This post is a continuation from a series of posts following a “read-along” or book club of sorts. This week, I’ll be discussing a third chunk of “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” by James Krenov, up to page 69. Next week, we’ll read up to page 78, and you can leave comments and questions about pages 70-78 in the comments section below, which I’ll answer and incorporate into next week’s post. This is a short passage, but it makes the most sense for dividing up the reading. There’s a lot to talk about in those two passages!
We are halfway into Krenov’s first book – and only just getting into what this book was about. Up to now, we’ve been wrestling with his words, but he was a cabinetmaker. So, maybe we should look at some of his work.
After all, Krenov was as much a cabinetmaker as a writer. It’s a funny thing to say, to split his identity one way or the other. By 1976, he’d been writing since he was just a teenager and had published several stories and travelogue. He’d only been working with wood for 18 or 19 years. In some ways, Krenov was a writer all along, but it’s clear that his life focused on and rallied around his craft once he discovered it. “Cabinetmaker Laureate” is the term I’ve been using for a while, and I think it’s apt. I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff.
So, let’s look at some furniture. I particularly like the three pieces that were detailed in last week’s reading, which is why I wanted to draw your focus to his work in this part of the book. They span his career up to this point, they’re aesthetically varied, they’re stunning work and I have some great details and even “fact-checking” for each of the three.
The first of the three is the “Violin Cabinet.” Now, usually, I follow the name of the piece with a date – so perhaps I should have written “Violin Cabinet” (1969), which bears the date Krenov assigns the piece in the book. But look at the image below:
Okay, there’s a lot to unpack in that image. First, on the far right (and cropped off on the far left, maybe) is a bizarre piece I’ve never seen of Krenov’s, a “cabinet on a shelf” form – news to me. And speaking of “news” – in the distance, there are two trios of near identical pieces, in scale and form. Was he making multiples? Once again – news to me. The “No-Glass Showcase of Lemon Wood” (1962) is centerstage out on the floor, and on the left, we can see the “Violin Cabinet.”
The reason I present this photo to you: it was taken in 1965, at Krenov’s first solo show, “Liv i Trä” (Life in Wood), in the Hantverket gallery in central Stockholm. You may recognize the plain walls and nondescript carpet – many of the photos of Krenov’s work in his later books, especially those in “Worker in Wood,” were taken at the gallery, because Krenov held several shows here over his time in Sweden.
But again – the photo is from 1965. You can see the “Violin Cabinet” there on the left wall. There’s even a violin inside it, though I doubt it’s the Guaneri that Krenov mentions in “Worker in Wood,” where he provides some more details about this piece. So, the date is wrong, only off by a few years, maybe five. Not a big deal.
But, knowing that the cabinet is from before 1965, more of its features and peculiarities begin making sense. The simple shaping, almost completely rectilinear, was more common in his “early years” (I might define that time period as before his first solo show in 1965). He also used many more softwoods in these years – this could have been his interest at the time, and he may not yet have found the access to the exotic woods that would dominate his “middle years” (the 1970s or so, in my book). The pulls are simpler, and very smooth, with none of the carved facets his later work would have.
So, while the date hardly matters for the sake of “truth,” knowing that this is actually among the earliest work in the book helps us look for a few trends, and understand a bit of how his tastes and practices matured.
The piece is crisp. Larry Barrett noticed in his reading that the reveal around the doors was askew in one photo, but I’m sure it was either age or the angle – the photo above shows how svelte and careful the shaping and polishing was on this piece. Douglas fir is not as soft as pine – but getting such nice burnished edges, what Krenov would refer to as “friendly,” is not so simple. It’s a favorite piece of mine, in spite of it being so simple. Perhaps it’s because it fulfills a purpose so neatly – I need a place to put my violin, here it is. The fine-grained softwoods complement the spruce top of the violin, which is perfectly displayed above shelves for its accessories. It makes me wish I played the violin, so that I could make a cabinet like this.
The second piece covered in this section of the book is the “Chess Table” (1970). I have no arguments for that date. But, this time there are more details about who designed the piece, not its date. In fact, this is the only piece I know of where another designer worked with Krenov to make a piece of furniture.
Craig McArt was a central figure in Krenov’s career. McArt encouraged Jim to write a book, got his first essay published in Craft Horizons in 1967, and suggested him as a teacher to RIT in 1969 (and again in 1972). McArt had first met Jim in Stockholm in the 1966, while on a Fulbright scholarship to study abroad. McArt worked with Jim in the summer of 1966, in Krenov’s basement workshop. While he was there, he worked on a number of small furniture pieces, including a small piano stool for one of Georg Bolin’s pianos. But, toward the end of his residence in the shop, Krenov asked McArt to design a few pieces. Maybe it was just as an exercise, but McArt was much more technically capable a designer than Krenov was, or wanted to be.
By McArt’s memory, Jim never tried any of his other designs – except for a chess table. None of McArt’s drawings or plans exist any more for this piece, and he didn’t specify which details might be his influence or Krenov’s in this piece – but, this is the only example I know of where Jim solicited any outside design help or work. It’s a vague detail – but nonetheless singular and novel.
