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