a sigh of relief at this well-timed windfall for his family fortunes.
But sit on a Maloof rocking chair (there’s one in the show accessible to visitors). Or gaze upon the wondrous, burnished walnut cradle crafted by Maloof –– it’s a celebration of birth and the joy of creation –– and one can understand why this artist might have considered himself rich beyond monetary measure. As Maloof said in 1980, “Each time someone who has one of my pieces sits on a chair, uses a table or opens a chest, I want that person to know that it was made just for him and that there is satisfaction and enjoyment in the object for us both.”
“The House That Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley, 1945–1985” runs from Sept. 24 through Jan. 30, 2012, at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. The museum’s hours are 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day except Tuesday, when it is closed. The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino. Call (626) 405-2100 or visit Huntington.org.