Apple Pie, Ice Cream, and a Rocker

Written by Bill Baldwin

Bill Baldwin Sam Maloof Chair

It was the late nineties. I was in my office and came around the corner to find the famous woodworker Sam Maloof at our counter. He started to introduce himself, but I stopped him … “I very much know who you are sir.”

The 210 freeway was destined to run through his house and compound, and despite the lobbying of two former presidents (Carter and Bush), the route was certain. Sam explained that the government had given an estimate as to the value of all the buildings on his property but admitted to not having the expertise to truly evaluate it. The Maloof home is more organic art than typical architecture with hand-made wooden hinges and locks on all the doors and an almost botanically evolving floorplan.

“I am very familiar with your work,” Sam said. “Can you help me with this?”

I called a former employee who had relocated to the east coast, an expert woodworker in his own right and quite a fan of Sam. He flew out and we spent three weeks at the Maloof compound – documenting, measuring and estimating what it would take to recreate each minute detail.

The creative energy in the workshop and home was visceral, filled with the smell of airborne maple and walnut sawdust above the din of craftsmen at work, the collection of local and Native American art and the grace and joy in Sam’s relationship with his soulmate Freda.

This inspiring atmosphere filled me like helium to a balloon and I would float back home each night and write, cook, and play music to reconcile the artistic inoculation I was receiving. My friend Bob Small and I were starting our artisanal ice cream company “Dr Bob’s” at the same time, and I would make apple-cranberry pies at home and bring in samples of our first ice creams for Sam and his team to taste.

About two weeks in, Sam spied me staring at one of his legendary rockers in fiddleback maple and ebony.

“I’ve watched you watch this chair.” His eyes always electric behind his glasses. “Do you like it?”

“I am making one of these in a few weeks,” he continued. “Would you like me to make one for you as well?”

I was truly and ever so rarely speechless. To me, this was Picasso asking if you would like a painting. The wait time to get on the list for a Sam Maloof rocker was legendary. Rumors of several years were common.

Some six weeks later, I got a call from one of Sam’s woodworkers. “Look, we have made the two chairs. One of them is truly special and the guy who is getting one of them is flying in from New York to see his chair… Get your checkbook and get over here now.”

So, I race over there, thinking “Dear God, I hope I don’t walk in there, point at what I think is the stunning chair and hear ‘No, you imbecile, it’s the other chair.’”

The “special” chair was obvious. The grain and color looked like it was plugged into an outlet. I just stood and took it in for quite some time.

I finally turned to Sam and his woodworkers.

“Listen, I was honored beyond any hope to get a chair, let alone my choice between them, I don’t get it.”

Larry White, one of Sam’s best artists looked at me. He held his hands out like a balance scale and offered with a wink:

“Apple pie and ice cream vs no apple pie and ice cream.”

The chair has been on tour several times and was featured at Sam’s Smithsonian show as well as the Smithsonian book. I have saved some maple from the chairs’ construction to make a box that will contain this story. It and the chair will be in a trust moving forward.

Damn, I’m glad I brought the pie and ice cream…

“Shaping Wood, Shaping Artists” presented a new perspective on the art and craft of master woodworker Sam Maloof. To see more of Maloof’s work and see Bill’s chair on display, visit the exhibit at Ontario Museum of History & Art and the Chaffey Community Museum of Art.

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