by Rebecca Cote
photography by Sylvia Castellanos
Tears fill his eyes, and memories race through his mind as he passes Archibald Avenue on the 210 Freeway in his silver convertible Porsche. Minutes later, he arrives at Carnelian Street in Rancho Cucamonga. As he travels up the off-ramp, he sees his house in his mind’s eye. He sees his children laughing and playing among the citrus trees. His wife is enjoying a quiet day in the garden, and he is working a typical 12-hour day, his muscular arms covered in sawdust. But then he blinks behind his famous thick-rimmed black glasses, and it is all gone. The days of citrus tress and chicken coops are long gone, replaced by an asphalt and concrete jungle. Cars now zoom across the westbound 210 freeway, the former site of his home.
This is where he carefully mastered making the perfect chair, and where his son proudly told his father that he, too, wanted to be a woodworker. But that was another lifetime ago, before “they” moved his house, and his last lifetime ended. Now, ever the optimist, Sam Maloof has started his life again.
Sam Maloof, born in 1916 in Chino, is one of nine children reared by Lebanese immigrant parents. He came of age during the great depression, a time when organization, discipline and hard work were needed to survive. He would find these to be the same traits needed to make a living for more than 50 years as a woodworker. Maloof graduated from Chino High School in 1934, and like many depression-era youth, he skipped college and went right to work. For three months after graduation, he washed windows in a factory that produced car air cleaners. After proving himself as a reliable worker, he was hired as a graphic artist for a car air cleaner company and the Padua Players in Claremont. Next, Maloof worked for Harold Graham, an industrial designer in Claremont. He helped design window and interior displays for regional department stores, including the giant Bullock’s store in Los Angeles. After a few years with Graham, he enlisted in the Army in 1941. During his four year stint, he was stationed in Southern California, the Aleutian Islands and Alaska.
It was right before World War II was declared, so men were stationed around the world. Maloof was fortunate and remained in the country because he was able to draw. He served as operations sergeant in the Alaska command and was the youngest master sergeant in the Army at the time. “I’m very thankful I joined the Army, because it took me away from home and showed me what life is all about,” he says. “I thought of staying in, but I’m glad I didn’t. I went to work immediately after as a graphic artist and then Millard (Sheets) found out I was back and asked me to work for him.”
While working for Sheets, head of the art department at Scripps College and Pomona College, Maloof met in 1947 the love of his life, Alfreda Ward of La Verne. After a short courtship, they were married June 27, 1948, at Advent Christian Church in La Verne. For their honeymoon, the newlyweds drove up the California coast, including a drive along 17 Mile Drive in Carmel, where Sam took photographs of Freda that still hang in the master bedroom of the Maloof’s historic house. Family pictures, cards and letters also hang in the historic residence, including a typical letter from Freda. “Dear Husband, Relax! Take it easy! Today is your day. So, spend every hour in your favorite way. My love, Freda.”
The couple moved to Ontario in 1949. Freda gave birth to their son Slimen that same year, and in 1953 she gave birth to their daughter Marilou. Sam taught himself to make furniture but could not afford walnut or other higher quality wood, so he used plywood and cement forms to make tables, chairs and cabinets for the small house. Sheets brother-in-law photographed Maloof’s work for Better Homes and Gardens magazine. The magazine also featured patterns of his creations, and he was paid $150.
“Everything I have is because of Freda. Through Freda’s encouragement, I quit working for Millard and started making furniture on my own in a one car garage,” he remembers. “People saw my work, and through word of mouth, more kept coming. I never advertised, and I even turned down an offer to mass-produce my furniture. It would have made me a rich man, but it’s not what I wanted to do. People pay a lot of money for my work, because we don’t just grind out the pieces. We custom make them for each person. It’s all sort of mind boggling to think of how much money people spend on my work.”
His work can be seen in the White House, the homes of former President’s Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and throughout his own home that he built by hand—one brick floor piece, one piece of redwood wall, one room at a time. It has come a long way from its origins. The bright blue metal roofed house fits perfectly into its surroundings. Newly landscaped grounds, looming citrus, live oak, walnut and sycamore trees and smaller similar-looking buildings are scattered throughout the six acre parcel. The house looks as though it has been there forever, but like the man who built it, the house has a story to tell.
The same year Marilou was born, the Maloofs bought an acre of land with a chicken coop and a run-down shack. Sam worked out of the chicken coop initially, but it was falling down around him. The shack was now too small for his family, and he wanted something perfect for Freda, Slimen and Marilou. He also wanted a workshop worthy of housing his beautiful chairs, so he started building a new workshop and a house for his family.
Bit by bit, Maloof bought an acre on one side, an acre on the other and then three acres from another neighbor. Sam and Freda filled the grounds with lush native California landscaping and citrus trees. He labored on the house that sits at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains that ultimately grew to encompass 8,000 square feet and 26 rooms. “I never borrowed money on it; I never mortgaged it. I just did it as I could afford,” he says. “Thankfully, it came out just the way we wanted.”
