For more than 50 years Sam Maloof has been making beautiful furniture. The rocking chairs, dining-room tables, chairs and other pieces of woodwork that have made him world-famous now are being purchased by a fourth generation of buyers. People magazine named him the "King of Rockers." Among those who admire superb woodworking, his name is legendary.
Maloof works with such woods as walnut and fiddleback maple. Simple in design, with the sleek, elegant grace of fine sculpture, his furniture looks like it belongs in museums rather than homes. But the pieces Maloof creates -- he does the designs and puts them together -- always are functional and never merely decorative.
Maloof wants his chairs, tables and other works to be intimate parts of their owners' everyday lives, he tells INSIGHT. More than a half-century ago, Maloof's garage was his first workshop. His second was a run-down chicken coop. Now he has a full-scale workshop, and nearby is the family residence he built room by room, a home that itself has become a work of art and, at the same time, fully functional.
INSIGHT spoke with Maloof a second-generation Lebanese-American from Southern California, at an exhibition of his work in Washington's Renwick Gallery. The woodworker moved among the furniture he had designed and created by hand, urging us to touch the wood and enjoy the smoothness, beauty and crafting of each piece.
Insight: Do you think of yourself as a craftsman?
Sam Maloof: It's all right, but I call myself a woodworker. I like woodworker a lot better. Woodworker tells the whole story. A craftsman could be a craftsman in jewelry, in pottery, in any of the media in which craftsmen work. But woodworker defines pretty much what I do.
Insight: Did you always want to do something like woodworking?
SM: I've worked with my hands ever since I was a little boy. I always was interested in wood and I worked with it as a boy. I can't remember when I didn't want to work with my hands.
Insight: Watching you describe your furniture and touch it as you're explaining how you made it makes it very obvious that you're one of those lucky men who thoroughly enjoy what they do. There is a one-to-one correspondence between you and the beautiful woodworking that you do.
SM: It's more so than that. People come to see me and I say, "You know, if your wife isn't with you on this 100 percent forget it because you'll never make it. Fortunately for me, my wife was with me 1,000 percent. Otherwise I would never have stuck it out. But it is a love of what you do. So many people work at jobs they just detest, and they stay with them just because of the money they make. I never even thought about that, and she didn't either.
Insight: Was your early enthusiasm enough to carry you through the frustrations and learning process of acquiring this skill?
SM: Really, my only worry was that I didn't think it was fair to my wife. I'd quit my job as a graphic artist and it was a very good job. We were living on a shoestring budget.
And there wasn't a learning process because I was able to do woodworking off the bat. The learning process involved how to live on that shoestring. Still, my wife never had to work outside the house. She took care of her invalid mother and then of our baby.
Several times I talked to her about it, indicating it wasn't fair that I didn't have a regular salary. She would say, "We can do it." I have said it many times: It was her faith and love that sustained me. It sounds corny but that is the way it was.
Insight: How did you get started in making furniture? When did people start seeing how good you were at what you were doing?
SM: The first pieces I did were for ourselves. I needed furniture for the house because we didn't have any furniture when we married. A friend gave me some old plywood that had been used for cement construction and I had the dried cement sandblasted off by a local man who was a tombstone cutter. …