Carved Success: Sam Maloof's Handmade Life The legendary woodworker is known for his minimalist, handmade furniture. The son of immigrants from Lebanon, he has won a MacArthur "genius grant," and his work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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Carved Success: Sam Maloof's Handmade Life

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Carved Success: Sam Maloof's Handmade Life

Carved Success: Sam Maloof's Handmade Life

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Sam Maloof makes furniture. His parents came to this country in 1905 from a village that was part of Syria but is now in Lebanon. Maloof's furniture has been exhibited in the Smithsonian and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He's won a MacArthur genius grant, and he's credited with helping to launch the California modern arts movement.

As part of our occasional series on the children of immigrants, NPR's Neda Ulaby visited Maloof's studio near Rancho Cucamonga, California.

NEDA ULABY: Sam Maloof is shuffling around his shop. He's frustrated. The 93-year-old just got out of the hospital and he's under doctor's orders not to pick up a tool. His three associates are busy finishing what he carved and cut out earlier. They've each been with him for more than 20 years.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Mr. SAM MALOOF (Furniture Designer and Maker): This is David Wade who works with me.

Mr. DAVID WADE: Sam, how are you doing?

Mr. MALOOF: Oh, so-so, David.

Mr. WADE: Yeah?

Mr. MALOOF: I think they want this big railing too?

Mr. WADE: Yeah. They want the railing too. Yeah, both sides.

ULABY: Wade is refinishing a communion rail Maloof created for a church in the 1980s. But Maloof is best known for his elegantly minimalist furniture. Maloof taught himself woodworking after serving in World War II. He had no money, lots of ideas and a new wife.

Mr. MALOOF: She bought a little tract house for $4,200, which now is probably worth about $400,000. It didn't have any furniture in it; plywood floors, no carpeting or anything. And so, I put rugs down, and then I found a lot of scrap wood, and I made furniture out of it for the house.

ULABY: Back then, no one designed furniture specifically for tract houses. Maloof was onto something new that meshed with California's evolving design aesthetic: long, low and modern. At a moment when Americans were enthralled by mass marketed, factory-manufactured goods, Maloof went the other away. He became friends with potters, people who made stained glass. They were a community, then a movement. Maloof says making things by hand is part of a family legacy.

Mr. MALOOF: My mother did beautiful lacework, just beautiful lacework. And they peddled it, and that's how they started out. They were peddlers.

ULABY: Eventually, Maloof's parents opened a department store in Chino, California. At home, they stressed education. Most of their kids became teachers, principals, scholars.

Mr. MALOOF: I'm the only one that didn't go to college. I became a woodworker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: How did your parents deal with that?

Mr. MALOOF: About me being a woodworker? Oh, my father and mother loved it. But I was sort of the black sheep.

ULABY: The black sheep caught grief from family in Lebanon about his vocation.

Mr. MALOOF: (Speaking foreign language) is a failure. He works with his hands.

ULABY: Today, Sam Maloof's home is a state-designated historic landmark nestled in the green-gray foothills of California's San Gabriel Mountains. The hand-built redwood building with its blue roof, intricately carved doors and (unintelligible) hinges is open once a week for public tours.

Mr. TONY DEANGELO(PH) (Docent, Maloof Home): Welcome to Maloof.

Ms. BOB JENSEN(PH): Thank you.

Mr. DEANGELO: We've got about five and half acres here. And on the tour, we're going to really cover Sam's life and his furniture, of course.

ULABY: Docent, Tony DeAngelo is guiding around a couple of retired wood geeks.

Ms. JANET JENSEN: Is this a handmade screw out of wood?


Ms. JENSEN: Because I noticed - wow.

ULABY: Janet Jensen and her husband, Bob, are also wowed by Maloof's world class collection of Pueblo pottery, tribal masks, antique carousel horses, woodprints, oil paintings, kachina dolls, all jostling for space with Maloof's sculptural furniture.

Mr. DEANGELO: That tabletop is Tasmanian eucalyptus burl.

Ms. JENSEN: That would look great in my house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Maloof built his house room by room, as he earned money for materials. It glows like an ember. Its pink and orange walls lit through golden glass. And it's warm with wood, from the buttery swirl of bird's-eye maple to the dark chocolate of burnished walnut. Sam Maloof's rocking chairs start at about $25,000. So Janet Jensen says she'll just settle for sitting in one.

Ms. JENSEN: Do you know what? It's almost like it has a cushion in it. But you slide right into it and its wood. How can that be?

ULABY: Maloof feels the wood. He works with the grain. He does not use plans.

Jeremy Adamson curated a Sam Maloof retrospective at the Smithsonian, and he's written a book about the artist. He says Maloof's instincts come from decades of experience, but also a deep, almost spiritual connection between material and man.

Mr. JEREMY ADAMSON (Curator): All the parts come together in a very rational way, but they meet each other in such, sort of, joyful connections. There is seems to be a pleasure that the leg fits the chair. They're happy to be together. It's as though they really have grown together.

ULABY: When Sam Maloof was still struggling to support his family, he turned down several lucrative offers to mass produce his furniture, on principle. Over the past 50 years, he's carved over 5,000 pieces. He cannot stand this doctor-ordered idleness.

Mr. MALOOF: It's awful hard. It's awful hard. But I keep working until I can no longer do anything. But I've got so much work ahead of me, I have to live to be 100 to get it all completed.

ULABY: The black sheep of the family, who never went to college, now has three honorary degrees. Maloof once said, when making furniture, start with the legs. They're like values, principles, beliefs. Choosing the arms is like choosing friends. And the seat steadies a person, looking ahead towards goals in the future, ideas a woodworker could have learned from too young immigrants who came from Syria more than 100 years ago.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

NORRIS: And you can see photos of Sam Maloof's rocking chairs and other creations at our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)

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