Friday, May 1, 2015

California's Finest

The San Fernando Valley of my childhood has all but disappeared. I grew up in the middle of a walnut orchard. There were no sidewalks and around the corner was an chicken farm where we'd buy a dozen eggs still warm from the hen. Fulton Avenue now looks like any other suburban street. There are still vestiges of the old Valley, particularly a string of old ranch houses on some rustic looking streets in Tarzana and Encino but even here, modern construction is encroaching, and gaudy McMansions have sprung up between the low slung 30s ranch houses. Himself is similarly wistful about his beloved Claremont area. We drive through recently and very little is the same as it was.

We are quite unique among our friends as we were both born in Los Angeles and live here still. We grumble, Himself more frequently than myself, about development and changes in the cityscape about which we're both nostalgic. I have always had a penchant for California art and artists. Himself and I both share a love for vintage crate labels from Redlands, Claremont, Riverside and a long list of towns where now barely, if any, citrus industry remains.

The Home Savings mosaics and paintings of Millard Sheets capture the quintessential California we both romanticize. Sheets was, like us, a California native, born in the Pomona Valley. He was the chairman of the Art Department at Scripps College. Claremont, and the colleges there, are still the hub of the Inland Empire art scene.

While Sheets was on the faculty at Scripps he met a young graphic artist, Sam Maloof, another Inland Empire native, born in Chino of a large Lebanese family.  Woodworking however, was since childhood, Maloof's true passion.  It was at Scripps also that Maloof met his first wife, Alfreda who was in an MFA program there. Maloof at this point was devoting most of his energy to furniture building. Alfreda had studied and taught art in New Mexico but after marriage she devoted most of her energy into running the business side of Sam's woodworking concern.

Sam's pieces caught the attention of the celebrated industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss who commissioned Maloof to create the furnishings for his Pasadena home. Scandinavian and Shaker influences can be seen in Maloof's work but his designs are distinctive and exemplify the very best of the post-war California craft movement. Most woodworkers take great pains to conceal joinery but Maloof's work was so beautiful and ingenious he preferred to showcase it and a simple Saturn-like join characterizes most of his work.

Maloof created a spectacular compound surrounded by citrus fields in Alta Loma. He and Alfreda raised their two children there and Maloof crafted furniture in an adjacent woodshop. Maloof's work was favored by Neutra, Eames, Saarinen and other modern architects and can be seen in many of the iconic 1960s California Case Study homes. Maloof was the first craftsmen to win McArthur genius grant. He had a relationship with Jimmy Carter, himself an avid woodworker. By 2000 Maloof's home and workshop had been declared an historic monument. When the 210 freeway was slated to run directly through the Alta Loma property it was agreed to move the house brick by brick and beam by beam to it's current location at the base of the San Gabriel mountains. The towns of Etiwanda, Alta Loma and Cucamonga have merged and now the whole area is officially“Rancho Cucamonga.” Alfreda died before the move was completed. A new house, also designed by Maloof, was erected and is currently occupied by his second wife Beverly. The original house is now a museum.

A Smithsonian exhibit of Maloof's work was schedule to open 9-14-2001 but the events of September 11 led to a postponement of several months. Another retrospective at the Huntington was high point of the 2012 Pacific Standard Time collaborative celebration of California Art. Maloof died in 2009 at the age of 93. His furniture designs are still being executed in a woodshop on the same property as the museum. There is a showroom on the property. Cheeseboards sell for $300 and a breathtakingly beautiful rocker is about $15,000. The new pieces use Maloof's designs and bear the initials SM in addition to those of the current craftsmen. Pieces that were actually made by Maloof have sold for upwards of 75k.

For me, art, particularly functional art, is better appreciated in a home, rather than a museum, setting. Maloof added 16 rooms to his original six room house. The rafters are carved Douglas fir. The doors and window frames are hand carved and no two are alike. Door hinges and handles are whimsical and cunning. A hand carved kitchen counter top has built-in spice holders. A large bookcase is a time warp with Irving Wallace novels, Gail Sheehy's “Passages” and a book about Synanon. Photos of Maloof, with his thick round spectacles and the ethereal faced Alfreda in different life stages are mixed in with paintings by Millard Sheets and Milford Zornes.

Maloof and Alfreda traveled over the world and there is a rich array of crafts from every continent. Fabulous bowls, baskets and figurines create a riot of color against rich brown wood. Decorative objects of course are off limits but visitors are encouraged to touch anything made of wood. The natural oil from human hands has a salubrious effect. The wood is impossibly smooth and sensuous.

The current location of the house was chosen because there was citrus on the land. Lemon and grapefruit trees, laden with heavy fruit are surrounded by a drought tolerant garden, heady with the aroma of citrus and wild sage. Endless miles of strip malls beige housing developments and clogged freeways are worth enduring to spend a couple of hours in what's left of the best of California.

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