I recently had the pleasure of visiting the home and studio of woodworker Sam Maloof. Sam Maloof and his wife Alfreda built a stunning home in Alta Loma, California that has become a museum since his passing. Maloof was an American craftsman; a master woodworker who designed and made furniture for over fifty years. A pioneer of the studio craft movement, his furniture has a sculptural and organic quality. It is simple and unadorned yet also conveys a strength and confidence.
Maloof started his business during the period that became associated with the “West Coast look” in design. His contemporaries included designers such as Charles Eames, Henry Dreyfuss and Wendell Castle. Maloof was unique as a furniture maker in that he designed and fabricated all of his pieces. This was unusual at the time and he resisted any offers to mass produce his work.
Everything he did was made to order: he received commissions for his pieces from hotels, businesses and celebrities. Kneedler Fauchere had a showroom in Los Angeles in the early 1950’s that became Maloof’s exclusive representative in California for many years. His furniture was also used to furnish many of the Case Study Houses by architects like Richard Neutra and Eero Saarinen.
Maloof’s work was included in all eleven of the highly praised “California Design” exhibitions from 1954-1971 at The Pasadena Art Museum. These exhibits were noteworthy as they were the first showcase for California modern design, crafts and furniture. They exposed the country to West coast designers and helped promote their style and unique perspective.
Maloof pieces have a fluid and tactile quality. He worked with several different types of wood, but walnut seems to have been a favorite. All of his pieces have a warm patina that was achieved by applying many layers of oils to the wood after meticulous sanding. Using no hardware, Maloof embraced visible joinery to hold each component together. His pieces are notable for their comfort and functionality. Not only do they look beautiful and inviting, but they are very comfortable. Apparently Maloof used his own body as a guide for the proportions and dimensions of his pieces.
Maloof’s furniture is often compared to that of George Nakashima, a peer and friend. The two craftsmen admired and supported each other. Both of them treated wood with a reverence, but Nakashima’s furniture is much more imposing and raw. Maloof designed a rocking chair which has become one of his most iconic pieces: the collectible chair is owned by President Jimmy Carter who was a good friend of Maloof’s.
I become aware of Maloof’s work through my husband whose father, Gene Kelly commissioned Maloof to make several pieces in 1954. He ordered a set of beautiful bar stools and years later Maloof gave him one of his signature pedestal side tables as a birthday gift. His work feels especially at home in California houses: the graceful curves and the beautiful woodgrain complement the warm light and relaxed way of life.
The home that Sam and wife Alfreda built is a stunning: each corner is filled with beauty and handcrafted details. All the furniture is handmade by Maloof of course, but there is also an impressive collection of crafts from around the world, beautiful woven textiles and blankets, pottery and artwork. There are amazing little touches that demonstrate the Maloof’s distinctive approach to living. The kitchen floor is comprised of hand made bricks that are simply fitted side by side without concrete holding them in place; apparently Maloof liked the sound the loose bricks made when you walked across them. The kitchen and dining nook has an intricate system of strings and pulleys from which houseplants hang overhead, and they are lowered when they need to be watered. Upstairs is a cute little reading nook that I just wanted to curl up in.
The house and workshop were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. In the 1990’s the original structures were actually dismantled and moved a few miles to its present location due to expansion of the San Bernardino freeway at the time. It was entirely reassembled and is now open for tours to visitors, along with a museum of Maloof’s furniture.
Maloof was very generous in sharing his woodworking knowledge with others and felt strongly about having apprentices and woodworkers who could work alongside him as well as continue his legacy. One especially nice thing about my visit was meeting Mike Johnson who is head of the woodworking studio now. Johnson began working with Maloof in the 1980’s and his son Stephen is also now working beside him in the studio. It is wonderful to see the traditions and skills being passed down through generations, and to witness people with such talent and dedication to continuing the craft.
Thank you to Ros Bock for the wonderful tour of the property and for sharing so much fascinating history with us.