Did you ever see the film Indecent Proposal? Do you remember the lecture Woody Harrelson gave when he quoted the architect, Louis Khan, who had once said, “Even a brick wants to be something” ?
Today, as I toured the Sam Maloof House in Alta Loma, and saw the exquisite craftsmanship of his furniture, I thought perhaps even a tree might aspire to become something else if it was to make the evolution by Sam Maloof’s hand.
The Maloof house did not always occupy the space where it now resides in Alta Loma. When the 210 freeway was expanding in the 1990s, the home and other historic buildings on the property were moved to this new site, three miles away from the original property.
Sam Maloof was a self-taught woodworker and a leader of the American crafts movement. He did not use plans, but produced pieces based on his singular vision, almost exclusively by hand. In the 1960s he was offered $22 million for the rights to mass-produce his work. He turned the offer down. He believed in the strength of handmade items. According to the website Artsy,
“His sleek, minimal, and organic designs—joined using no nails or metal hardware—and were included in the experimental Case Study Houses built around Los Angeles between 1945 and 1966 by progressive architects like Richard Neutra, Charles Eames, and Eero Saarinen, and his iconic rocking chair found a home at the White House. In 1985 he became the first craftsman to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius Fellowship; he preferred to simply refer to himself as a woodworker until his death.”
A docent met our tour group at the reception desk. We were taken to a small room and shown a video which showed clips of Sam Maloof in his workshop. A few people on the tour had met him. He was known for his sense of humor and his single-mindedness regarding his work.
Sam Maloof passed away in 2009, and his widow Beverly still lives on the property. Just as our docent was telling us how frail Beverly is, the lady herself popped into the tour sporting a ponytail and a smile. She is responsible for the design of the Discovery Garden on the property, which is populated largely with California Native plants.
We were not allowed to take photographs in the home and we were asked to check our purses before entering. (The photos of the interior of the home, shown below, are from postcards which I purchased at the gift shop.)
The Maloofs have an extensive collection of pottery and art from around the world. Maloof was married to his first wife, Alfreda, for over 50 years. She had once been director of arts and crafts for the Indian Service and taught Sam about Indian pottery. They amassed a world class collection over the years. Alfreda was instrumental in managing the business, and was a strong partner in bringing forth their vision for the home.
We were told several times during the tour about Sam Maloof’s exacting standards. He painstakingly sanded and polished wood until the natural beauty of the wood was at its peak. His home was designed and decorated with the same precision. There are over 100 pieces of his furniture on the property, and to put things in perspective, before his death, his rocking chairs were being sold for $25-50K apiece. Larger pieces might go for as much as $450K. No matter how high the prices were raised, in recent years, there was always at least a three year waiting list.
Stand-out pieces in the home included a dining set, an elaborate spiral staircase, chairs, benches, and several tables. We were invited to touch all the furniture, but not to sit on it. When you slide your hand across the back of a chair, it is unbelievably smooth. It feels as though it’s been shaped for the sole reason of giving your hand the pleasant sensation, and indeed it has.
At the end of the tour, we were invited to sit in a Maloof chair. There were people of all sizes on our tour, and each one exclaimed that it felt as though the chair had been made just for them. When I sat in the chair, I loved how my arms rested on the flat planes of silky wood that seemed to cradle and lift them at the same time.
After the tour, we sat at generic wood patio tables waiting for our docent to open the door so that we could retrieve our purses. It was abundantly clear that sitting in these chairs was an entirely different experience than sitting in the Maloof chair. Where the patio chair bit into the backs of our legs, and the sharp edges at the sides bruised our flesh and made our backs ache, the Maloof chair felt contoured to the human form and seemed not separate from it, but more like an extension of it.
I thoroughly enjoyed my tour of the Maloof house today. I was as inspired by his mastery of his craft as I was by his personal collection of art- both displayed a reverence for the souls of things and a recognition that these things can’t help but blossom when perused by a thoughtful and tender eye.
323 days to go!