Chris Schwarz's Blog

Sam Maloof: Legendary Rocker and Gentle Soul

During the next few weeks, there will be a much-deserved outpouring of praise for Sam Maloof, his work and the indelible mark he left on the craft. As a writer, I’ve never been good at writing these kinds of stories. Maybe that’s because I’ve always thought the bigger picture was made up of thousands of small pictures.

So instead of simply telling you that Sam Maloof was one of the greatest woodworkers of this generation (and he was), I’m going to tell you about chicken tacos instead.

In 2002, the magazine’s entire staff flew to Southern California for our biennial trip to the AWFS show, where manufacturers roll out their new products and we soak up the desert weather. That year we decided to tour Maloof’s new compound, which had been moved to make way for a new freeway and had been built into the side of a mountain , just above smog level.

Senior Editor David Thiel made all the arrangements, and the plan was that one of Maloof’s assistants would show us around the place and let us take photos. We were thrilled.

So when Maloof himself greeted us in the parking lot, I was stunned. Dressed in a black turtleneck and blue jeans, he told us that he would love to show us around the place. It was one of my most memorable days on the job.

He introduced us to all his shop workers (he called them “the boys”) and looked over the work as it was progressing through the process of being shaped. He showed us stacks of chairs that people had brought him to repair. This is a hilarious malady of all chairmakers, great and small. People bring you hopeless cases and want you to fix them. Surprisingly, Maloof still repaired antique chairs on occasion. He just shrugged his shoulders when asked if he liked doing that.

Then we spent at least 30 minutes examining one of Maloof’s earliest pieces  , a cabinet , that the customer had brought in for some minor repairs. Maloof pointed out all the little mistakes he had made in the piece, both structurally and stylistically. (In other words, he acted just like any other woodworker who was showing off a project.)

Then we toured his home, which was filled with projects from his entire career, including his first project , a cutting board for his mother, I believe. Nothing was off limits. We got under all the pieces, asked too many questions and Maloof just smiled and answered them all.

Then he took us through his wood stash. Maloof had a serious passion for the material and had several barns filled with stuff that was achingly beautiful, clear and wide. All of it was labeled, thick as heck and ready to use.

After a few hours of this, we began to get worried that we were taking up his whole day, so we kept trying to excuse ourselves.

“Nonsense,” he said. “Let’s go to lunch.”

So we all piled into our cars , Maloof brought “the boys” and we headed to a Mexican hole-in-the-wall down the road. Maloof greeted the restaurant employees in Spanish as he walked in, and they gave us a corner table by the window.

“Get the chicken tacos,” he advised. I obeyed.

Over lunch he allowed us to pepper him with questions about the craft, his work, his legacy and fellow woodworkers. He answered every question with a direct answer (a rarity in journalism) , especially the last question: “Can we pick up the check?”

“No,” he replied.

Maloof had nothing to gain from us that day. The man’s legacy was secure and he could have spent the morning doing something more interesting than showing a bunch of jet-lagged, saucer-eyed editors from the Midwest around his place.

But he didn’t. And that small story is why Maloof was , and still remains , one of the most beloved woodworkers I’ve ever met.

– Christopher Schwarz

13 thoughts on “Sam Maloof: Legendary Rocker and Gentle Soul

  1. Sam Yerardi

    I never met Sam but I got to see one of his dining room sets at the Renwick Gallery in Washington a few weeks ago. He reminded me of my dad in a lot of ways. My wife actually became engrossed in watching the DVD about him at the Renwick. The woodworking world has truly lost a genius in the art. Not just someone who could exceed the heights of technical ability, but someone that had the enviable power to enspire the rest of us. He will be missed….

  2. John Janeri

    I have a file where I collect pictures of my favorite people — people who I admire (like most admire Albert Einstein). Most are well known personalities, mathematicians, musicians, professors, and colleagues. There is only one woodworker among this collection: Sam Maloof. Although the man, the master will be missed, I can only think that they need furniture in Heaven.

  3. Steve Shanesy

    Nice recollection, Chris, of a day I will always regret having missed out on. I was so jealous when I heard of how you all spent so much time with Sam, not to mention lunch.

    So I’ll have to rely on my visit to Sam’s shop that must have been back about 1980 when the shop, or compound that included his home and a small showroom with a couple out-buildings, was located in the middle of an orange grove.

    I was a novice woodworker and signed up for a visit sponsored by woodworking store in West Los Angeles called The Cutting Edge. I think six or eight of us spent the better part of the day with Sam in his shop and got a tour of the house. Generous indeed he was with his time and knowledge. He walked us through the building of one of his signature chairs and regaled us with stories of his life and experiences.

