"Ray Charles said he could feel that my furniture had soul. His host told him, 'That's a chair made by Sam Maloof.' And Ray said, 'I know this man.... I know this man.'"
When he began working as a furniture-maker in 1948, red oak from railway crates and plywood from construction sites were the only woods Sam Maloof could afford. Now, nearly 1500 handcrafted pieces later, the 79-year-old son of Lebanese immigrants rasps and sands to international acclaim in his workshop east of Los Angeles.
Maloof's crafting of black walnut, rosewood, ebony and teak has earned him a unique place among American master furniture-makers. A Maloof rocking chair, his signature piece, is the first work by a living craftsman ever to be included in the White House collection of American furniture. Maloof's sculptured cradles, chests, tables and music stands also grace the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum, of Art, the Los Angeles County Art Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Though Maloof won a MacArthur Foundation "genius award" in 1985, the same year the California legislature declared him a "living treasure," and although connoisseurs travel around the world to meet him, the most lasting impression Sam Maloof leaves with a visitor is that of a profoundly humble man.
His house is a 22-room historic landmark with an adjoining workshop, all built and furnished by himself.
"A lot of woodworkers have signs that say 'by appointment only,'" says Maloof, who doesn't. "It sounds as though you're so important you can't be bothered, and I don't feel that way. I enjoy the human contact. It's part of the work—only it isn't work, really."
He runs his fingers over the grain of a handmade table as he talks. Compact and fit, he looks far younger than his years, and moves with the casual ease of a jazz player.
"So much furniture today is so awfully cold—meaningless, really. I feel strongly that one of the most important things about a piece of furniture is the soul the woodworker invested in it," he says.
Maloof was born in Chino, California, in 1916, to Nasif Solimon Maloof and Anise Nader Maloof, who arrived from the mountain village of Douma in northern Lebanon among the first Arabic-speakers in California. Even as a boy, he says, his carved wooden toys astonished his family.
Today, he's still astonishing those who see or use his work. Slip into one of his graceful, long-tailed rocking chairs. Its low hardwood seat is so marvelously shaped and sanded it actually feels soft. The products of four decades of intuition and slow refinement, the cant and proportion of the polished ebony are perfectly formed for the human body. Exquisitely balanced, the chair will rock for four and a half minutes on a single push.
Such perfection commands its price: A Maloof rocker sells for around $12,000.
Asked how he arrived at the design, Maloof claims to have no secrets. "I didn't engineer it or anything. I just did it by feel and by the way the curve looked. I know there are formulas, but a lot of times formulas don't work. It's a process of trial and error, really," he says. "Working toward perfection has to be a part of anything one does. You've got to put yourself into it."
San Francisco photojournalist George Baramki Azar is the author of Palestine: A Photographic Journey, published by the University of California Press.