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An eye and heart for detail

In the house that Sam Maloof built, the master woodworker's touch brings everything to life -- from whimsical door latches to majestic staircases.

June 05, 2003|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

Fifty years ago, internationally acclaimed woodworker Sam Maloof cleared a piece of a citrus orchard north of what is now Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino County. Because money was scarce, he built an undistinguished, flat-roofed, 800-square-foot frame cottage, not unlike countless other crowded little starter houses that went up in tracts across Southern California after World War II. Today, this home -- expanded to 23 rooms and 8,500 square feet -- is a public museum, a registered historical landmark, a temple of craftsmanship, a high-spirited gallery of craft and art, a showcase for his celebrated woodworking and a fanciful inspiration to legions of do-it-yourselfers.

"A world of and unto its own," is how architectural historian Anthea M. Hartig described Maloof's house for the Historic American Buildings Survey, 2000. A world that is both visual and tactile. Wood invites the hand, and Maloof is so famous for his rubbed oil finishes that specialty woodworking stores carry a line of oil, polyurethane and wax products bearing his name. You notice as he guides you through his home that he, too, is massaging the buttery wood.

"I made these for Gene Kelly," he mentions casually as he lifts one of three wood-and-rawhide barstools and gives it a few firm strokes.

Maloof is 87, the eminence grise of woodworkers and a commanding figure in American crafts. His furniture -- sleekly sculptural, uncommonly solid and functional -- played a key role in the Southern California modernist design movement.

He was the first woodworker to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant and was described by the Smithsonian Institution as "America's most renowned contemporary furniture craftsman."

Maloof still puts in a full day in his woodshop in an adjacent array of buildings, where his sculpted $20,000 walnut rocking chairs ($35,000 if your prefer exotic zircote wood from Belize) are lovingly crafted to meet a waiting list that will keep him busy well into his 90s. He has taken up residence in a new two-story home that he designed just yards away. Add a guest house that is now a bookstore, two roomy vaults for his stashes of wood and an assortment of sheds, covered walkways, patios and landscaping that mixes rock, garden and orchard and the result is a hillside compound not unlike a compact European village.

The original house, which ended up in a J-shaped floor plan that elbows around a shady patio, is remarkable for its warmth and whimsy. You could walk through it quickly and be aware of only that. But pause for just a minute and you recognize something else, something strangely familiar. Right in front of your eyes, hidden only by embellishment, is evidence of the kind of home that most of us live in: ordinary.

In the kitchen, there are the too-old plywood cabinets with the hardware-store knobs, and in another room, the plywood bookshelves. A white-tiled bathroom could be labeled "before" in a designer's sketchbook. Here and there are wall-mounted air conditioners; elsewhere are brick walls adorned only with paint.

"I see the sameness in a lot of homes," Maloof says. "There's a lot of glitter but not much solid, I think.... I wanted our house to be a home. I approached it completely the opposite of the way architects and designers work. For a long time, I did it on a shoestring."

In 1949, his first year as a furniture maker, he earned only $555. The next year, $1,160. When times got better, he simply began to camouflage. He put hardwood counter tops on the kitchen cabinets, and now "people don't see anything else," he says, smiling.

Around the kitchen he added decorative pillars of weathered fir and contrasting peeled-posts. Amid exposed rafters, he constructed Asian-flavored beams to make archways in and out of the kitchen. He found a plank of figured walnut that pleased his eye and countersunk holes in it and mounted it as a spice board, beneath which a pair of hulking 1960s enameled stoves all but disappear. The effect is montage-like in three dimensions.

The more you look, the more sharply the details come into relief.

An oversize hardwood towel bar suggests the railing of a luxury ocean liner. Houseplants in the vaulted kitchen nook are raised and lowered by cords that run through pulleys and are belayed to nautical-style hand-carved cleats. Another nook off the kitchen is paneled in raw cork. A spectacular drop-leaf dining table with wooden box hinges and bench seating draws the eyes and the finger tips.

His are restless hands answering an endless question: What can be done to that? Where others might imagine only tear-out or tear-down, Maloof sees possibility -- the commonplace exalted by exquisite detail.

This layering of detail has taken on the nature of an organic process, akin to the way coral is created -- by accretion.

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