    The best story was of a customer who had recently taken delivery of one of his rockers, but brought it back shame-faced explaining how the dog had chewed the end off one rocker. Could Sam repair it and could it be done is less than a year, the customer asked? Sam said "leave it" and he’d see what he could do. Sam said he had the repair made about twenty minutes later but said he waited at least a couple weeks before letting the customer know it was ready. Of course we all wondered how he could so quickly repair one of those sinuous rockers. Sam explained, it was very easy. He cut off the chewed end and reshaped it then cut off the other end of rocker so the length matched.

    Yes, we’ve lost an inspiration for many of us. Sam can now join the other greats to whom we all owe a huge debt of gratitude; Tage Frid, George Nakashima and Art Carpenter.

    Steve Shanesy

  4. Jim Davis

    Years ago I got to attend a talk given by Sam at the Smithsonian’s Renwick gallery. I was moved by his friendliness and gentleness, and his ingenuity in the designing and building of beautiful and yet very strong joints of georgeous wood. He will long be remembered, and I got the feeling that he loved people as much as he loved wood. Bless you, and thank you, Sam! —Jim Davis

  5. Vernon Thompson

    One of the most gripping and rivetting stories I’ve ever read in any woodworking magazine was the story of visiting Sam Maloof’s home; and also the house he lived in as well.
    The kindness and generosity of this fine man was evident in the article, and because of it, I’ve forever sinces had a sweet spot in my heart for Sam.
    I wouldn’t even think of attempting any of his style of chairs, but you know a Maloof chair when you see it; and the first thing you want to do is touch it, and feel the soul of a Master within.
    God rest you Sam. Your legacy will live forever. As long as mankind keeps trying to emulate the Masters of working with wood; FOREVER is a VERY Long time.
    God Speed dear friend.

  6. Brent Richardson

    I met Sam back in 2001, shortly after he married his second wife. He was to speak to the UNCC school of architecture and it was open to the public. I planned to arrive very early thinking there would be a very large crowd. Much to my surprise, the auditorium was empty when I entered so I sat down outside the hall. Shortly, Sam and his new bride along with a publicist showed up and also sat down. I engaged him in conversation and he proceeded to spend the next thirty minutes talking to me, a hobby woodworker about his work, his shop and his life. It was a great thrill to have this much uninterrupted time with the master. His presentation was good as well but the one on one time I will always remember.

  7. Chuck Radlo

    I was so fortunate to have taken a weekend workshop with Sam at the Worcester Center for Crafts several years ago. I have copious notes that I took while Sam created one of his side chairs before our very eyes. But what I remember most were his warmth, his generosity with his knowledge, his attitude that you were now a new friend to him and his conviction that you, too, no matter how new to the craft, had the potential to do wonderful things in wood and in life. Until I received your e-news, I had no idea that Sam had passed. I read and I cried. Sam will live on in every piece of furniture he designed and made, in the legacy "the boys" will carry on in his shop and museum, and in the memories of all of us who were lucky enough to have been touched by him.

    Thank you , Sam.

  8. GLY

    Hopefully "the boys" (and his wife) will be able to carry on the tradition that he set. Every time I look at a rocker, I look at and wonder if Maloof would have liked it….gotta stop doing that!

  9. JC_Collier

    All bow our heads for a great one has passed. He will never be forgotten as long as mankind seeks the soul of a tree. For to find it, one need only to look upon Mr. Maloof’s rocking chair then as Ray Charles did–touch and experience the distillation of this man’s aspiration.

    Godspeed Sam.

  10. Amos

    Thank you for sharing the story Chris. I have read similar stories from people that visited him. He will be missed.

  11. Ron Boe

    Dang; you would think 93 would be long enough but for gentlemen like Sam Maloof we have them for far too short a time. He will be missed.

  12. Charles Davis

    Wonderful story… thanks for sharing it. I’ve only had the opportunity to view a DVD profile of Mr. Maloof. His love of the material and the craft was immediately apparent. I think woodworkers, as a breed, are a generally down-to-earth and humble lot but for someone to accomplish as much as he did and still have no pretense or obvious ego about him speaks volumes.

    The man certainly LIVED his life and left an indelible mark. What’s amazing is that his work and designs will one day inspire woodworkers that have yet to be born… and that’s simply a beautiful thing.

  13. Swanz

    He’s definitely a class act..When I 1st got interested in woodworking I was fascinated by everything Maloof and Krenov. They’re both fascinating with seemingly different temperaments.

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