There’s a lot to say about the piece, but I think it’s easiest to focus in on the piece as an example of Krenov’s ability to show intention with every decision. There are so many little details. He sorted through the little squares before joining them and find those with the darker tones or color variation and arranged them accordingly. Look at the play surface above. Sapwood in the pearwood squares is arranged just so along the outer edges, the lighter rosewood pieces are in the middle, and so on. Now look at the wedges on the four tenons poking through the top. Two are dark, two are light, again echoing the playing surface.
What’s nice about this isn’t the gimmick – “The wedges are different colors! Cool!” What’s sweet is that every decision about color and grain is intentional, had some thought behind it. I’m never sure where my tastes lie with Krenov’s tables – they are, I would say, the most dated of his work (this is just me talking, not the biography). They tend to be a bit “bell-bottomy,” which I like in some of the cabinet stands, but less so here. But, you can look at every piece making up the table and know that he thought it through. When you start seeing flat sawn and quartersawn legs on the same face of a table (you can’t unsee it now that you know to look for it) you’ll know that not everyone pays attention to it, especially not with the eye that Krenov had. His consideration of grain is exceptional.
Before we look at the last piece, I think it’s important to bring to your attention the writing on pages 58-60. I’d say read it again, if you just scanned. It is, I think, my favorite passage in the book.
But it isn’t my favorite passage because it’s the most inspiring, or the most poetic. I like it because it’s frank. It’s a passage where Krenov shows a side of himself that he didn’t often display in person – nuance and self-reflection. He was famously irascible in his interactions, but a lot of the people I’ve talked with also mention his nuance a reservation, a self-awareness that only a few people really encountered. I can hear some of that in this passage. He’s talking about doubts, discouragement, his own luck, his old age – it’s like a few pages of a memoir, one I wish were much longer. I’ll excerpt a particularly good passage, which was also called out by Merle Hall last week.
“… I am a very lucky person. When I feel lucky in the total sense, I also feel very much ashamed for my weaknesses and the times when I have doubted, the instances when I’ve wasted a bit of what is most valuable in life. Time has passed, and I’m somewhere on a hill now. Anywhere I look around is down. Along the rest of the way, I must be less afraid. And more grateful.”
The last piece pictured in detail in this section of the book is his “Music Stand,” in pearwood. In his larger body of work, this is a piece unique for its specificity in use. Later in his career, when he was able to do speculative pieces without a specific buyer or intended use, he gravitated to cabinets, which provided the forms he may have most enjoyed making. But his music stands, of which he made at least five over his career, are purpose built for a pair of players sitting opposite each other.
The pearwood stand pictured in the book is now in the collection of the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, which has the largest number of Krenov’s pieces of any museum. Still, that collection is only five pieces – Krenov never made enough pieces to be collected in a volume that other makers could muster.
Here, while the intention of wood selection and form is just as salient as the chess table, what I see carefully explored in this piece is his penchant for shaping and fair curves. The legs have a complex set of facets that ground them neatly, one he accomplished with his planes and a spokeshave. The drawers can be pulled from either side, with a pull that is carefully shaped and “let in” to the two drawer fronts in a particularly graceful way. It’s a sweet piece.
Music played an important role in Krenov’s life. His mother was a deep appreciator of opera and classical music. Krenov was fond of musical analogies, and it’s clear that, in music, he found a lot of similarities to his own creative practice. “The cabinetmaker’s violin” is what he called his handplanes. In the photo above, Bernard Henderson and Marcia Sloane played for the class of 1987 when Jim made his last iteration of the music stands. Marcia Sloane would also play for Jim in his last days, bring her cello into his hospital room in 2009. His compulsion to make five of these stands must have had some deeper tie to this relationship with music. The intimacy of their design, too, being made for two players sitting opposite each other, shows a preference for the sensitivity and familiarity required when playing in a duet.
As I’ve been writing this biography, it’s been easy to forget to look at his work, not his books and relationships. Krenov’s personality was terrifically complex. His writing makes that clear enough, and his relationship with the world could be both contrarian and optimistic in the same breath. But, looking at his work, his ability to be present in the execution of a piece of work is clear. The presence of mind to carve a pull and position it to be comfortable for a reaching hand shows a consideration of the user that I don’t see present in much furniture. While my biography does not stray too deeply into a critical analysis of his work, his furniture had so much of him in it that it almost makes up a secondary set of primary sources.
I was excited by some of the comments in last week’s post. Scott, I’m thrilled with all of the remembrances and encounters you’re sharing. A lot of the writing in this book is a slow burn – it’s fun to follow along as you read through with us, and I’m enjoying your notes!
Next week, we’ll read just a few pages, up to page 78. It’s a short read, and it features two distinctly different passages – one about cats, one about Krenov’s process. There’s a lot to unpack, and I have a lot to add about Krenov’s life with animals. So, I look forward to the next post! As before – 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 this next section of the book or the photographed works therein.
I hope everyone is doing well with their time at home, or for those working in essential roles in these crazy times (like my amazing wife), a big thank you. Another week down, and another week ahead, with the hopes that we’ll find some silver linings in all of this.