Sam Maloof, 93, a designer and woodworker whose furniture was initially prized for its simplicity and practicality by Southern Californian homeowners in the 1950s and later valued for its beauty and timelessness by collectors, museum curators, and U.S. presidents, died Thursday at his home in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
Mr. Maloof, whose career began six decades ago as the American modernism movement was becoming popular, put usefulness before artistry and turned down multimillion-dollar offers to mass-produce his original designs. He worked out of his home workshop, shaping hardwood, one part at a time, into rocking chairs, cradles, and hutches that were shorn of unnecessary adornments.
His hi-fi cabinets, cork-top coffee tables, and other modern pieces were praised by home-magazine editors and trend-setting interior designers. His walnut chairs and bar stools were installed in several of the so-called Case Study Houses - the modernist, experimental houses in the Los Angeles area built between 1945 and 1966 by Richard Neutra, Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, and other progressive architects.
"He was trying to make other people appreciate what it was like to live with a handcrafted object in which there was a kind of union between maker, object, and owner," said Jeremy Adamson, who wrote The Furniture of Sam Maloof, published in 2001 to coincide with a retrospective exhibition of Mr. Maloof's work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery in Washington.
Former President Jimmy Carter, a woodwork hobbyist and friend who visited Mr. Maloof's home, signed a photograph "to my woodworking hero."
Carter and subsequent presidents used Mr. Maloof's signature rocking chairs in the White House. Elongated rockers on the chairs look sculptural, but they were made to keep the chairs from tipping over.
Mr. Maloof was the first craftsman to receive the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" grant, in 1985. The self-taught designer would select a piece of wood - walnut was his favorite because of its texture and durability - and cut out parts freehand on a band saw.
Instead of following plans, he matched an image in his head. He would then refine the shape with hand tools to make the finished piece of furniture comfortable, functional, and beautiful.