Instinct and Craftsmanship

The Furniture of Sam Maloof

Throughout his sixty year career as a woodworker, Sam Maloof remained remarkably consistent in his designs, developing style hallmarks which include articulated joinery, organic forms, and a devotion to clean and swooping lines. Maloof hand-sketched and worked all of his designs, and he was involved in every step of the construction process. He adjusted elements of his furniture by look, not measurement, to create the curves and height that he wanted, making every piece unique. A signature part of Maloof’s work was their silky soft surface, achieved through a mixture of linseed oil, tung oil, and beeswax that was left on the surface of the wood for three days, and then polished with steel wool to create a high sheen. Maloof felt that this labor-intensive method of finishing imbued his furniture with warmth and quality. Despite a long waiting list for his pieces, Maloof’s output remained small. Only creating on average 80 pieces a year, Maloof devoted time and attention to each piece he created, only allowing rush orders for baby cradles.

Maloof’s most famous form is without question his rocking chair, the first of which he created in 1958. There is a distinct sculptural quality to Maloof’s rockers, and 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 runners of the chair 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 and the designer gifted his first chair to President Jimmy Carter, and later another to President Ronald Reagan. Maloof’s rockers were the first official pieces of craft furniture to enter the White House.

Critics have noted the similarity of Maloof’s work to Shaker furniture, modern Scandinavian woodwork, and even Ancient Egyptian furniture. Maloof’s pedestal tables recall Shaker candle stands, as both employ a refined form, high curving ‘spider legs’ and the use of maple wood. However, the designer claimed no direct influence from any of these movements. Receiving no formal training in woodworking, Maloof’s designs were an organic process of his instinct and craftsmanship. His handmade creations are lauded for their simplicity and elegance, a true melding of art and craft.

My goal is to make furniture that people can be comfortable living with. If you’re not preoccupied with making an impact with your designs, chances are something that looks good today will look good tomorrow. 

—Sam Maloof

Sam Maloof 1917–2009

Born in 1916 to Lebanese immigrant parents, Sam Maloof spent his childhood tinkering and making wood objects like spoons and dollhouses for his family. As an adult, Maloof worked in the graphic design department of the Vortox Manufacturing Company and in 1941 he was drafted into the U.S. Army where he constructed engineering drawings for the war effort. After the war, Maloof moved to California where he taught himself how to woodwork while building furniture for his first home. News of his beautiful and functional designs spread, and he was soon swamped with commissions for everything from cradles to rockers.

Maloof was never formally trained and he disliked the term artist, instead preferring to be known first and foremost as a craftsman. Maloof purposefully left the joinery of his furniture visible, drawing attention to the artistry of his mortise and tenon joints and flawless dovetails. Working with traditional woods like mahogany, pine, and oak, Maloof expertly transformed the surface of his forms with a highly burnished, tactile sheen. A true master of wood, Maloof was the first craftsman to receive both the coveted Louis Comfort Tiffany Grant and the MacArthur Genius Grant. In 2001, Sam Maloof was the subject of a major retrospective at the Renwick Gallery of American Art, the exhibition focusing on the precise methods of craftsmanship within his designs. Maloof passed away in 2009. Renowned for his contribution to the American Craft movement, his work is included in many noteworthy collections including the Arts and Crafts collection at the White House, Washington D.C. as well as and in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Auction Results Sam Maloof