By now, most of the woodworking world knows that Sam Maloof passed away in May 2009. His loss marked the passing of a great woodworker: his work is on display in the Smithsonian Institution, he had received the MacArthur Genius Grant, and his rocking chairs offered Presidential seating to both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
Sam, who was 93 at the time of his death, was an inspiration to decades’ worth of woodworkers. They followed the examples of the softly flowing lines in the rocking chairs that were his specialty — and some of them followed Sam to classes or seminars, like his annual visit to the Anderson Ranch. That’s where I met up with Sam, when Woodworker’s Journal sent me out to cover one of his visits there in summer 2000.
Sam, in addition to being a master woodworker, was an all-around nice guy. He answered questions easily; he used self-deprecating humor as he “eyeballed” it on the band saw — and passed on the advice to do as he said, not as he did, regarding safety standards; and he had fun.
Although serious about making money from his work — Sam had years’ worth of orders for his chairs stacked up even when he reached his early 90s (and capable assistants in his woodshop to complete them), Sam was never snooty about it, choosing to identify himself not as an artist, but as a woodworker — and reminding people that he flunked his high school shop class, held during the Great Depression, because he couldn’t afford to buy the supplies.
He did overcome that impoverished background to achieve monetary success — at least enough to treat Gail Fredell (at the time, head of Anderson Ranch’s woodworking program), her shop assistants and a tagalong woodworking magazine editor to ice cream in Aspen during an evening of gallery crawling — an evening where the then-80-something Sam was indefatigable in comparison to 20- and 30-somethings.
One has to wonder what the future of woodworking will now hold for those 20- and 30-somethings. Not only did Sam Maloof pass away in 2009, but so did other woodworkers with a major impact on the field, such as James Krenov and Alan Peters, and Norm Abram announced the end of an era with the cancellation of The New Yankee Workshop.
Sam Maloof was the kind of woodworker who would invite you to stop by his place some time if you were in the area — and you knew he meant it. (I never got to take advantage of this invitation, but Woodworker's Journal’s former art director, John Kelliher, did.) He was the kind of woodworker who was a great inspiration in both his work and his life. He’ll be missed.