Southern California and Sam Maloof

Imagine sitting in a chair fit for a queen, something that might go at auction for $15,000-$30,000. You can sit down and feel how smooth and amazing comfortable such a chair is, a chair built by Sam Maloof. Sam Maloof (1916-2009) didn’t just build chairs and other sculptural furniture, he built a community of artists and craftsmen in the Pomona Valley. You can see 116 works from private and public collections on display in “The House that Sam Built” at the Huntington Library until 30 January 2012.

Fiddle-back Chair by Sam Maloof (1984).

Samuel Solomon Maloof was born on 24 January 1916 in Chino, California to two Lebanese immigrants. After taking a woodshop class at Chaffey High School, he worked at Vortox Manufacturing Company in Claremont, California. Due to the draft, he left and joined the U.S. Army, serving in the Pacific theater and ending up being posted in Alaska.

Leaving the army in 1945, he returned to California. He married Alfreda Ward in 1948 and the couple living in Ontario with Maloof using his garage as a furniture workshop. Maloof used salvaged material, but he soon began getting commissions and he moved to Alta Loma in 1953 where he built a studio.

The exhibit isn’t just about Maloof, but the community in which he thrived, where he and his artist friends collected each other’s works and how they fit into each other’s aesthetics. In all, the works of 36 artists are included–painters such as Karl Benjamin and Millard Sheets; sculptors like Betty Davenport Ford and Albert Stewart, enamelists such as Jean and Arthur Ames and fiber artists such as Kay Sekimachi.

The studio that Maloof built now houses the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts. The Huntington exhibit looks at the community that Maloof built by clustering all the works in homey settings.

The woodwork is seductive. You’ll be tempted to touch and that’s when you can visit the demo room and sit in a genuine Maloof chair. The wood is smooth and seductive and the design surprisingly comfortable.  Many of the chairs were custom-made to fit the person, but be sure to look at how the grain of the wood is used in the design. The bench designed for two is a lovely example of making the grain a part of the design. The whole effect is warm and inviting.

There’s character and humor in these pseudo-rooms. Look at the sculptures–the gracefully curving “Ferrets” by Betty Davenport Ford and the jaunty running boar. Imagine having the 1958 Maloof coffee table topped with the vibrant and sensuous ceramics by Gertrud and Otto Natzler.

Don’t forget the rocking chairs. And what about that beautiful cradle? Both speak about home and family and the appreciation of a community. If this is the kind of community that Sam Maloof built, what kind of community are you building?

Maloof was the only craftsman to receive a MacArthur fellowship (1985).  Until his death,  he remained modest, styling himself simply as a woodworker.

This exhibit might inspire you to take another look at Southern California as a place that inspired arts and crafts and is part of the grand “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980.”

The Maloof Foundation also has an exhibit that was partially inspired by the Huntington’s “The House that Sam Built.” The Foundation’s exhibit, “In Words and Wood,” looks at the woodturnings of Maloof, Bob Stockdale (1913-2002) and Ed Moulthrop (1916-2003). The exhibit opened on 1 October 2011 and closes on 29 January 2012.  If you love gardens, the Maloof Foundation also includes garden tours, garden workshops and lectures.

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