Sam Maloof, woodworker

Sam MaloofSam Maloof, master woodworker and furniture maker who started out as an assistant to Millard Sheets in the Scripps art department, fell in love at first sight with first wife Freda in Seal Court, and remained a lifelong friend of the College, died on May 21, 2009, at the age of 93.

His handmade custom furniture was initially prized for its simplicity and practicality by Southern Californian homeowners in the 1950s and later valued for its beauty and timelessness by collectors, museum curators, and U.S. presidents.

Maloof turned down multimillion-dollar offers to massproduce his original designs. He worked out of his home workshop, shaping hardwood, one part at a time, into rocking chairs, cradles, and hutches that were shorn of unnecessary adornments.

After serving in the U.S. Army from 1941 to 1945, he worked for Sheets, designer and head of the art department at Scripps College.

In 1948, Maloof married Alfreda Ward, two months after meeting her; “Freda” introduced him to Native American art, and together they socialized in the artists’ colony nurtured by The Claremont Colleges.

With Freda’s strong encouragement, Maloof started his own business, in 1949. Two years later, Better Homes and Gardens published photographs and plans of Maloof’s furniture to show readers how to decorate economically.

The seventh of nine children born to Lebanese immigrants, Maloof became the first craftsman to receive a MacArthur Foundation grant, in 1985. His designs could not be categorized as Arts and Crafts, modern, Scandinavian, or Italian. The self-taught designer would select a piece of wood — walnut was his favorite because of its texture and durability — and cut out parts freehand on a bandsaw. He refined the shape with hand tools to make the finished piece of furniture comfortable, functional, and beautiful.

Maloof created about 50 pieces a year — all on commission. Clients could wait years for delivery, although those who wanted a cradle for their babies immediately jumped to the head of the line.

His masterpiece was the house he bought in 1953 in Alta Loma, California. Over the decades, he added 16 rooms with handmade redwood doors and windows, carved door handles in the shape of flying fish or tusks, Douglas fir rafters, and toilet seats in English oak and black walnut.

In 2000, when the state of California decided to put a freeway through Maloof’s citrus grove, the state worked out an agreement to dismantle the house and move it three miles away; it now functions as a museum and as headquarters of the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts.

Maloof kept close ties to Scripps College, inviting faculty and students to his work place, visiting Scripps, and occasionally speaking to small groups. His woodwork is prominent throughout campus buildings and offices, including the foyer of Garrison Theater and the President’s Office.

He is survived by his second wife, Beverly Wingate Maloof, whom he married in 2001, three years after Freda died; a son, a daughter, a stepson, and four grandchildren.

Parts of this story are excerpted from articles in the Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2009, by Janet Eastman, and the New York Times, May 27, 2009, by William Grimes. Photograph by Anacelto Rapping.


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