An eye and heart for detail

An eye and heart for detail
A bolt that was once a branch is one of the carved latches — no two alike — throughout the house. (Gina Ferazzi / LAT)
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 éminence 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.

In his book "The Furniture of Sam Maloof," Jeremy Adamson, former senior curator for the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, described the house as "a living monument to the creative impulse," where visitors have "an almost magical experience."

While the labor and the aesthetic are Maloof's — "eye, hand and heart" is his motto — the inspiration is one he shared with his late wife, Alfreda, whose sensibilities were shaped by Native American artists when she was an arts administrator with what was then-U.S. Indian Service. After a while, she gave up fretting about whether the house would ever be "finished." She understood that her husband relaxed the same way he worked — with a piece of fine-grained wood in one hand and a tool in the other.

Maloof is a lifelong champion of the idea that working with one's hands is moral and laudable. "I don't consider myself an artist," he once wrote. "I never have. I'm a furniture maker. I'm a woodworker. And I think 'woodworker' is a very good word, and I like the word, it's an honest word."

To those who look at his furniture wistfully and only wish that they could make a settee so beautiful and sturdy, Maloof replies, "How do you know until you try? Just do it. It doesn't matter how good it is if it brings you satisfaction, and these things get better over time It's a pity that many people don't trust their own judgment."

Maloof trimmed his doorways with redwood to give them a little dimension. Some early examples in the house are nothing but butt-joined strips of molding nailed over stucco, the nail holes not even filled. This work is beyond the ability of almost no one.

Indeed, a frequent comment overheard by Carlotta Mellon, executive director of the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation, when she leads tours of the house, is: "Hey, I could do that."

Later, as you move from room to room, you see his ambitions and resources expand: Door trims are joined by beveled dovetails. Doorknobs are replaced by carved latches, no two alike. Window frames are mortise and tenon.

"I don't use drawings when I'm adding onto the house," Maloof explains. "I just hold up a 2-by-4 and think, 'That looks pretty good,' and I nail it up."

For a portion of his floor, he layered loose paver bricks over industrial felt on top of a cement slab. The bricks give underfoot, clicking or "singing" as Maloof says. Here and there are leaded glass widows, some made by Maloof and others salvaged. Bold colors on just a few walls accent the wood. A massive black-iron hood extends from the ceiling to shroud the fireplace and radiate heat. A pot-bellied stove stands in a nook of bright blue tile. If he felt a room closing in, Maloof popped up the roof, adding a dormer or even a jaunty pyramid.

A wood staircase leads to his favorite spot, a clerestory tower with a daybed built into a nook. Overhead, a massive limb from an avocado tree forms a decorative beam. The limb broke off of a beloved tree, and Maloof felt it was owed more than to become firewood. He calls it his "tree house" room.

The house grows more extravagant with each addition. There is a mezzanine over the living room, leading to a sunlit showroom. All along are displays of some of Maloof's collection of crafts and art — Native American pottery that Alfreda loved so much, plus turned bowls, sculpture and paintings, photographs, basketry, textiles, Kachina dolls, carved carousel horses, a wood-strip canoe. These pieces represent half a century of friendships that Maloof has cultivated among America's community of artisans and artists.

Maloof's own furniture, of course, is abundant. Tables, chairs, a stool for changing his shoes, a toddler-size rocker he made for his grandson, a reading stand, a spectacular music stand.

At the long end of the J floor plan is the most photographed place in the house, a wood-paneled, two-story room built around a fantastic spiral staircase, made of wood salvaged from shipping crates. From a central pillar, carved steps jut forth unsupported, like ascending dragonfly wings — a feat of craftsmanship and engineering that seldom leaves anyone remarking, "Well, I could do that."

Before he began this dwelling, Maloof lived in a house built by Kaiser Steel Co. as part of a factory town for its workers in Fontana. Short on money, he borrowed tools and scavenged materials. Using throwaway plywood retrieved from cement forms, he built all his furnishings. And soon enough, a photographer from Better Homes and Gardens came calling.

"For a few hundred dollars, we transformed that house completely," Maloof recalls. In 1951, the magazine offered copies of his house plans for 25 cents. Readers were advised that "any unskilled handyman" could bring some artistry to a tract house.

Former Los Angeles Times architectural and design critic John Dreyfuss, the son of industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, whose furniture commissions in the early 1950s helped launch Maloof's career, uses a child-rearing analogy to explain Maloof's house: "Grew up is what the house did, much like an infant, turning toddler, turning adolescent, turning adult," he says. "Because Freda and Sam parented their house, nourishing it by adding to it to suit their needs and wants, the place has an almost human warmth."

Sometimes all the flattery seems to overwhelm Maloof. Just yesterday, he recalls, a woman walked through the house and was so moved that she wept. And she wasn't the first. Why? Maloof shakes his head in bewilderment. "I don't know what to say."

Yes, his furniture is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian, the New York Metropolitan Museum or Art, the White House. Yes, you've probably seen Ronald Reagan pictured on a Maloof rocker, and Jimmy Carter traveled here to meet the master face to face. But still, each time a customer arrives to pick up a piece of furniture after long years on a waiting list, Maloof feels that old uneasiness. "Gosh, I hope they like it."

It is frequently observed that the surroundings of artists, of creative people in general, become extensions of themselves. Maloof's residence is evidence of that and of something more. The toil that goes into a home like this is plainly visible. What the house gives back can only be felt. Call it energy.

"I have often wondered what I would do if I had to drive to work in an industrial area," Maloof wrote in "Sam Maloof: Woodworker," his 1983 coffee table book. "Would I be turning out the type of thing I do now?"

The house that he built with Alfreda at his side was an investment in his imagination. He is doing the same now with his second wife, Beverly, at their adjacent home — planning to build new kitchen counters and replace any of a dozen other things, just for starters.

Life, says Maloof, "is too short to live without things that are pleasing. Life without beauty would be very dull."

This is work that pays dividends, not only in beauty and comfort but as a self-generating wellspring of inspiration for the craftsman himself.

And for those who cross his threshold.