We are particularly proud to announce this forthcoming biography of James Krenov written by Brendan Gaffney. Like Brendan and many other woodworkers, we were entranced by Krenov’s books the moment we picked them up. While Krenov was an incredibly talented woodworker, he was equally skilled in communicating his thoughts on the craft. In fact, it’s rare to find a serious woodworker who was not influenced by the man.
Despite Krenov’s deep influence, little is known of his life outside of his books and the occasional magazine article. This remarkable blind spot is something we have longed to correct here at Lost Art Press. And we think Brendan – with the full cooperation of Krenov’s family, friends and The Krenov Foundation – is uniquely positioned to illuminate Krenov’s life.
Below is the first of many entries to come on Krenov’s remarkable life.
— Christopher Schwarz
When Oscar Fitzgerald, furniture historian and scholar, visited James Krenov (1920-2009) in the summer of 2004, he was there to record the old cabinetmaker’s story for the Smithsonian Institution’s oral history archives. Within the first few minutes of the tape, Krenov responded to the standard “where were you born, etc.” line of questioning with a characteristically offhand and pithy remark:
So, you know, you’ll get a whole book about what the past was, and what I did and didn’t do. I don’t know if the Smithsonian or anyone else is interested in that. I mean, that’s a thing in itself. People say, ‘Well, you’re going to write one more book,’ and I say, ‘no,’ but if I do it’s going to be called ‘Things I Don’t Remember,’ which is a nice title for a book.
Krenov never wrote that book. What few autobiographic snippets he did leave behind are found in his seminal “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” (Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1976), and in scattered interviews and writings from his 50-year career as a writer, teacher and cabinetmaker.
Alas, there is a lot that Krenov did neglect to share of his own life. How did a seasonally employed, self-described “pre-Kerouac hippie” and a 1957 encounter with a few pieces of Carl Malmsten’s furniture lead the 37-year-old Krenov down the path to become one of the 20th century’s most influential furniture makers? How did his youth among native peoples in Siberia and the Alaskan territory affect his aesthetic and creative practice later in life? What can his first published book, a travelogue (“Italiensk Resa” published by Wahlström & Widstrand in Sweden in 1955) show us about his life before his shift to cabinetmaking?
And so, for the past several months, I’ve begun the search for the answers to these and many more questions about Krenov’s life, work and influence around the world. My research took me back to my alma mater, The Krenov School (formerly the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program) in Fort Bragg, Calif., to spend time with his family, students and peers. I plan to return there in a few weeks to continue my research into his prolific career as a teacher, writer, lecturer and cabinetmaker. I’m also planning trips to Sweden, Alaska and Seattle, each of which were formative in Krenov’s long life. We’ll see if I make it to Uelen, Russia – Google’s directions haven’t been helpful.
My research and conversations with other woodworkers has also reinforced how many people were brought to the craft by Krenov’s writings – everyone from chairmaker Brian Boggs to furniture historian Donald C. Williams. While many in woodworking recognize a certain aesthetic as “Krenovian,” his influence extends past those who (like myself) are fascinated with cabinets. His writings spoke to a wide array of craftspeople in search of a voice that encouraged sensitivity and care in an approach to craft.
During the next year, I’ll put the collected writings, research and documents into a biography, which I’m calling “Things I Don’t Remember.” The title is a tip of the hat to the old man. With Krenov’s centennial approaching on Halloween of 2020, Chris and I agreed that the time has come for a thorough documentation of Krenov’s life and legacy, and this date gives us a solid pair of goal posts for the time frame of this book.
I’m lucky to be situated aptly for this project as both a graduate of Krenov’s school and an acquaintance or friend to many in his community. Already, my conversations with The Krenov Foundation (made up of a number of old friends such as Ron Hock and Laura Mays) and Krenov’s daughters, Tina and Katya, have brought many new and exciting paths to explore.
In the end, there is one other blessing that this subject offers up: Krenov’s life was rich with experiences. And he was so well-traveled that his life – even apart from his work – has proven to be a great story. My goal is to do justice to this tale, to explain how a Siberian-born American woodworker from Sweden came to be one of the most influential voices in woodworking. Even better, I’ll be able to research and write this book in the company of Chris, Megan Fitzpatrick and Lost Art Press, whose dogged hard work and high standards will no doubt push the bar high and help me and my book up and over it.
So, during the next two years, I’ll be busy (to say the least) – and along the way, I’ll share my progress and some of the unearthed documents and stories that I find here on the blog. I invite you to follow along, and I hope you’ll see why Krenov’s life story is one deserving of the treatment I aspire to give it.