Q97 Snapshot: Uncle Sam
01/24/2014 03:24PM ● Published by Billy Pilgrim
That’s my Uncle Sam — the great Sam Maloof, one of America’s most revered furniture designers and builders. When I was growing up in Southern California, he was just my Uncle Sam who made furniture in his shop, which was attached to a very modest six-room house in the middle of some citrus groves in Alta Loma. We’d hang out with Uncle Sam and Aunt Alfreda during the holidays. I’d play with my cousin Slimen in the groves, shoot basketball and ride go karts. It was my favorite place in the whole world to hang out as a kid.
Sam Maloof took a woodworking class at Chaffey High in Ontario, and his teacher was amazed by his talent. After high school, he went to work in the art department of Vortox Manufacturing in Claremont. After serving in the Army, he married my Aunt Alfreda. They moved to Alta Loma in the 1950s. Over time, that six-room house got bigger and bigger. Every year, it seems another room or two would be added on until it became a 16-room hand-crafted home. And every year, Sam’s reputation and fame as an artist grew. He made his furniture not with plans, but from the designs in his head, cutting out parts freehand on a band saw. And he assembled his pieces without nails or metal hardware. Even hinges were made of wood.
His original hardwood designs were highly sought after, from his trademark handcrafted baby cradles to his original rockers and occasional tables and love seats. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan purchased his furniture. Jimmy Carter and my uncle became great friends. He would stop by the family home to have dinner with Sam and Alfreda. Ray Charles loved my uncle’s furniture. He said, “I can’t see it, but I can feel it. That furniture has got soul!”
Maloof furniture appeared in art galleries and museums around the world, including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Huntington Library. Uncle Sam turned down multimillion-dollar offers to mass produce his pieces, preferring to build each one by hand. He was hailed as an extraordinary artist; the Smithsonian described him as “America’s most renowned contemporary furniture craftsman,” yet he remained humble and simply referred to himself as a “woodworker.” His beautiful autobiography is titled “Sam Maloof: Woodworker.”
Through it all, he was just my Uncle Sam.
When we were kids, we heard talk that the Maloofs would have to move one day because the 210 freeway was to be extended and was going to go right through that property in Alta Loma. (We’d look west through the groves and wonder “how can this be?”) It seems like it took over 30 years, but it came true. The beautiful 16-room hand-built home, workshop and outbuildings were all moved three miles to 5131 Carnelian Street. Today, it serves as the center for the Sam Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts and the Sam Maloof Historic Residence and Woodworking Studio. You can tour it the next time you are in Southern California. A freeway parklet was established on the north side of the 210 on what was the original family property. There is a plaque there dedicated to my Aunt Alfreda.
My uncle passed away in 2009, but his furniture designs are still being built today by three of his apprentices. An original Maloof piece, maybe one I watched him build when I was a kid, can be worth up to 100 times its original value. Specific pieces have sold for $200,000.
You can learn more about Sam Maloof’s contributions to the world by visiting sam-maloof.com, maloofwoodworking.com, and by visiting the Sam Maloof page on Facebook. The Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts can be found at Malooffoundation.org.