Books are born in many different places. This one was born in a bar.
Brendan Gaffney and I were were having a drink at the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar up the road, and we got on the subject of James Krenov. Brendan had attended The College of the Redwoods (now The Krenov School), but he wasn’t much like any of the other graduates I had met. Brendan admired Krenov, but he didn’t attend the school to walk in the master’s footsteps.
Brendan also attended the school after Krenov’s death, so there was no personal connection between Brendan and Krenov, who was one of the 20th century’s most influential writers, speakers and woodworkers. Full stop.
“Why,” I asked, “has there never been a biography of Krenov? There’s actually little written about his life other than a few stories in his books.”
That conversation led to Brendan’s book “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints.” It is the first and likely definitive biography of Krenov, and the story like an pulp adventure novel than an academic examination. Krenov’s life story spans three continents, from the wilds of Russia and China to Seattle, Alaska, Sweden and – finally – to the Mendocino Coast of Northern California, where his school now stands.
Through extensive interviews, journals, family documents and a whole host of photographs, Brendan traces Krenov’s entire life. And, more importantly, gives us a balanced and fully formed view of a man that some worship and others malign or dismiss.
Even if you have only a passing familiarity with Krenov, I think you will find “Fingerprints” relentlessly engaging. Krenov’s journey from Russia to one of the most important woodworkers is simply incredible.
— Christopher Schwarz
Learning Furniture Making at Carl Malmsten’s School
Despite his enthusiasm and passion to attend, Krenov’s admission into the Verkstadsskola [furniture school founded by Carl Malmsten] was not immediate. Krenov had been suffering in the factories of Stockholm and was primed for the rigor of Malmsten’s furniture school, but there was a requirement for prior woodworking experience, which his experiences in boatbuilding and wilderness handcraft did not fulfill in the eyes of the old master. In addition to that lack of prerequisite experience, Krenov was already in his late 30s, much older than the other students of the school. From a partial registry of students from Krenov’s years of attendance, he was the oldest student in his cohort by 11 years.
But in his own words in his interview with Oscar Fitzgerald, “I went up to the school and just wouldn’t go away. So they let me in just to get rid of me really, and I studied there.” After meeting with Malmsten in person at his storefront in Stockholm to discuss his entry and to lobby for his admission, he was accepted into the program.
Krenov’s two years at the school revolved around learning both machine and hand production of woodworking and rigorous design practices. The students were under the supervision of Georg Bolin, the lead teacher at the school who had encouraged Krenov, after their first meeting, to hang around. Bolin was himself a musical instrument designer and luthier, a career he came to after an initial training in Malmsten’s first classes. His position as head teacher is indicative of the eccentricity of the school’s environment. Bolin personally advocated for Krenov’s admission to the school, and in later years, the two would remain friends and respectful colleagues.
The school’s curriculum was rigorous, and entailed a six-day workweek aimed at a rounded and intense education of its students. For four days, the students built furniture from Malmsten’s drawings and designs at the workshop in Södermalm. Kjell Orrling, one of Krenov’s classmates from the school, remembers that the students’ furniture was either sold in Malmsten’s furniture store in Stockholm or given to his influential friends for their own homes; the students took no share of the payments in either case. In his recollections, Krenov decided early in his schooling that he wanted to work in a more holistic way, designing and executing his own work, rather than working from the designs of others or offloading his design work to other craftspeople.
“We had exercises where we were asked to design a coffee table or whatever, but you would never build it,” he related to Oscar Fitzgerald in his 2004 interview. “You just designed it and then it was discussed and if he didn’t like it, he’d throw it on the floor and stamp on it.”
Krenov, decades later, critiqued the harsh top-down hierarchy of the school’s education, even teasing his professor’s stutter and mannerisms. But Malmsten’s philosophies, grounded in the Arts & Crafts movement and the elevation of folk designs, certainly shaped Krenov’s work in form, methodology and philosophy, and a connection to the Arts & Crafts style constituted a major influence through the rest of Krenov’s life.