Then, after almost 50 years in the house, the Maloofs were contacted by the state and told the 210 Freeway extension would go right through their house’s footprint. Fortunately, because the house is on the National Register of Historic Places, the state paid to have the house moved and bought the Maloofs a plot of land three miles north on Carnelian Avenue, across from the exclusive Kings Ranch housing development. “I never intended to have it moved, but when I had to, I told them how I built it in these sections, and that’s how they took it apart,” he says. “It was like a puzzle. They only broke one window and did an excellent job.” He was told it would only take a few months, but in reality it took more than three years to move into the house and get his workshop going again. Freda was never able to see the new house because she became ill and died in 1998.
Five years later, Maloof started his life over again, with a new house and a new bride, Beverly. “A lot of interesting things happen everyday I’m with him,“ Beverly laughs. “He enjoys so many things and gets pleasure out of the smallest things in life. It’s just so much fun to be around him.” He met Beverly when she was just 23 years old, and she ordered a kitchen table from him. The table now sits in their office and acts as Sam’s work desk. “It was like starting life all over again,“ Maloof smiles. “I had a very good wife, and I have a very good wife now. I thank God for every heart beat, and everyday I am able to work and do what I want to do.”
The Maloofs now live across from the original house in a newly constructed residence that looks like a miniature version of the historic house. Maloof initially planned to live in the historic house and use the new house as an art gallery, but, instead, the historic house is a living museum. Through the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation, he is raising funds for a museum that will house various types of art from local artists.
But Maloof’s plans for a new museum and life as he knows it almost burst into flames fall 2003. The Grand Prix fire, which left homes in San Bernardino County as just memories and ashes, came too close for comfort to Maloof’s masterpiece. Houses to the north of his were charred, and so was a house two blocks north. Sam and Beverly were evacuated and went to stay with Beverly’s son in Riverside. They took a few things with them, but the house and everything they accumulated in more than 80 years could never be replaced.
“My stepson stayed up and watched the news. He told my wife, ‘I think the house is gone,’” Maloof says. “But of course she didn’t tell me. When I got up at 4:30 a.m., I drove back, thinking, ‘Oh, boy, here we go.’ But then we got here and everything was OK. We found one branch on an oak tree that was still on fire, but everything else was the way we left it the day before. The firemen did a very good job. We are just very fortunate.”
World-renowned woodworker Sam Maloof whittled his way into the hearts and homes of millions around the globe. At 88, one can still find the self-taught woodworker putting in 60 hours a week in his workshop, which is connected to his historic house through the sitting room off the kitchen. In his younger days, he spent 80, 90 and even 100 hours a week machining, hand carving, piecing together and finishing beautiful wood furniture. The workshop is always busy with Sam and his three assistants, Mike Johnson, David Wade and Larry White. His nephew Nasif also works with him, and, sometimes, one can find his granddaughter Rebecca as part of the team or doing other art projects for her classes at Claremont Graduate School.
“Sam still does the majority of the assembly and machining himself, and he never works from plans. He just works from a mental picture,” says Johnson, who has worked for Maloof for 22 years, ever since meeting him at Montclair Plaza. “We take the pieces from a rough assembled state to a finished product. The nature of his work is very sculptural, which requires a lot of handwork. Since we do most of the handwork, we spend more time with the pieces, but he still builds and designs them.”
This year, Maloof is already working on more than 30 pieces, but has only completed two. He and his assistants usually create about 70 pieces a year. He is currently working on chairs for the third generation of one family.
Almost everyone who has bought a Maloof creation has been completely satisfied, although one woman was startled by the odor that filled her dining room a few days after her dining table delivery. She called Maloof and told him the odor got worse and worse each day. When she could no longer stand the smell, she told him to come pick up the table. It was then that she looked in the utensil drawer of the table where her young son sat. “The little boy was putting his food in the drawer, and she didn’t realize it for a while,” Maloof says. “When she called me back, she told me that I should warn other people what can happen when they have little ones.”
“I try to do as well as I can. After 50 years of working, I still think, ‘Gosh, I hope they like it,’” Maloof explains. “Whatever I’m working on is my favorite piece. I like all my pieces, or else I wouldn’t do them. I want the people I make them for to enjoy the pieces as much as I do. I have contact with every single person who has bought my furniture, so the pieces never really leave me.”
Even the IRS Gives Top Dollar for a Maloof Masterpiece
A Sam Maloof masterpiece is definitely worth its weight in gold. In 2003, Maloof received a phone call from the IRS auditor who usually estimates the value of his work. The call concerned a woman who willed to charity a 1970s Maloof dining table and six dining chairs. As with all his clients, Maloof remained in contact with the set owner and knew the pieces were in great condition. The IRS auditor told Maloof that he had valued the set at $250,000, to which Maloof says he jokingly responded, “How about a half million?” From his auditor dealings in the past, Maloof knew that he always estimated the pieces at a lower value than sale price. A few days later, the auditor called back, saying his final evaluation was $450,000. “I never thought that he would go that high,” Maloof says. “Government auditors always make lower estimates than what the piece is worth. I was shocked.”
Maloof was also “shocked” last year at his annual workshop at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass Village, Colo. Anderson Ranch holds a charity art auction each year. Maloof donated a low back chair to the auction, and two groups bid a combined $125,000 for the chair. “We usually just do one chair for the auction each year, but I could tell that each group really wanted the chair,” Maloof smiles. “So, what I decided to do was build a second chair just like the first, so both could have the chair and Anderson Ranch could have the donations.”