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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Connoisseurs of heirloom furniture clamor for his creations. The state clamors to move his rambling, treasure-filled home to make way for a freeway. But Sam Maloof remains serene amid a changing world. : A Man of the Woods

July 24, 1994|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not far from the Alta Loma lemon grove harboring Sam Maloof's home and workshop, a shiny city sign proclaims Maloof Avenue.

The street wasn't named for Sam, who is merely the region's, and the world's, best-known woodworker. It honors, rather, a distant relative who earned his fortune selling cars.

Now Southern California's autopia is finally losing patience with the woodworker, who by most indications is woefully out of step with the times.

Here, where developers can level a citrus grove and toss up a thousand-unit "community" quicker than a tree trunk adds a ring, Maloof has worked for four decades on a single, rambling home.

And that home stands squarely in the way of commuters restless to sprint from San Dimas to San Bernardino.

Long, wide scabs of tumbleweed-strewn, freeway-ready landscape already rip right up to an island of trees surrounding Maloof's place. You can almost hear the honk of a million horns demanding that this stretch of the Foothill Freeway go through.

But Sam Maloof is not a man to be rushed. Nor one to let eight lanes of concrete and Bott's Dots destroy his serenity.

For 45 years, Maloof has earned his living by creating furniture that pushes hard against that snooty line segregating craft from fine art. From the first chairs he chiseled, glued and clamped in the garage of a small Ontario tract house, the evolution of Maloof's designs has been slow and subtle.

"I was not overwhelmed," Jonathan Fairbanks, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, wrote of his first encounter with Maloof's furniture, at a New York exhibition in 1966.

In this age of artistic mega-extravaganzas and superduper-stars, that sounds like a slam. It wasn't.

Fairbanks' introduction to Maloof's 1983 book, "Sam Maloof, Woodworker" (Kodansha International), goes on to extol "the authority and intensity" of the artisan's designs, while providing descriptions that other critics echo: Quiet . Sensitive . Serious . Spare . Graceful . Timeless .

Furniture companies eager to mass-produce his designs have offered Maloof contracts that would have earned him millions. He turns them down. With the help of three assistants, he chips away at a 500-order waiting list, crafting 50 to 60 pieces a year--less than a small factory might do in a day.

"I've taken a very plodding course," the 78-year-old craftsman says in a voice as warm as well-polished walnut. "I've never been interested in fads. A lot of young woodworkers are very, very good. The sophistication and craftsmanship in what they do is amazing. But a lot of the work seems not to have soul."

*

The hand-carved sign that marks Sam and Freda Maloof's place is weathered and hard to spot in a forest of shrubs. Visitors who drive past find themselves wandering through the cultural context that has swallowed up the Maloofs' incongruous habitat.

A few miles to the east, ghost town-like relics emerge from the smog. Boarded-up stores and gas stations built from river rock are scattered among neighborhoods where rusted cars litter yards overgrown with brittle weeds. Keep going and the graffiti starts. Drugs are dealt. Hookers stroll in the midday sun.

In other directions, the same rocky soil optimistically sprouts baby boom towns. Precisely landscaped streets link look-alike tracts to the sustaining In-N-Out-Soup Plantation-Kragan-Payless-Petco-Blockbuster-Chuck E. Cheese's-Wienerschnitzel-Nurseryland-McDonald's-Daily Donuts-PIP-U.S. Nails-Wherehouse-Play Co.-Spires-Auto Express-Mervyn's-Chili's-Pep Boys sprawl.

Wheel into Maloof's brick and concrete driveway, though, and Southern California's Juiced-up, World-Cupped, flesh-eating, yammering boom of hyperbolized banality is left snapping at the gate.

Abruptly, the second hand on a watch seems to spin more slowly. A thick canopy of olive and avocado leaves caresses the car, cooling and oxygenating the air. A whiff of citrus brings back another California, calming jangled nerves like a pleasant, post-nap yawn.

Somewhere deep in the lemon grove, a mockingbird yaks. Then, the soft chip-chip-chip of a chisel cutting hardwood leads a visitor through one of several big wooden doors.

Inside his workshop, Maloof sits with his legs splayed on the concrete floor, tinkering with a troublesome joint in a Zircote wood rocker.

Gnarled and missing the tip of an index finger, Maloof's thick hands look as if they could squeeze syrup from a hunk of maple. But his firm handshake is as gentle as the brown eyes gleaming behind thick-lensed bifocals.

He makes interrupting his work to show a stranger around seem like the greatest pleasure he's had in weeks--although admirers from Presidents to Nobel laureates drop by virtually every day.

Like Simon Rodia's towers in Watts, Maloof's home is a monument to the creative impulse. Unlike those towers, which seem to reflect a reckless scramble for the sky, Maloof's home clings respectfully to the earth.

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