When Sam Maloof left a career in graphic arts in 1948 and began making furniture in a one-car garage in Ontario, fame was the farthest thing from his mind.
"I'd never given making a reputation a thought," the 70-year-old woodmaker said in an interview at his Alta Loma home in San Bernardino County. "I'd always felt that if I was able to make a living at what I do, that was all I wanted."
Yet Maloof has come to know fame and recognition. Examples of his furniture are displayed in museums in Boston, New York, Dallas, Philadelphia and other cities across the country, and he is often honored for his clean, functional designs. In 1985, for example, he received a prestigious $300,000 fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation and was designated one of California's "Living Treasures" by the state Legislature.
More personal accolades come Maloof's way as well: On one wall of his home is a picture of former President Jimmy Carter clutching a copy of Maloof's 1983 book ("Sam Maloof"). The photo is inscribed: "To my woodworking hero."
Maloof will give a slide lecture on his work at 7:30 tonight as featured artist at the Hillcrest Festival of Arts at Hillcrest Congregational Church, 2000 West Road, La Habra Heights. Several pieces of his work will be on display.
Often Gives Lectures
The craftsman often gives workshops and lectures, although it takes him away from his shop, where he is kept busy creating 60 to 65 pieces of furniture a year.
"People often ask me why I do it," Maloof said of his public appearances. "They say, 'You've got so much work. It takes you away from your shop and all, so why do you do it?' The only answer that I have is that I just want to share. I surely don't have to do it as a material way of earning a living; I do it because I want to."
Maloof, who was born in Chino, says he was always interested in woodworking, making furniture for his parents and later for his own apartment. His work sparked compliments from friends and acquaintances, Maloof says.
"That sort of put a bug in my head about doing woodwork for a living," Maloof said. "After I was married my wife encouraged me, and that's how I got started."
From the one-car garage in Ontario, Maloof moved his shop to a chicken house on an acre in Alta Loma, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. As his career grew, so did the adjacent shop and house Maloof built on the land. "As I was able to, I started my shop first, and then from that I started a new house. And over the many years, I just kept adding on to it," Maloof explained.
Home Has Surprising Twists
"I've done most all the work myself, with some help. And I've had an awful lot of fun doing it." Maloof and his wife of 38 years, Alfreda, have lived on the Alta Loma property now for 30 years. The home that the craftsman has built there over the years seems to have a life of its own, with surprising twists and turns that wrap around pastoral views of the Maloof's rural property.
"As I've added on to it, I don't think it looks like an added-on-to house," Maloof said. "It's a very organic house; the kind of house my wife and I like to live in."
Maloof, who prefers to sell his own work rather than employ a gallery, uses the home as a showcase, and it is filled with his distinctive creations. It is also filled with works by artists in other media, with a special emphasis on pottery and Indian crafts.
"I don't think there is a room in the house where we don't have a handmade object," Maloof said. "I like having these objects around; each time you see them, you see the person who actually made the piece, so you're always surrounded by friends."
Maloof says his designs and his method of work have changed little over the years. "I've not gone off on a tangent and I've not let trends or fads dictate to me at all. I still work pretty much the way I did 40 years ago," the craftsman explained.
"Times change, there are trends and fads, but I think if you make an object that is well-designed, well-made, that catches a person's eye, I think that there's no reason to follow the trends and fads that are happening." Maloof's aim, he says, is a blend of form with function. "I think that function and form have to work together. I think if a chair doesn't function, doesn't sit right, but the form is very beautiful, it doesn't work, it isn't a good chair. So I try and combine the two: form and function, or, you might say, aesthetics and practicality."
Maloof says crafts have enjoyed a revival in the United States in the past 10 years, and he is encouraged by the young men and women who have taken up the skills of woodworking and other crafts. While his own work changes only subtly over time, he keeps an eye on the latest movements in furniture design.
"A lot of reviewers ask me what I think about this trend or this fad, and I enjoy it," Maloof said. "I enjoy what's being done and I think a lot of the stuff that's being done is exciting, but I'm not in a position to say if it's only a fad or it's only a trend. Only time will tell." For his own part, Maloof plans to keep moving at full steam. "I don't see myself slowing down. I just hope and pray that my health holds up. I've never even given a thought to slowing down or retiring."
In addition to Maloof's lecture, the Hillcrest Festival of Fine Arts, running through Sunday, will feature 200 artists exhibiting and demonstrating their work. Hours are: Today, 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, call (213) 947-3755.