‘Things I Don’t Remember,’ a Biography of James Krenov

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

KrenovWorkshopMendocino

James Krenov demonstrating during his first appearance on the Mendocino Coast, where he and his family would later move to start a school. Photo courtesy of The Krenov Foundation.

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.

KrenovMalmsten

Krenov (right) and Carl Malmsten (left) look over some of Malmsten’s architectural work. Krenov studied under Malmsten at his school in Stockholm, a formative experience that set Krenov down his path as a cabinetmaker. Photo courtesy of The Krenov Foundation.

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.

KrenovSleetmuteCabin

Krenov perched atop a riverboat in Sleetmute, Ak., where he and his parents spent several years living in the cabin in the background among the Ingalik indigenous peoples. Photo courtesy of The Krenov Foundation.

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.

KrenovBoatContest

A proud teenage Krenov poses with his award-winning ship model. Krenov’s life was deeply influenced by boatbuilding, a fascination he often credited as the inspiration for his frequent use and taste for sweeping curves in his casework. Photo courtesy of The Krenov Foundation.

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.

— Brendan Gaffney

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24 Responses to ‘Things I Don’t Remember,’ a Biography of James Krenov

  1. johncashman73 says:

    Very nice. I look forward to this, very much.

  2. mike says:

    I look forward to this and am glad that LAP is getting behind it. This place sometimes gives of a vibe that could be perceived as anti-Krenov (Krenov’s approach and CS’s ADB are two very different ways of approaching the craft) but I know your dedication to research and sleuthing for old photos and documents will uncover some gems.

  3. Nick Koukourakis says:

    This is one book I can’t wait for it to be published! Godspeed Brendan and LAP!

  4. ctdahle says:

    Does anyone know where the ship model ended up?

    • brendangaffney says:

      I haven’t heard of its whereabouts, but it would be a fun item to examine. I’ll add it to the list of things to ask after when I see his family next.

  5. Eric R says:

    This sounds like a collection that I’ve been waiting for.
    Thank you.

  6. I look forward to broadening my knowledge of Mr Krenov and his life’s work.

  7. That’s great book to publish!
    You may find (if you’re not already know) some interesting facts about Mr Krenov and his family here. https://odynokiy.livejournal.com/tag/%D0%A5%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%B0
    There’s a research on Mr Krenov’s family, it’s in russian. Unfortunately the person who did this research doesn’t know english. If you need to translate it I’ll be glad to help.

    Also I found interesting that Mr Krenov’s grandfather Alexander was an architect who designed a number of buildings in Saint Petersburg, Russia where I live at the moment. So it’s great to see them and know a little about their history.

  8. That’s great book to publish! Keep up the good work.
    You may find (if you’re not already know) some interesting facts about Mr Krenov and his family here.
    https://odynokiy.livejournal.com/tag/%D0%A5%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%B0
    There’s a research on Mr Krenov’s family, it’s in russian. Unfortunately the person who did this research doesn’t know english. If you need to translate it I’ll be glad to help.

    Also I found interesting that Mr Krenov’s grandfather Alexander was an architect who designed a number of buildings in Saint Petersburg, Russia where I live at the moment. So it’s great to see them and know a little about their history.

  9. Mark White says:

    I’ll place my order now, can’t wait.

  10. jayedcoins says:

    Very neat, good luck on the journey in putting this book together.

  11. krexhall says:

    Can’t wait to see the results of your research. Glad you are documenting his life before the memories of others are lost.

  12. mike says:

    I don’t own any of the hardcover editions of JK’s books, but in general I have found the softcovers published by Linden to be cheaply produced. I’d love it if LAP could negotiate some kind of limited rights to publish his titles in hardback – his books are certainly worth the LAP touch.

    • Ethan Sincox says:

      I have spent some time and effort acquiring 1st edition hard bound copies of JK’s books and have most of them in that form. With Wakened Hands is the only softbound copy I possess. I’ve only been “just a bit too late” to acquire a copy (any copy) of Teacher; I suspect that one will elude me for some time. They are quality products and worth the effort to hunt down, Mike.

  13. Ethan Sincox says:

    Very excited to hear this news, Brendan. I look forward to following your journey and, eventually, enjoying your book. Good luck!

    If you happen upon a copy of Teacher during this research period that you would eventually not need, do keep me in mind? 😉

    Cheers,

    Ethan

    • brendangaffney says:

      Hey Ethan, I believe there is no book called “Teacher.” That seems to be an error in Amazon and Google’s listings. It may have been another book Krenov was contracted to write and never did, but December 1983 (the listed date of publication) would’ve been in the middle of his second year in Fort Bragg, and I don’t believe he was working on a book at the point.

    • brendangaffney says:

      There is an elusive book, his “Italiensk Resa” from 1955, but it won’t be of much use to anyone who doesn’t speak Swedish. It took me several months of searching to find any copies of that one.

  14. JohnS says:

    I also look forward to this book. I discovered James Krenov back in the 1980’s when I read his books. He influenced how I think about craftsmanship even though I am an amateur woodworker. My son got to meet him in high school. I always wish I had. Great story!

  15. mike says:

    Brendan – I really have no idea what it is like to write a book and I am sure you already have 1000 ideas of what you would like to cover, so I feel a little bad selflish piling on to your list.

    I’ve read all of JK’s woodworking books a few times and here are a few questions that have come to mind.

    1) Did JK ever have to do more utilitarian pieces in order to make a living? He is so well known for his studio cabinets, but I wonder if he ever had to build a traditional built in, bookcase or coffee table, etc early in his career? The 3 pieces that come to mind as being more practical are the Italian walnut desk (with the curved long grain joint, I’d love to see that piece in person), the conductor’s stand and the game board. Of all of his pieces, those actually appeal to me the most because they are both functional, deeply personal to the client (I suppose the violin case is as well), but still rise to the level of studio furniture. It makes me wonder if there is a fireplace mantel or bank of kitchen cabinets somewhere in his past.

    2) Was he fluent in Swedish, English and Russian? His writing in English so beautiful, almost poetic, with such an economy of words, it is hard to believe it is not his first language. However, I imagine he mostly spoke Russian with his parents.

    3) Did he spend much time working as a ship builder, or was that training that he never directly used?

    4) Did he have a falling out with the college of redwoods at some point? I ask because (I believe) he was somehow affiliated with Inside Passage after he retired and the language on their website makes it seem as if he was singularly focused on that school. (in general, he seems to not suffer fools, so I imagine there are some burnt bridges. I think in the Smithsonian interview he mentions a game of tennis with Tage Frid that never happened on account of Tage’s drunkeness. Most folks would be too polite to mention such a thing).

    I am sure your book will make for an interesting read. Despite how “personal” his writing seems, he only divulged personal details in small doses. I did not even realize he had children until I read his obituary. I don’t recall him mentioning children in his books, although he does spend a chapter on his cats.

    • brendangaffney says:

      Mike, I’ll give you the quick and easy answers:
      1) Not really.
      2) Yes. French as well, and some Italian.
      3) Not much time, no.
      4) Yes, but boy, it’s complicated.
      Now, give me a year, and I’ll elaborate!

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