The master furniture-maker filled his sprawling redwood house in Alta Loma, east of Los Angeles, with a profusion of pieces that he created in his adjoining workshop or collected with his first wife, Alfreda. Many items — paintings, sculptures, ceramics, fiber art, enamels — were produced by friends in the artistic community that blossomed around the nearby college town of Claremont after World War II.
The residence's role as gathering place makes it what Nelson calls "a wonderful central metaphor" for an exhibition examining "Sam's artistic evolution in the context of his community." "The House That Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley, 1945-1985," which opened Saturday, features 35 pieces by Maloof and more than 80 by nearly three dozen artists including Millard Sheets, Karl Benjamin, Phil Dike, Harrison McIntosh, Albert Stewart and Jean and Arthur Ames.
"These were artists and craftspersons who shared a happy, if perhaps quirky, harmony," says Nelson, who curated the show. "The group's most distinctive characteristics were their diversity and tolerance of different perspectives."
Nelson hopes Maloof — whose elegantly simple creations are prized by homeowners, collectors and curators — will attract a broader audience to "House," which is part of the Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time celebration of local art history. "People can learn more about the rich scene that was Claremont. What was happening there laid the groundwork for many of the developments in art in Southern California."
Why the postwar Pomona Valley? The area was "an attractive place for GIs looking to start new lives," says Mary MacNaughton, director of Scripps College's Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery and an associate professor of art history. Artists were drawn to schools such as Scripps, Pomona College and what is now Claremont Graduate University. "They felt there was room to grow and experiment," she says.
Nelson says the "guiding spirit" was Sheets, the prolific artist, director of exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Fair and head of Scripps' art department, where "his vision was to invite practicing artists in all disciplines to teach in one unified environment."
In 1946, Maloof, an Army vet from Chino with a graphics background, was hired as a studio assistant by Sheets, who helped introduce him to the Claremont community. When the self-taught woodworker decided to design and build furniture as a career, his artistic aspirations were buoyed by his new colleagues, with whom he traded ideas and pieces of work. "The respect they had for craft supported Sam's own vision throughout his life," Nelson says. "Many of them also shared his dedication to hand workmanship, simplicity and natural materials."
In 1948, Maloof had married art student Alfreda Ward and moved to Ontario. Five years later, the couple bought a little house in Alta Loma that Sam gradually replaced with a 10,000-square-foot hand-crafted home, workshop and repository of treasures.
Even as his reputation grew, Maloof — aided by a team of assistants — preferred to create individual pieces for individual people, declining opportunities to design for mass production.
Sam and Alfreda's collection kept growing too, fed by gifts, exchanges with other artists and purchases, many of which were made to encourage promising talent.
Alfreda died in 1998. A decade ago, the state moved the Maloof home-workshop to another spot in Alta Loma (which is now part of Rancho Cucamonga) to accommodate the 210 Freeway extension. As part of the relocation agreement, a nonprofit foundation now owns the site and buildings, including the original house — which has become a museum — and a newer house, where Maloof's second wife, Beverly, lives.
"Sam and Alfreda's house is extraordinary," Nelson says. "However, the totality of what's on display can be overwhelming. We've tried to show each object unto itself, and then to show it in other contexts."
Nelson, who has studied Pomona Valley artists for years, says the exhibition "became a reality thanks to support from the Getty Foundation as part of PST." The show, which draws on works collected by the couple and from public and private collections, includes what he calls "a core group of Claremont artists, as well as an extended circle of Sam's friends and colleagues."
It presents a lively mix of media — Maloof's rich woods joining, say, Otto and Gertrud Natzler's ceramics or Betty Davenport Ford's terra-cotta boar.
Some groupings suggest domestic scenes: A "dining area" features a Maloof chair, a Rupert Deese ceramic coffee set once owned by Dike, bowls by ceramist McIntosh and wood turner Bob Stocksdale from the Maloof home, Stewart's wooden herons and two Doug McClellan oils.
"House" also chronicles Maloof's journey from early furniture-maker to leader of the studio craft movement. Works include a round plywood-walnut coffee table and "string" chair from the '50s, three of his signature rockers and a free-standing cradle.
A resource center offers recorded artist interviews and a glimpse of Maloof's construction process — plus a chair that visitors can sit in. "You don't really have a sense of what Sam was about unless you feel what it's like," Nelson says.
Photographs show Maloof with national dignitaries and Pomona Valley pals. "These underscore his connectedness to his community but also the multifaceted nature of his life," says Nelson. "Wherever he went, he talked about his friends and colleagues. He was proud of being from that area."