Hard Times and Art

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The master furniture maker Sam Maloof, who died last month at the age of 93, is remembered in Janet Eastman's  tribute in the Los Angeles Times. The son of Lebanese immigrants and a professional calligrapher, Maloof was a World War Two veteran who quit his first postwar job after the birth of his first child in 1949 because the salary was too low, then persisted 20 years before turning profit as an independent cabinetmarker. His work was coveted by celebrities and US Presidents, yet even with assistants he limited his output to about 100 pieces a year and refused lucrative offers to license plans that could never be executed to his superlative, intuitive standards, without written plans or metal hardware. His business card always read simply "woodworker."

Maloof owed the start of his fame to postwar economic difficulties:

The newlyweds didn't have money to furnish their first small house in Ontario, so Maloof designed and built an efficient room divider with an attached table and benches. He used discarded fir plywood and oak shipping crates and borrowed tools. Soon friends asked for copies of his no-frills furniture. . . .

Within two years of being self-employed, Better Homes and Gardens published photographs and plans of Maloof's furniture to show readers how to decorate economically.

Maloof ultimately prospered in the marketplace because he cared so much for his work and so little for the market. As it turned out, the new wealth of the postwar era, especially in Southern California, created appreciative patrons. But I doubt Maloof would have abandoned his calling in their absence. We hear a lot about the thousands of hours of practice it takes to become an expert. But the masters have something more, a willingness to do the unreasonable in the cause of the thing itself.

Photo credit: Wikipedia


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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