Maloof on Design
In 2005 I visited Sam Maloof to do a new twist on the usual profile article. Instead of asking him to tell his life story yet again, I asked him to give advice to other aspiring designer/makers. He was hesitant because he didn’t have formal training and his method was basically to follow his own intuition and keep improving the same pieces as he built them again and again, but the article turned out great anyway. It ran in FWW #179 as “Sam Maloof on Design,” and ended up being more about Sam’s design life and decisions and less what he would tell others, though he had some great advice, too. The following Q&As were cut from the article for space reasons. I stumbled onto them this past week, while I was putting together my thoughts on this man who meant so much to me. I enjoyed reading them again, and I hope you do too.
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– NEW: Christiana’s remembers Sam Maloof. Read more
AC: Do you ever adjust a design for a client’s home decor–so the piece will go better with its surroundings?
SM: If the architecture is really heavy, then I can beef the pieces up. I wouldn’t want a piece of stick furniture in where they have a great big heavy sofa. I don’t tell them what I’m doing, but I just do it. Just recently I made a table that was very heavy—beautiful wood—and I did it that way because I knew it would fit in the house a lot better. If I’d made the same table spindly, it would look lost. I don’t know just how to say it, but one piece helps another piece.
AC: I notice you don’t use any metal hardware that’s visible. Why is that?
SM: I just don’t like hardware. On doors sometimes I do have a rod, a steel rod that goes into a steel T-nut. I used a piano hinge, but I didn’t like it and I thought, how could I do this? Then I thought I could cut it and run a dado and put the bar in, and then fill it. And I thought, “Well, there’s a better way of doing it.” But I just don’t like the hardware at all.”
AC: Do you think it clashes with the wood?
SM: For me, it does. Other people, they’ll spend hundreds of hundreds of dollars on hardware; I just don’t really like it.
AC: How did you come to choose walnut, and why do you use it in so much of your work?
SM: Well, it was one of the woods that I could get a hold of easily. When I started a lot of lumberyards they’d have walnut, they’d have mahogany, you couldn’t find curly maple or birdseye maple because it was all mixed in [with the regular maple]. If you bought 100 feet and some of it was curly maple–fine–then all of a sudden they got wise and started separating it [and charging more]. But I liked the way walnut worked. I liked the feel of it. I liked the warmth. It was a very friendly wood to work. Now I do I use maple–it’s as hard as a rock–it is not a friendly wood. Macassar ebony is not a friendly wood. Zircote is very unfriendly. But I would say over 60% of the work that I do now is walnut.
AC: Are there aesthetic reasons too?
SM: I love the feel of it. I do not use quartersawn, but I like the flat cut. You get beautiful grain. Cherry is another wood that I like; it works very easy too.
AC: You don’t seem to avoid walnut’s sapwood, as some folks do. What is your thinking there?
SM: I like sapwood where I can match it. I don’t like when you have a piece of dark wood and you push a piece of sapwood up against it. And I don’t like to stain it. I’ve never stained anything. At first I used to cut it out and then suddenly I thought really I like it. Also, the wood was expensive and I didn’t want to waste it. So if two pieces made a beautiful juncture, I’d go ahead and use it. But I would not use it unless the client said it was okay.
This might be the kind of table base Maloof would make thicker or thinner to suit the room it was destined for.
He previewed each table base on the floor of his shop, and he made adjustments to the template if needed.
Maloof loved walnut. It is beautiful, readily available, and works easily. And he wasn't afraid to include sapwood, as you can see on the side of this beautiful chest of drawers.