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2421 days ago
My Summary of the 2006 Western Design Conference Show in Cody, WY
For the Lumberjock.com website Forum
By M.A. DeCou, updated 9-15-2007
This is a picture of Sam Maloof after his lecture. He said that he is 91 years old and still works in the shop 8-10 hours a day, 6 days a week. He was a small guy, but when you’re “bigger than life,” it doesn’t matter.
He said he has a 5-6 year backlog of work, and customers have to wait in line. There is no way to buy your way up the list, whether with money, celebrity, or past order history. This was an interesting part of his lecture, as you could sense that he has a very hard time telling folks either “no”, “maybe”, or “you have to wait.” He said that when his first wife was alive, she would handle that discussion with customers. Since her death, he has hired a manager (Roz I think he said her name was) that runs the phone, takes the orders, and tells people “no” when they want to jump their name up the list.
He also said that “Roz” controls the visitation by woodworkers, and tells them to come back at the specific “studio open” hours. He said that at times he looks at the window of the shop while he is working and sees someone peeking in trying to get a look in the shop outside of the “studio open” hours, and so he waves them in. His heart was shown in these stories that he likes to help woodworkers, loves the customer’s he works for, and that he genuinely wants to please everyone, something which is impossible to do for one man with such a following.
He showed a recent 30 minute documentary video of his work, life, and employees. In the documentary, he told one story of some special Walnut wood he bought from his supplier. A short while after the purchase, the wood seller called him and said that he needed the wood back, that “Brad Pitt” wanted it for his house. Sam asked, “Who the hell is Brad Pitt, and ‘no’, the wood is not for sale.” This story raised a huge laughter and applause from the listeners.
Sam said he has about 500,000 board feet of wood in 6 different buildings. He said he has to live long enough to use it all. I hope he does.
I understood that he has Willed the business, shop, and house, to his foundation, which will be owned by 6 people equally, His wife, son, Roz, and the three employees in the shop. He said that his son does not work with him now, as he would only work with Sam if Sam would retire and step out of the business. To which, Sam said, “I’m not stepping aside for anyone.” This brought another big laugh and applause.
I was very encouraged when he talked about the hard years, when they didn’t have any money. That is where I am right now, so this was very inspirational. He said his first wife would not let him quit. He admitted that he wanted to quit many times, as the financial hardships were just almost overwhelming at times. The struggle was that he knew that he could quit woodworking and get a job with his proven graphic art talents with a more lucrative living. So the sacrifice was obviously the “opportunity cost” of doing something else. He went on to say to us, “Never give up, never give up, never, never, never, never give up.” And, he added that if your spouse isn’t 100% behind you, it won’t work.
The documentary video portrayed his three employees, who obviously love and adore him, and work tirelessly to help him complete his work. He showed in the video how he might have a dozen projects all going at the same time in the shop, as he rough cuts out the parts for each project. I had assumed that the employees did all of the work, while he directed things, but was pleasantly surprised to see him cut out each part. The employees do the final shaping, sanding, assembly, and finishing. For instance, Sam will pick out wood for a rocking chair seat, cut it to size, rough shape it on the bandsaw, and then pass it over to one of the employees that glues it together, and uses a grinder to smooth the seat bottom out, sands it, and passes it back to be added to the other parts. I was so thrilled that his shop looked like an artisan’s shop, not a sleek factory with lots of wiz-bang tools, CNC’s, and low-wage employees running around. He still makes these chairs, and has the other three folks help him. I was so impressed with this.
We are all glad that his first wife kept pushing him to keep going. He said that if the spouse is not behind a woodworker 100%, then it would be impossible to make woodworking work as a business.
If any of the reader’s of this report have not read Sam’s autobiography, you owe yourself that experience. The copy I have was published in the mid 1980’s. I was so moved after reading it 8-9 years ago, to decide to “whittle away” on-and-off for 6 years sculpting a rocking chair similar to his work (posted in the “Projects” list on lumberjocks).
In his book he talks about the experience of being offered many millions of dollars if he would sell the rights to his furniture designs so that a factory could produce them. I was very sure that I would have taken the offer had it been me.
He talked about this decision again in his lecture in Cody. He mentioned the amount of $22 million dollars as the offer. He said that many years after he turned down the offer, the Chairman of the Board of the company that made the offer asked him why he had turned down so much money.
Sam said that he knew at the time of the offer, that if he sold the design and fabrication rights and the pieces were mass produced, it would ruin his work as an art, and his life as an artist. “It would just ruin me,” I think is how he put it. I know that it had to have been a very difficult decision at the time, so much so that he relayed the story to us in Cody all of these years later. This would not be the type of decision in a woodworker’s life that you would soon forget.
I walked away from the lecture with many things to chew on. What I felt most inspired by was that I have realized that Sam taught with his life’s decisions that there is more to a person’s life and work than the money it accumulates. First, he gave up a better paying career to pursue a dream. Then he gave up a ton of money to continue his dream. Whom among us could do that?
With that said, he was seen in the video driving his silver Porsche around. He told us in the lecture that he paid for the Porsche with the monthly stipend he gets for selling the rights to manufacture his trademark Maloof Finishing Oil to Rockler, to which we all applauded again. He looked great in that Porsche, and I was so pleased for him, that I am considering buying some Maloof Finish from www.rockler.com.
Here is a miscellaneous list of things I learned from the Cody show:
1) I didn’t win any prizes at the show. I still had fun. I was told over and over again by shoppers at the show that my work was the type of thing they could “live” with in their homes. They would tell me that a lot of the other stuff was too far “out there” for them, fun to look at, but not what they would buy to live with. It was sort of like going to an auto show and drooling over “concept cars”, but then buying a Chevy Tahoe to drive everyday. So, I enjoyed seeing the “concept cars” at the show myself, and accepted my place as a “Tahoe” builder. Next time, I won’t make that mistake!
