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Enhancing Organizational Performance

I never met Sam Maloof

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On Thursday May 21, 2009, Sam Maloof died at the age of 93 at his home in Alta Loma, California. I never met Sam Maloof, I would have liked to.

Sam was a craftsman.  He made furniture and was especially well know for a rocking chair design that he created. His work was so well respected that his rocking chairs went for $20,000 a piece (last year one sold at auction for $51,000) and the waiting list for one was years long. He made between 50 and 100 pieces a year and some of those pieces live at The White House, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Smithsonian organized an exhibition of his work in 2001. If you ever saw one of his pieces you would know it. You would be unable to keep your hands off of it, with its highly polished, ultra smooth finish and appealing curves. Ray Charles, the blind musician, and another craftsman, never saw Sam’s work, but he had felt it, and described it as furniture with soul. When Ray visited a friend’s house that had a Maloof chair, the story goes, the first thing he wanted to do was to touch the furniture made by Sam.

The joy that Sam got out of creating his masterpieces kept him working late into his life. He taught classes on his unusual techniques (e.g. his joinery used no screws or nails), which were very well attended and his house over the years has become a museum, for some a shrine to finely crafted work. His limited production made his pieces somewhat rare, but he felt strongly that he pieces were to be used, to be enjoyed as part of everyday life. Sam kept no secrets and he freely shared his knowledge with those who desired to learn.

In our mass produced, injection molded, off-the-shelf world, it is a refreshing feeling to come across something that is so clearly crafted, so evidently clear that it has been labored over and cared about, a piece of work that has soul. But can we afford it? How many people out there can spend $20,000 on a rocking chair? The demand for Sam’s pieces greatly exceeded his ability to produce and while he had helpers in his workshop, if he had so chosen, he could have vastly expanded his production lines putting on staff and overseen production of much larger quantities of very high quality furniture. Greatly increased numbers could have enjoyed his work and his contribution to design. A hint regarding Sam’s state of mind regarding this option comes from his creation of the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for the Arts and Crafts and his testimony in front of legislative bodies urging support for craftspeople so that craftsmanship would not die out. And even as his pieces were selling for 100 times their original price, he titled his autobiography Sam Maloof: Woodworker. “Woodworker” he said was an honest word.

We have been experiencing resurging demand for crafted products and the challenge to organizations is how to meet that demand in as economical a fashion as possible while maintaining the crafted nature of the product. The balance between those two is a balancing act that organizations have struggled with for quite some time.

Take a look at the history of beer production in the USA, which has enough of a history that is has gone through the cycle of crafted, to mass production, back to a desire for craft. While there was small scale production of ale and beer prior, in 1612 Adrian Block and Hans Christiansen established the first known brewery in the New World on the southern tip of New Amsterdam (Manhattan). To give you a sense of its importance remember the Pilgrims did not land at Plymouth until 1620. At the beginning beer production was the province of small time producers and by 1873 there were 4131 breweries in the USA. Consolidation began in 1889, as organizations looked for economies of scale and for market dominance with the suggestion that Schlitz, Pabst and Blatz merge. In 1899, twenty-one breweries in Pittsburg merged, in 1901 ten in Boston and 16 in Baltimore and 1916 saw the merger of six in San Francisco. By 1940 there were only ½ the number of breweries as in 1910. There were 407 left by 1950, and in 1961 there were 230 only 140 of which were independent. By 1984 the market held only 44 companies and was dominated by fewer still mega-brands (Anheuser Busch, Adolph Coors, Miller, and Stroh’s), but also 1984 saw the emergence of the microbrewery, with people looking beyond the mass produced and the Manhattan Brewing Company in SOHO become the first east coast microbrewer.  By 1995 there were 500 micro-breweries in the USA with 3 to 4 new ones opening each week. Will the pendulum of large scale mass production vs. uniquely crafted production continue to swing back and forth? Likely so as evidence by what is happening to organic dairies in the northeast.

Organic dairies up until recently were booming. Milk production has been feeling the pressure over the years to consolidate in order to create economies of scale and more efficient markets and fewer, larger producers were the order of the day. Local family farms that switched to organic methods were able to weather the storm with a product what was much in demand and commanded a premium price, until people could no longer afford the price. With the advent of the recession and the rise in transportation costs of moving feed from the mid-west, organic farmers in New England are feeling the pinch with many considering shutting down. Organic milk demand is estimated to be down about 20%, as people look for ways to cut their budgets (NY Times, May 29th). People prefer the organic product, were willing to pay more for it, but in times of economic uncertainty they are willing to buy from the more mass-produced, hormone and antibiotic laced alternatives since they are more affordable. When the choice is no milk on the table or non-organic produced milk, it is an easy choice for families.

Organizations will forever be balancing the need for better efficiencies and the demands to become more cost effective with the desire on the part of consumers for a “crafted” high quality product. The markets likely have room for a mixture of both and which is more popular at what point in time will be strongly impacted by environmental variables.

I never met Sam Maloof, but I would have liked to. I very greatly respect his devotion to his craft. I think I would have learned a lot from him and not just about woodworking.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 19, 2009 at 2:19 am

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