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The Art and Craft of Sam Maloof
Throughout his sixty years as a woodworker, Sam Maloof remained remarkably consistent. Never formally trained, Maloof’s designs emerged from an organic process of instinct and craftsmanship; he hand-sketched and hand-worked each of his designs, adjusting elements by eye, not measurements, to make each piece unique. Further, his works feature rich, tactile surfaces, achieved by applying a mixture of linseed oil, tung oil, and beeswax to the wood, which was then polished with steel wool to create a high sheen, his signature finish. This labor-intensive method imbued his furniture with warmth and character. Despite a long wait-list for his pieces, Maloof’s output remained small averaging only eighty pieces a year and only rushing orders for baby cradles.
Maloof’s most famous form is without question his rocking chair.Maloof’s most famous form is without question his rocking chair, the first of which he created in 1958. He reinvented this American classic by identifying the inherent problem of the form and reworking it; most standard rockers have a grain of sawn wood that weakens the ray of the chair while Maloof’s rockers feature a sturdy construction composed of seven layers of laminated wood. Not only are his rocking chairs structurally sound, but with graceful, elongated runners, simplicity of form and a refined finish, they have a distinct sculptural quality and are a true melding of art and craft.
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.