Sam Maloof (1916 – 2009) American furniture designer and maker

Sam Maloof's furniture was prized for its simplicity and practicality in the 1950s. He turned down multimillion-dollar offers to mass produce his original designs. His hi-fi cabinets, cork-top coffee tables and other pieces were praised by home magazine editors. Former President Jimmy Carter signed a photograph "to my woodworking hero". Sam Maloof was the first craftsman to receive the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" grant, in 1985.

He matched an image in his head with hand tools to make the finished piece of furniture comfortable, functional and beautiful. Maloof considered the appearance of every angle of the piece, even chair backs and cabinet interiors, as well as grain pattern.

Sam Maloof, Drop-leaf Dining Table with Wood Hinges, 1975, Brazilian rosewood, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Sam Maloof, Drop-leaf Dining Table with Wood Hinges, 1975, Brazilian rosewood, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Sam Maloof (1916 – 2009), whose simple, elegant wooden furniture he designed and handmade, made him a central figure in the American post-war craft movement. His studio was located in Alto Loma, near Claremont, CA. In high-quality woods (black walnut, ebony, rosewood, teak), Maloof’s sculpted furniture was distinguished by fine craftsmanship and comfort for the customer. Such celebrities as Ray Charles (who admired his tactile qualities) and Jimmy Carter have publicly praised his rocking chair, and it has become a classic of American design.

Self Taught

Maloof, who was self-taught wood worker, created a distinctive aesthetic design that fused traditional and modern styles in practical furniture; his elegant, curving, gently sculptural forms made him highly sought after by private clients and museum curators.

Sam Maloof double rocker
Sam Maloof double rocker

The Maloof ‘Rocking Chair’

His signature piece, a rocking chair whose long, inwardly pointed rockers vaguely resembled antelope horns, became part of the White House arts and crafts collection after a donation to Ronald Reagan, and his work is part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

There is a distinctly sculptural quality to Maloof’s rockers. At the same time, they are also noted for their incredible comfort. Maloof truly reinvented this classical American design by identifying the inherent problem of the rocking chair form and reworking it. Most standard rockers have a grain of sawn wood that weakens the ray of the chair. Maloof cleverly solved this flaw by laminating seven layers of wood to create the rocker structure, making Maloof’s rocking chairs incredibly sturdy, and gave him the ability to elongate the chair’s runners outward. Fans of Maloof’s rockers include several United States Presidents and Vice Presidents. When Maloof heard of President Kennedy’s love of rocking chairs, he decided to build a rocker to ease the President’s chronic back pain. However, Kennedy was tragically assassinated before Maloof could finish his rocking chair.

Biography

Samuel Solomon Maloof was born in Chino, California, to one of the nine children of Lebanese immigrants. A woodworking enthusiast, he made his mother a wide spatula for turning bread and, more ingeniously, carved dollhouse furniture, cars and a toy revolver with a spinning chamber.

Low-back Side Chair 1995 by Sam Maloof
Low-back Side Chair 1995 by Sam Maloof

After winning a high school poster contest, he was hired to do graphic design work for a company that produced air filters for heavy-duty internal combustion engines. He also did printing and poster work for the Padua Hills Theater in Claremont, nearby, and later went to work for a small industrial design company that built displays for Bullock’s department store.

“America’s most renowned contemporary furniture craftsman”

Smithsonian Institution

He was drafted into the Army in 1941 and made engineering drawings for the placement of guns in the Aleutian Islands. After the war, he worked as an assistant to Millard Sheets, head of the Department of Art at Scripps College in Claremont. There he met Alfreda Ward, an art student he married in 1948.

Maloof made furniture out of recycled oak planks from broken packing crates and plywood sheets for the house he purchased in Ontario, California.

Maloof built an approach by instinct that drew parallels to Shaker and modern Scandinavian styles. Using no nails or metal hardware, he worked almost entirely by hand, the design emerging as he worked. Precise joinery and repeated sanding and polishing gave his work a solid rock integrity and silken lustre that sold for $51,000 for one of his rocking chairs.

Sources

Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.

Eastman, J. (2009, May 25). SAM MALOOF: 1914-2009: MASTER WOODWORKER ADMIRED FOR FURNITURE. Chicago Tribune

Sam Maloof, Furniture Craftsman, Dies at 93 – The New York …. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/27/arts/design/27maloof.html

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