2) There were a few creative new ideas I hadn’t seen before, and a lot of copied ideas from each other, and past designs with some alterations, especially in Molesworth and Adirondack, and Maloof styling. I do a lot of studying, reading, and internet searching, so I recognized a lot of design elements from other people’s work, both from the past, and current work. I still think an original idea is the best thing to bring to this show, but, that doesn’t mean that the judging, or the public will respond on the first viewing. That is why the auto industry does concept cars 8-10 years ahead of the shopping styles. I think this probably holds true for furniture as well, but just an opinion.
3) I did receive a few “People’s Choice” votes, as there were some people that showed me their ballot where they had written in my name. So, that was encouraging.
4) Most every exhibitor told me that they see orders for at least 6 months following the show, and that you can’t decide whether it was successful for many months. So, I’ll have to wait and see what develops.
5) I did hear Sam Maloof speak at his lecture to a packed room, and he was also one of the judges, so that was cool. I got to shake his hand once. I wanted to talk with him and take a photo with him, but my nerves overcame me when I finally got the chance to do all of that. I was just too overwhelmed by his presence. He was treated like a “movie star” at the show by everyone, which has to be the highest honor any woodworker could attain. I don’t think he was treated as well as a “Nascar Driver” though, so there is still some room to improve. Afterall, there were not any scantily clad young ladies following him around, just his new wife, and her friend.
6) The Maloof-Inspired walnut rocking chair I built gathered a lot of attention and praise, as people continually asked if they could sit in it. One lady was test driving it for awhile and said, “I already tried the other chairs at the show, and I like this one the best, is it for sale?” I told her, ” no.”
Here is a link to my Rocker posting:
7) One thing I was unprepared for were the large number of hobby and professional woodworkers that went to the show just to check it out and see if they could show their work at that level sometime. I enjoyed encouraging them. Many of them pulled out snapshots of their work, and told me how they were building “this,” or “that,” which I enjoyed. My advice to them, or anyone, is not to try and copy other styles, but dream up something the world has never seen, and then you will have something special. I haven’t been able to do that myself yet, but I am working toward that goal.
8) I sold items to people from Arizona, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Wyoming. I was surprised at how many people were there from other states, taking vacation to attend the show.
9) I did find that my pricing was low compared to the others, so that was good to some extent. The distance from my shop in Kansas to the mountain region didn’t seem to bother anyone. Every time I asked about the “distance factor,” it didn’t seem to bother them.
10) I learned that I need to find a way to accept a credit card during a show like this. I lost at least one order for sure, because the person went on vacation with only a credit card. Another customer said they would send me a check when they got home, and I could then ship their item to them. So, taking the credit card at the show would have been helpful. One other artist told me to take credit cards at the show, as people tend to change their minds when they get home, and may not actually send the check that they promised. After thinking about this and talking it over with my wife, I would prefer to have customers that make a serious decision, not an impulse buy, and if they think later that they would rather not buy the work, then I think long-term, that is best for both of us. I’m in this for the long-haul, not the quick buck.
11) The most encouraging thing I learned is not to be afraid of showing my work in such a venue again.
12) I think one the most refreshing aspects of the show was that people didn’t ask the “price” of my work in their first question. They would ask about who I was, what wood my pieces were made from, where did I find the wood, who did the carving, what type of finish it had, how I did the joinery, did I work alone, what type of joint “this” or “that” was, where I received my training, where I got the inspiration, how big of a shop I have, etc., and then at the end of about a 10-20 minute discussion, they would ask “what is a budget cost on something like this?” The price was always the last question.
13) What I have found in Kansas for the past 9 years I have tried to sell my woodworking is that “cost” is always the first question. I have also found here that it can take 1-2 years to get a person from a budget cost stand point to where I have their money to buy material with, and a design to start working with. It can take longer if they are unsure what they really like. Maybe it is the same everywhere, this was my first “out-of-Kansas” show, so I probably need some more data before I can draw any sound conclusions.
14) One thing that was neat to learn was that the exhibitors from Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado stated that Walnut was their customer’s first pick. I can’t find anyone in Kansas to sell walnut furniture to. I bought a bunch of walnut in 1997, and have only been able to use it as secondary woods, and pieces that I build on speculation for myself, or prototypes. It was interesting to see how styles change between the cultures of different states.
15) The night after I set up for the show, and waited for the judging and the show to open, I felt confident that I had put everything I had into the show prep, the work I was displaying, and the results were up to the Lord. I didn’t have any regrets. I knew that I had done all I could do to be as prepared as I could be at this point in my life, and that I wouldn’t have been there at all without the gifts of others. After working so hard and sleeping so little for the past 6 months, I slept good that night.
This chair has an expertly upholstered leather seat by Allen’s Upholstery in Wichita, KS (www.allensupholstery.net), with a removable Buffalo robe draped over the seat. Allen’s Upholstery donated their efforts on the seat to help me with the show. A better skilled and nicer bunch of upholstery folks you will never find. I also made the hair cuffs on the top of the back legs that are removable.
I scraped and salted 4 very heavy buffalo hides in a Kansas January 2 years ago, so I had to dream up some way to use at least some of it. If anyone needs a little bit of hide for a special project, let me know, as I have some left over I would sell. I have sold two of the hides already.
The surface of the wood is all textured with a carved looking surface. I didn’t sell the chair, but I had a lot of compliments on it. Another reminder to build “commissioned” projects, not “speculation” projects.
Other Projects I took to the WDC Show:
Thanks for reading
(This text, photos, and project designs are protected by copyright M.A. DeCou 4-28-2008, all rights reserved)
-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan - www.decoustudio.com