Beauty – Sam Maloof

Last post, showed pictures of natural beauty. Here, let’s discuss the Incarnational role of the human artist working with natural beauty.

Every since I found out that my name saint, St. Joseph, was a carpenter, I’ve always loved things made of wood, and have even made a few myself.  Mostly, though, I’ve just paid a somewhat heightened attention to wooden things, enjoying that sacramental relationship wherein a good craftsman takes something beautiful but hidden – the wood within a tree – and makes something even more beautiful from it. For example:

A Sam Maloof rocker. It is said to be as comnortable as it is beautiful.

This beautiful walnut and ebony rocker made by the legendary Sam Maloof (once called a ‘rock star’ of the craft world – sometimes, even *a hundred people* showed up at his personal appearances!) . This work stirs my soul – the more you look at it, the more details you take in, the more beautiful it is revealed to be:

In addition to the beautiful and subtle wood grain, note especially the organic way Maloof joins the upright to the chair back, and the three perfectly sized and placed ebony plugs, which could be the ends of dowels, but I think Maloof actually used them to cover screws (making him a bit of a heretic)

Chair building is like shipbuilding on land: unlike a chest of drawers or a table, the logic of the shape and the structural requirements of the joints flows from the unique stresses the chair or ship is subject to. In a cabinet, the stresses tend to be unidirectional or at least straight, as it were. You make a solid box that doesn’t often go anywhere (and is handled carefully when moved), and focus on making drawers and doors open well. For a chair, especially a rocking chair, one has to understand how human beings use chairs, how we drag them about, plop ourselves into them, lean back in them, rock them – much more like a ship tossed about on the waves than like a staid, square bookcase.

The chair above expresses the ideals of light weight – it looks almost airy, a seat suspended spindly limbs – with a sublime expression of functionality – every curve and joint is designed for comfort, strength and beauty.  In ancient times, ship builders would lay out the keel on the beach, and add the structural pieces largely by eye. Specking out curvy 3-dimensional pieces before CAD/CAM was difficult and, lacking 3-D printers, kind of pointless. Instead, by feel, the shipbuilder chose the materials, held it up to where it was to go, and worked them until they fit – with an eye to the stresses the ship would undergo once out at sea. In the same way, Maloof has some templates for some parts, but cuts and assembles others by eye. (In one of his books, he casually mentions that he drills the back spindle holes in the seat by eye – he just looks at the seat, imagines where the 5 spindles need to go to look and work best, chooses an angle (nothing is 90 degrees on a chair) and drills. When working with rosewood, which is about as flexible as wrought iron, he’s got maybe a millimeter of leeway – yet he’s cranked out dozens of these chairs. Dude was a woodworking god.)

Here’s how Maloof solves a standard woodworking problem:

close up of jointSay you need to join a leg to a seat. The leg is vertical, the seat horizontal, which means their respective strengths and weaknesses do not line up as one would ideally hope. Walnut is strong under compression in the direction of the grain, but comparatively weak against splitting along the grain. So the chair seat is designed so that the grain runs front to back, as the stress – especially in a rocker – tends much more to run front to back than side to side.

The standard solution for legs is to make the end of the leg into a cylinder, drill a hole, and shove the cylinder into it. A common refinement is to cut a slot into the top of the leg, which gives the cylinder a little give for insertion and provides a place to insert a very slightly too large wedge into the slot, thus forcing the cylinder tight against the hole, carefully arranging the grains of the various pieces so that the resulting forces do not tend to split them.

What Maloof does here is take that solution, and make it beautiful: the wedge is cut oversized and rounded, the chair seat itself is notched a bit, and the result is elegant and pleasing, while retaining full functionality.

God is foremost a creator. Man, in an Incarnational universe, becomes more holy and god-like when he creates. But as man must work with the materials God has created from nothing, all our works insofar as they are beautiful, give glory to God. Our role is not to merely praise God by seeing His glory in His works, but to also give him praise by our works – which always, by necessity, are the re-presenting  to Him of his own works as understood and manipulated by one of His greatest works, the free human mind.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

2 thoughts on “Beauty – Sam Maloof”

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