This post is a continuation from last week’s post, a “read-along” or book club of sorts. This week, I’ll be discussing the first section of “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” by James Krenov, up to page 23. Next week, we’ll be reading on from here up to page 51, and you can leave comments and questions about pages 23-51 in the comments section at the bottom of this post, which I’ll answer and incorporate into next week’s post.
Immediately upon opening, it’s clear that James Krenov’s first book, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” is not really a “how-to” in any sense. There’s no table of contents. The first writing past the acknowledgements is a poem by Chuang Tzu, a Taoist poet who wrote in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. The paragraphs are long and read like the spoken word. If you have the first edition, there’s an Old Testament quote on the copyright page, Sirach (or Ecclesiastes) 38:34.
Atypical though it was, this book was a huge success. Nancy Newman Green, Krenov’s editor at Van Nostrand Reinhold (with whom I had the pleasure of talking with recently), remembers that they had a saying around VNR about Krenov:
“If you hung up a sign in the middle of the woods that said ‘James Krenov will be here to speak at 3 o’clock,’ a few thousand people would be there to hear him talk.”
But I’m getting off track – suffice to say, the book was popular, and what made it popular were the words and philosophy Krenov detailed. So let’s get back to the text. The rest of all of this, the history, the lead-up, the legacy – for that, you can read my biography when it comes out.
One of the first things that strikes me about Jim’s writing is just how informal and stream-of-consciousness it is – in fact, you can practically hear Jim reading it out loud. If you haven’t heard Jim speak before, you’re missing out – say what you want about his philosophy, aesthetics or attitude, he was a remarkable lecturer, and he had a gift for elocution.
This book is, in fact, a collection of transcribed essays or lectures – in 1970, Einar and Kasja Telander (Einar is the silversmith for whom Jim built the veroola kitchen cabinet in 1976, which was photographed for “Worker in Wood”) gave him a voice recorder for his 50th birthday, and he took to it immediately, using it both for correspondence and for the dictation of his essays and books. He worked with both the tape recorder and his written notes at the workbench to write his books, bouncing between them to compose the writing.
The tapes for “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” were transcribed by Rochester Institute of Technology, as a favor to Jim – Craig McArt, the man responsible for recommending him as a teacher at RIT and the person who most encouraged him in the writing this first book, was by 1973 the chair of the Department of Industrial and Environmental Design at RIT. McArt had visited Jim in Stockholm back in 1966 and had carried back with him an essay written by Jim called “Wood: The Friendly Mystery,” which was published by Craft Horizons in 1967 (here’s a copy on the Craft Council’s archive website). If you’re interested, give that article a read and keep it in mind before you do next week’s reading.
So, once we know that the book was dictated, it puts the book in a different context – it might better be looked at as a series of lectures. Knowing that, let’s look more at the first passage, really just nine short pages, and pull a few important moments out.
The first half of the passage is, in effect, an ode to wood as a material. In the opening paragraph, ironically beginning with “It’s always a little difficult for me to begin talking about wood” right before he goes into a very eloquent missive about wood, he relates that he feels that wood, in his own way of thinking, really is alive. Krenov’s daughter remembers her father as being an animist of sorts, ascribing some kind of soul or inner life to the objects and plants around him – Krenov hints at the root of these beliefs in this essay, his childhood “in the North,” and in that context, the serious sensitivity and love he shows for wood as a medium only makes more sense.
The other thing that quickly becomes clear in the book is that it is not instructional – many of Jim’s visiting students, whom he hosted in his home workshop throughout the 1960s and 1970s, remember his advice as always being a bit vague, a trait that carries right through into his lectures from the 1990s and 2000s. Phrases such as “It is still possible to find a few good sources of wood” would, at time, frustrate his visiting students, but here in the book, they serve as anecdotes and a sort of fable about his life as a craftsperson, with their own morals and conclusions presented to the reader. He doesn’t give you a shopping list for the home center, but more of an idea of what has worked for him, and what could work for you, if you happen upon it or go in search of it.
There is a moment of Jim’s past that flashes across the page at one point. On page 13, Jim writes that “Expression in wood, if I may say so, is a bit heavy handed there [in the United States]; oversimplified. So often the emphasis in on form – as in sculpture.” This passage is certainly a reflection on Jim’s dissonant time in his first stint at RIT alongside Wendell Castle – they did not get along, and Jim would, for a number of years, relay his disappointment in the pursuit of furniture as sculpture and the indifference to wood as a medium he found in many of his colleague’s work. “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” largely stays out of the weeds of criticism, though, certainly in relation to the essay’s Jim wrote in Swedish magazines at the same time – articles with titles like “Is craftsmanship boring?” or “Do we care about wood art?” make it clear that Krenov was not always optimistic about the attitudes around him. When the language between the two different platforms is compared, it’s clear that this book is not aimed at the Swedish craft scene, or his colleagues and contemporaries (with whom he often had a strained relationship) – it’s aimed at a new generation, students or curious onlookers, and Jim often speaks using “we” rather than “I.”
