Rocking Chair, 1957

Sam Maloof

Look closely at this iconic piece of furniture from the Museum’s permanent collection. Explore the relationship between form and function and apply some of the principles of design thinking to creating your own chair design.


American woodworker Sam Maloof (1916-2009) was the embodiment of a craftsman designer. Self-taught, he was passionate about creating every one of his pieces by hand. Maloof said that “good furniture must convey a feeling of function, but also must be appealing to the eye.” Take a close look at this chair and describe it in as much detail as possible.

  • What colors, shapes, and materials do you notice?
  • Imagine sitting down on this chair. What do you think the experience would be like?
  • How would your body respond to the different components of the chair, like the armrest, seat, and back? Please explain.
  • How do you think this chair was made? What parts of it give you clues about the designer’s process?
  • What is this chair’s intended function?
  • Do you think that the saying “form follows function” (which means that the purpose of the chair dictates the way it looks) applies to this design?


Design is a process of creative problem-solving. Many contemporary designers are guided by an approach known as design thinking. They start with conversations about what the user would like an object to do, how and where will the object be used, and other factors that contribute to a successful design. The designer might make a drawing of the proposed design and/or build a prototype, a preliminary model that is tested and adjusted to make sure it meets all of the product’s requirements. Only then is it mass produced. 

For Sam Maloof, the design process unfolded while he was actually making a piece of furniture. He believed the superior functionality of his furniture emerged directly from the process of working with the wood. “I aim for a rocker that doesn’t throw you back or tip you out,” he said.  “And many times, I do not know how a certain area is to be done until I start working with a chisel, rasp, or whatever tool is needed for that particular job.”

  • Can you imagine some of the problems that might emerge when crafting an object like Maloof’s Rocker?
  • How might these problems be solved in the process of making?


Although furniture manufacturers approached Maloof with offers to duplicate his designs, the artist resisted the idea of having any of his furniture mass-produced. Instead, he chose to handcraft every piece in his shop with the help of a small group of master woodworkers. He said: "It is amazing how one chair begets many. But each chair is designed individually. It is a living thing."

  • Do you feel that Rocking Chair comes across as a “living thing”? In which way?
  • Would you feel different about the chair if you knew that it was mass-produced?
  • Do you think it matters how a product was made? Why? Why not?


Create a model of a comfortable lounge chair:

  • Interview a family member or friend to find out the qualities of a dream lounge chair. Try to empathize with your user’s needs. Ask these questions to better understand what your user wants:
    • When and where will the chair be used?
    • What activities will be performed while sitting in it (reading, watching TV, knitting, etc.)
    • What are the user’s physical needs? For instance, does the user experience back pain and need extra support?  Does the chair need to be lightweight so it is easy to pick up and move?What “look” does your user prefer? Is there a favorite color or material?
  • Create a sketch of a chair that would address all of these requirements.
  • Using cardboard, paper, fabric scraps, or other everyday materials, create a tabletop model of the chair.
  • Bring it back to the person you interviewed to discuss how your chair meets their requirements and wishes.  

Sam Maloof
Rocking Chair, 1957
Walnut and upholstery fabric
45. x 27. x 42 in. (116.2 x 69.9 x 106.7 cm) Museum of Arts and Design, Gift of the artist 

This object lesson was written by Petra Pankow.

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