One day a week, the students spent their day at one of Malmsten’s drafting and design workshops, studying the drawings and blueprints in production and rendering their own. And, on the sixth day of the week, the students reported to one of the many museums in Stockholm, where they were tasked with making scale drawings and plans for the pieces in the collection. At every stage, in the workshop, the design offices and the museums, Malmsten or Bolin were there, giving feedback to the students, holding their work to an almost unattainable standard. Negative critiques were delivered severely by Malmsten, and the complexity or quality of the projects and designs a given student made in the workshop were dependent on their meeting these standards.
Manne Idestrom, another one of Krenov’s cohorts from the school, remembers that the students were also often employed in manual tasks at Malmsten’s farm, just northeast of Stockholm. While the students trimmed hedges or dug potatoes, Malmsten used these days as an opportunity to lecture about his ideas of design and function, as informed by the natural world or simple work. This interest in the interplay between farm life, craft and old Swedish traditions would soon manifest in another school, Capellgården, which was established just a year after Krenov’s graduation. Orrling, too, remembers working for Malmsten outside of the school. He was younger than most entrants, just 17 years old in 1957, and he had to work as an assistant in the workshop and as an attendant in Malmsten’s downtown store before he was allowed entry to the Verkstadsskola.
Both Idestrom and Orrling remember Krenov as a novel, at times odd, member of the class. For the first six months, according to Orrling, Krenov barely interacted with his fellow students, in part because his Swedish language skills were still maturing, and due to the large age gap between himself and his classmates. He was also an oddity in Stockholm at large – his preference in personal style (corduroy clothes, neckerchief and beret) as well as his mannerisms made him stick out. In one anecdote, remembered by his daughter, Krenov’s appearance captured a surprised glance from the Princess Lilian of Sweden, whom he and Britta happened by on the street in Stockholm. Britta remembered him exclaiming to the princess and her company, “It’s not polite to stare, ladies!”
Krenov also had a penchant for reciting poetry and passages from books during the class lunches, a practice he enjoyed and would continue in his own lectures and classrooms decades later; but it put off some of his fellow students. In this way, he was perhaps quite similar to Malmsten.
“He would take 15 minutes to explain a blade of grass,” said Orrling.
But despite his oddity, after a few months Krenov’s devotion and technical prowess won the respect of his classmates and teachers, and both Orrling and Idestrom remember his abilities as noteworthy, surpassing the talents of some of his fellow students. Many of the students came to the school with pre-existing skills, but Krenov’s natural talent for the work was considerable, as were the long hours he spent after school in the workshop. Students were allowed to use the space in the evenings for their own work, and while some used this time to make simple wares for their own homes or to pursue other hobbies, Krenov worked hard on his own designs for cabinets or on his assigned projects. These after-hours pieces included his first wall cabinets, a candlestick (which caught the eye of Malmsten and led to his choosing Krenov for a piece that involved difficult carved panels) and a number of other small works that served to hone his skills and nurture his design practice outside of the prescribed designs of the school.
Years later, Krenov fondly wrote about one of his cohorts, Raimundo Estrems (whom Krenov called Ramón), a Spaniard whose background was in pre-industrial furniture construction and luthiery. Krenov was a witness at Ramón’s wedding, which took place during a lunch break one day during school; the students were hardly able to take a day off from their schooling, and even an event like a wedding had to be shoehorned into the school’s daily proceedings. It was Ramón who showed Krenov his wooden bodied planes and how he tuned and used them. This introduction, alongside an old Norwegian book he remembered reading in the office at the Malmsten school, were formative in Krenov’s adoption and championing of the wooden handplane as his preferred woodworking instrument. While in school, Krenov made his own handplane, looking to modify the ergonomics of the tool to a form he preferred. In subsequent years, Krenov would make hundreds of planes, and later referred to the tool as “the cabinetmaker’s violin,” indicative of his consideration that the tool was at the forefront of his approach and enjoyment of woodwork.
It is hard to overstate the school’s importance to Krenov’s career; many years later, his teaching and lecturing approach, in addition to his cabinetmaking practice, would be deeply shaped by Malmsten’s own approach. His charge against Malmsten, that he was an authoritarian or difficult teacher, would come back as a critique often levied against Krenov’s own approach to teaching, and his future blend of uncompromising and lofty ideals with technical education also came to mirror Malmsten’s.
“He was very strict – in one sense he was despotic,” Krenov remembered in 2004. “In another sense he was a purist in the sense that there was no compromise as to fine workmanship, as to a good eye, good hands – that sort of thing.”