Perhaps the most famous and recognised living woodworker, Sam is also perhaps the kindest, most hospitable man I have ever met. He is 92 years old, still works 6 days a week and still retains a quick-witted vitality that I envy at 28!
I arrived in Sam's beautiful 7-acre compound just in time for a public tour of his original home - an incredibly beautiful, labyrinthine place that Sam built himself - adding each room as he could afford to do so. Sam and his first wife Alfreda filled their home with art and artefacts from many different places and cultures, in addition to being full of Sam's furniture. Sadly, photos aren't allowed, so I can't show you first hand what it is like. You'll just have to visit...
After the tour, the welcoming staff took me through to the workshops to meet Sam himself. I should say that I had contacted them well ahead of time to arrange this, but what followed was entirely unexpected. As I spent a little time with him, he was sometimes tough (as when I said that some of his tables reminded me of Nakashima's work), sometimes forgetful, but at his centre he emanates love: love for his work, for his home and the art that he has filled it with, love for the people who surround him - 'the boys' (the craftsmen who work with Sam), his Foundation staff, and particularly his second wife Beverly; and his love for people in general.
Like many older people, Sam told story after story about his fascinating life and the people he has encountered. He showed his work with pride and humility - feeling no need to say how wonderful it is, but exuberant about the process, the details and nuances.
Sam is easily the most prolific person I have ever met - not only does he make over 40 pieces per year for clients, he hand built his first house, design his new private home, and fit it with a beautiful spiral staircase - he has filled them both with a mind-boggling amount of his work (and the work of other artists). He is a force of nature: making things out of wood flows from him, and he is unstoppable (even at 92!).
As the day began to get late, and the staff had all gone home, I asked Sam if there was a motel nearby where I could stay. Without missing a beat, he invited me to stay with him and Beverly. Jumping directly into my national stereotype, I was full of "Oh, I couldn't possibly" and "Are you sure?" for about five minutes, and then accepted his wonderful offer of hospitality. There was a couple there with us at the time, and the husband (a hobbyist woodworker) couldn't quite believe what he was seeing - neither could I! Me staying with Sam Maloof!? Things only got more unbelievable: after giving the three of us a tour of his new home, that evening Sam and Beverly took me out for dinner at one of their favourite restaurants! Of course I asked if they would let me pay for dinner to say thank you for their extreme kindness, but I was swatted aside firmly by them. In fact, the only thing that they would let me get was 50 cents worth of the ice-cream! I realised that gentle Sam may be, but you don't argue with him.
So what did I learn from this man? I asked what his advice for me would be, and he said "Ooh, that's a hard one." But four things I learned:
1. Never go into debt. This was a real point of honour for Sam, and a good lesson for me.
2. Be in control. I felt that key to Sam's success was the certainty that he is in control of what he does, and he will not be dictated to by anyone. If someone wants a piece of his work, then they let him do it - no quibbling about details. He is the artist, it is his work, and if a customer doesn't like his work then they shouldn't come to him. Again, I felt that he is an iron fist in a velvet glove - he is absolutely sure of himself, and doesn't need to project anything.
3. Work hard. Like I said, Sam is prolific, and has become successful through hard work. He still spends 6 days a week in the workshop, but it is no burden to him - it is his home.
4. Be kind. Lastly and most importantly, I learned that being generous and hospitable to others is a transformative experience. At the end of the day, that is why Sam has a 6-8 year waiting list - because people love him, and not without reason. As my experience with Sam shows, being kind to others is just a great way to be. So Sam is kind, and has received kindness in return, from most of the people he has met and worked for. I couldn't believe that he has never had a bad experience with his clients - everyone has paid, no-one has ever sent a piece back. And you could say that this is down to luck, but I think that Sam has received what he gives.
I think that I could best sum Sam up by saying that he doesn't try to be or do anything, he just is who he is and does what he does.