Here’s a last selection to look at, before I get into a few questions and comments people posted from their own reading. I’m just going to pull a big quote, because it’s as close to a synoptic manifesto as you’ll get from Krenov.
“I think that what I would like to do before it is too late is to get this across to a few craftsmen-to-be who will work after me, and also to a public which will be there to receive them, because we are living in a time when, I believe, this is important. Fine things in wood are important, not only aesthetically, as oddities or rarities, but because we are becoming aware of the fact that much of our life is spent buying and discarding, and buying again, things that are not good. Some of us long to have at least something, somewhere, which will give us harmony and a sense of durability – I won’t say permanence, but durability– things that, through the years, become more and more beautiful, things we can leave our children. (page 15)
Krenov spent 11 years jumping between various educational institutions, and accepted at least three long-term teaching positions that he either quit within weeks of starting or was encouraged to leave after interpersonal difficulties arose with administrators or colleagues, often caused by his irascible and uncompromising attitude toward craft. This passage is his call for those students, a next generation of craftspeople that might be more sympathetic to his holistic and idealistic way of working, one that he hadn’t found academia or art schools to be sympathetic to. He also makes a form of plea to the public to change or be more aware of their attitudes to fine work (the main subject of his writing in Swedish magazines, though there he chose a decidedly less optimistic or charitable way of expressing it).
When he wrote this book, he wouldn’t have known it, but it was exactly the right step to take in the direction of the establishment of his own school, which would happen just a few years later in 1981.
On to a few comments and questions from the comments section on my post from last week, where I prompted you all to ask or comment away about this first passage. I responded to many comments directly, but there were a few I wanted to share and elaborate on in this post, in keeping with the idea that this might be more of a discussion or back-and-forth between you and me while we read through the book.
Larry Barrett, a good friend who taught me to make greenwood chairs a few years back, wondered what Jim might’ve thought about greenwoodworking, especially the appreciation of materials and the similar thrills of splitting open a log and sawing it open. In fact, Jim Krenov and John Alexander did meet at one point in California – the story isn’t much, but I know that Jim was aware of greenwoodworking as a method and of Alexander’s work. Krenov certainly split open his fair share of wood, being an avid hiker and self-sufficient backpacker in the north of Sweden, and he did often split up slabs that were too wide to fit in the basement or had already begun splitting at their pith. But, perhaps his interest in woods from abroad and the backyard left him more likely to stick with the sawn stuff – though, he did use an Alaskan chainsaw mill quite a bit, and we were still learning to use them at his school when I was there.
Larry also pointed out that the Welsh concept of the “square mile” that Chris Williams wrote about in his new book fits neatly with the mention of Wharton Esherick’s idea that one could work with only the wood in your own backyard. Krenov was quite aware of John Brown – in Krenov’s papers and effects there are a few articles written by John Brown that Jim had saved, with highlighted notes in the margins. There are also definite connections to Slöjd in Wood (Wille Sundqvist, Jogge’s father, also went to Carl Malmsten’s school, and Jim’s reverence for carved pulls and knife-work has some of its roots in his exposure to Swedish crafts). Really, a sensitivity to wood as a material is a common thread through much of the craft, and when you start reading the more philosophic threads of Jim’s writing, it does echo through a number of methods and traditions that were not his. It makes sense that wood and woodworking are intertwined, no matter how many people try to melt clown wigs and pour them into the space between two live-edge slabs – but, did you know, Greg Klassen, who popularized the “river” tables (and made them in a much more interesting and durable way than the epoxy knock-offs that followed, in my opinion), was a student at Krenov’s school?
I really enjoyed the comments and questions that you all sent along for this reading – so, please do it again! Next week, I’ll be writing about the next few passages, up to page 51 of the book, and if you want to join in and read along, please do, and use the comments section below to ask any questions, highlight a passage or make a comment on the next section of the book. Also, I’d encourage you to read the two-page article “Wood: the Friendly Mystery” as well – here’s a copy from the Craft Council’s archive. You’ll understand why once you do the reading!
— Brendan Gaffney