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Docent Dennis Hayes shows off a 1950s dining room set made by Sam Maloof in Maloof’s handcrafted Rancho Cucamonga home. The late woodworker’s compound was being toured Sunday by visitors taking part in Palm Springs’ Modernism Week. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Docent Dennis Hayes shows off a 1950s dining room set made by Sam Maloof in Maloof’s handcrafted Rancho Cucamonga home. The late woodworker’s compound was being toured Sunday by visitors taking part in Palm Springs’ Modernism Week. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
David Allen
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Design lovers at had an array of midcentury homes in and around Palm Springs to explore, including homes associated with Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra or dreamed up by architects Albert Frey and John Lautner.

Yet on Sunday, 26 architecture fans made the journey from glamorous Palm Springs to slightly less glamorous Rancho Cucamonga to see Modernism Week’s most distant attraction: .

They spent $145 to board a luxury coach at the Palm Springs Art Museum and travel 75 miles to the late woodworker’s home, studio and gardens for docent-led tours, plus lunch, before heading back to the desert playland.

I decided I should be there too — albeit by driving directly from Claremont rather than by chartering a bus.

Shamefully, despite all my years at the newspaper, and all the stories I’d read about Maloof and his house, I’d never visited. It was firmly on the list of places I really ought to see sometime. You know how it is.

Here was my excuse to go: Tourists would be visiting on a specific day and from a specific place. It might be fun, I thought, to see the site with an out-of-town crowd. And my pride wouldn’t let them beat me to a tourist attraction in my own backyard.

First, some background.

, who died in 2009 at age 93, was a celebrated furniture designer and woodworker who stubbornly insisted on making his furniture himself rather than outsourcing his designs for a manufacturer to mass-produce.

Presidents Carter and Reagan had Maloof rocking chairs, which are known for their sculptural elegance. The first craftsman to be awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, Maloof work is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

His 1953 house, expanded in stages over decades, is on the National Register. To make way for the 210 Freeway extension, the house was disassembled in 2000 and then reassembled three miles north at 5131 Carnelian St. It’s now owned by the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts, a nonprofit, and is open for tours.

  • Dennis Hayes leads a tour in Sam Maloof’s handcrafted Rancho...

    Dennis Hayes leads a tour in Sam Maloof’s handcrafted Rancho Cucamonga home. The late woodworker’s compound was being toured Sunday by visitors from Palm Springs. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Docent Dennis Hayes points out a detail before visitors enter...

    Docent Dennis Hayes points out a detail before visitors enter the Sam and Alfreda Maloof home on Sunday. The late woodworker’s compound was begun in 1953 and gradually expanded over the years. The exterior of bare wood is unusual in Southern California. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • A visitor tries out a Sam Maloof lowback chair on...

    A visitor tries out a Sam Maloof lowback chair on a tour of Maloof’s home and gardens on Sunday. Even without upholstery, a Maloof wooden chair is restful and seems to conform to the body. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Docent Dennis Hayes talks about a 1950s dining room chair...

    Docent Dennis Hayes talks about a 1950s dining room chair and table made by Sam Maloof in Maloof’s handcrafted Rancho Cucamonga home on Sunday. The compound was being toured by visitors taking part in Palm Springs’ Modernism Week. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Visitors from Palm Springs are welcomed to the Maloof home...

    Visitors from Palm Springs are welcomed to the Maloof home and gardens Sunday by the Maloof Foundation’s executive director, Jim Rawitsch. They had traveled by charter bus to Rancho Cucamonga. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Docent Dennis Hayes shows off a 1950s dining room set...

    Docent Dennis Hayes shows off a 1950s dining room set made by Sam Maloof in Maloof’s handcrafted Rancho Cucamonga home. The late woodworker’s compound was being toured Sunday by visitors taking part in Palm Springs’ Modernism Week. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

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On Sunday, I got to the Maloof compound early and chatted with Jim Rawitsch, the foundation’s executive director since 2013.

The foundation has been linked to Modernism Week the past six years, including presentations in Palm Springs and two previous bus tours.

I remarked that Midcentury Modern conjures up images of flat-roofed homes made of steel and glass, not hewn from bare wood.

Rawitsch replied that Maloof was practicing his craft simultaneously with the Midcentury Modern movement and that his pieces “humanize” the austere settings.

“To have things made from sculpted, organic materials within the steel, glass and concrete is what makes it livable and true,” Rawitsch said.

When the bus arrived, I joined the visitors in the Maloof courtyard. Guests were a mix of Coachella Valley residents and visitors from out of state, including Illinois and Tennessee, many of whom are regulars at Modernism Week and wanted to see something different.

In his orientation remarks, Rawitsch said the Maloof property is a Smithsonian affiliate and among a network of that allow visitors to see where people like Georgia O’Keefe created their work.

We split into two groups. One group went to the gallery to learn about the woodworking of a Maloof contemporary, Jack Rogers Hopkins, aided by a documentary and guidance from David Hopkins, the artist’s son.

Meanwhile, my group saw a short introductory film about Maloof’s life, then got a tour of the house. Our guide was Dennis Hayes, a longtime docent and woodworker who met Maloof in the early 1980s.

I’d read about the house and its handmade aesthetic. Writers tended to get poetic about the place, fixating on the wooden door latches and hinges. Nothing had quite prepared me for the effect of stepping inside, though.

It was no fantasyland, just a modest, but utterly distinctive, residence where nearly everything is made of wood, including kitchen countertops. (If it were scientifically possible to make a stove or refrigerator out of wood, Maloof might have done it.)

A 1950s dining room set was where Maloof and his wife, Alfreda, ate, and also where they met with clients who wanted Maloof to make them a chair, a table, a hutch, a cradle.

“The whole house,” Hayes said, “was his showroom.”

Rather than wood, the floors are made of bricks, which shift slightly when stepped on. Some windows are stained glass. Paintings and pottery by Maloof friends like Millard Sheets, Sue Hertel and Harrison McIntosh decorate walls and tables.

Hayes encouraged us to run our fingers over the furniture. Chair backs were so smooth, fingers glide over their surface.

“I want you all to sit in this chair,” Hayes said at tour’s end, indicating one lowback chair.

We took turns resting a few moments.

“It fits,” one tall man remarked, impressed. “It fits really nice. You can feel it contour.”

I’d been lucky enough to sit in a Maloof rocker once . It was hard to believe how comfortable a simple wooden chair could be.

After lunch, the two groups reversed tours. Meanwhile, I chatted with Larry White, Maloof’s first employee, who was teaching a workshop, and with Mike Johnson, a later Maloof employee, who has the contract to make furniture from Maloof designs.

In mid-afternoon, we all converged in the courtyard again. A man from Chicago said he’d heard of Maloof for decades and had enjoyed the visit. A man from Washington state, who was there with his wife and sister, said he’d had to restrain himself from sitting in every chair he saw.

Two women passed me. “That house,” one enthused, “was really something.”

Diane Williams, a Maloof volunteer and retired city council member, told me she’d had trouble believing there would be interest the first time the bus tour idea had been broached.

“What makes you think people are going to come out here from Palm Springs? That’s a pretty cool place,” Williams recalled thinking. “But here they are.”

And when the bus returned, there they went.

David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, three handmade efforts. Email dallen@scng.com, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.

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