Monday, June 22, 2009

Working With His Hands

Guest Perspective by Ralph Nader
Although his classic self-designed and hand-built furniture found its way to the White House, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, Sam Maloof, who passed away recently at 93, preferred to describe himself simply as a “Woodworker.”

Completely self-taught, after he served in the Army during World War II, Mr. Maloof became one of the premier woodworkers and designers in the country. His bustling home, workplace and Discovery Garden spread over six acres in Alta Loma, California, draws visiting artisans, high school woodworking classes and gardeners learning about multiple uses from near and far.

Born in a family of nine children of Lebanese immigrants, Sam Maloof had the character traits of authenticity, elegance, consistency and creativity. He was dedicated to constantly refining his chairs, tables, desks, cabinets and his famous rocking chair. For about 20 years, he made no profit. Now his chairs sell for $20,000 or more each.

As he progressed, his horizons extended into what is now a veritable movement ensconced in the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts. (

A measure of the man’s spirit is reflected in these words about his work:

“Craftsmen in any media know the satisfaction that comes in designing and making an object from raw material. Mine comes from working in wood. Once you have breathed, smelled, and tasted the tanginess of wood and have handled it in the process of giving it form, there is nothing, I believe, that can replace the complete satisfaction granted. Working a rough piece of wood into a complete, useful object is the welding together of man and material.”

The exquisite manual workmanship of Mr. Maloof is further stimulating the questioning of the remoteness that modern technology visits on so many people who spend hours in virtual reality, separated from nature and its materials. Our country was built by craftsmen, artisans and other workers who designed and made real things. High Schools offered Shop Class, where students learned skills and the joy of creating. These classes opened doors to a source of livelihood - and pride - for budding artisans.

With the nineteenth century industrial revolution and mass production employing masses of workers, these independent craftsmen tried to remain independent contractors and not become what they called “wage slaves” in giant, often dangerous, factories.

Jeremy Adamson, who organized an exhibition of Mr. Maloof’s work in 2001 at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, remarked that Maloof was a “beacon for woodworkers around the world. That furniture will last forever.” The Master used no nails or metal hardware. The designs evolved as he worked. Clearly he possessed stunning visualization capacities. Imagine, he fit the chairs to the human bodies. “You can’t help but stroke the darn things,” Mr. Adamson added.
Starting in 1952 with a small house in a citrus grove at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, Mr. Maloof added 16 additional rooms branded with his unique use of woods, shapes and function.

In a new book titled Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford, the author bemoaned the closing at high schools all over the United States of shop classes that taught the mechanical arts like carpentry, woodworking, welding and other skills. They were closed to allow more funding of computer labs. And because our throw-away society no longer properly values the fruits of artisan labor.

Crawford goes on to argue and demonstrate what our society loses when we make joining the “paper economy” the chief aspiration of the younger generations or to use Robert Reich’s phrase to become “symbolic analysts.” Somebody has to keep the real world running maintained, repaired and replaced - something we realize very quickly when things don’t work in our households.

The draining of gratification from work in a techno-computerized environment is a widespread condition for millions of people, apart from the automated severance of their judgment and discretion by command and control positions.

Sam Maloof and his wife Barbara prepared his legacy meticulously. His philosophy and nature-related work increasingly steeped in sustainable practices will continue through his many students, trained practitioners and emulators.

He always found a way to wrap his zest in a few personal words. “I hope,” he once said, “that my happiness with what I do is reflected in my furniture…that it is vibrant, alive, and friendly to the people who use it.”

Sam Maloof steadfastly looked ahead. Maybe this is why, in spite of clients waiting years for delivery, he would jump to the head of the line those parents who wanted a cradle for their infants.

No comments: