When I talk with other woodworkers about my own trajectory, nearly everyone asks about what it was like to be a student at the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking program (now aptly renamed The Krenov School), so I now have a spiel about my time there. It was an incredible space and monastic in focus on the craft, and I was surrounded by capable instructors, enthusiastic peers and beautiful Northern California.
When I was writing “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” I posed the same questions I have so often fielded to other alumni, in particular to those students who studied while Krenov was still in residence: from the school’s 1981 inception to his 2002 retirement. There were common experiences from everyone: camaraderie, self-improvement and personal development, and an excitement at prospects of continuing a creative practice. While the book concerns itself with Krenov, nearly 100 of its 300 or so pages are about his time establishing and working at the school. Integral to that research were those interviews with alumni; they not only illuminated their experiences with the school, but also opened a window into its founding and to Krenov’s intentions as a teacher.
I won’t venture to summarize a hundred pages of writing in a few paragraphs; I’ll also avoid my tendency toward voluminous blog posts. Instead, I’ll share a short excerpt from the afterword. In it, I included my own experience – something that I avoided to that point. But the afterword was a good place to help the reader – now versed in Krenov’s life and work – understand how James Krenov, his school and the process of writing the book has shaped my own life as a craftsperson.
From page 245 of “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints”:
Like so many students who attend the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program, I was in my 20s when I upended my life to move to Fort Bragg, California. My father, Robert Gaffney, was an amateur cabinetmaker, and after my stint in academia, I was hoping to explore and train the curiosity in wood that my father had instilled in me. I was also, perhaps, looking for a different path and pursuit than the one I was on.
A year or so earlier, when I was home to visit during graduate school, my father and I had talked about my prospects of a formal woodworking education. I had been working with him in his shop for years, but with a harrowing prognosis for his pancreatic cancer, we both wondered if I might be able to work with him when I returned East. Like so many other hobbyists, I had spent years poring over the projects in the “Reader’s Gallery” of Fine Woodworking, and noted that a large number of these projects seemed to come from a small town in Northern California. When my father opened the family computer and saw that I was looking at the admission requirements for the woodworking program at College of the Redwoods, he was thrilled at the prospect. He even helped put the few amateurish woodworking projects I had to show into a portfolio for my application to the school. By the time I was there, he wasn’t around to wish me well, but I had arrived with some of his tools and a knowledge that he had been excited for my next chapter.
Krenov died several years prior to my arrival, but as so many others in the years after his retirement have attested, his presence in the curriculum and the pedagogy of his successors was undeniable. I had picked out my father’s copy of “The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking” from his books and read it the week prior to arriving. The tool list handed to new students noted it as a requirement. I didn’t read “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” until I was a month or two into my schooling, and by then I already found its philosophy and approach a familiar take.
I shudder to think what Krenov might have thought about my first project, a desk that is undoubtedly “engineer art” with a brass and wood mechanism that allows for an adjustable-height worksurface. Or what he’d say about my Tage Frid stool and the odd zither I built later in the year. But just as so many students emerged from the school with differing aesthetics and shared roots, the school and Krenov’s words had shown me what I could make when I held myself to the highest standards and shunned the prospects of efficiency or limitations. It took me years to find a workshop and situation that might allow me to work again with wide shop-sawn veneers (and I still don’t have a proper horizontal mortiser) but I never looked back. Woodworking, more specifically this quiet and mindful flavor, was a new path.
The school I attended was nearly that which Krenov had departed a decade earlier. In the years since Krenov’s retirement, it has seen only a few changes in its staff. When Michael Burns retired in 2011, after 30 years at the school, he was replaced by Laura Mays, who helmed the school during my time there, and still does. A few years after my time, David Welter retired after 30 years; he was replaced by Todd Sorenson, a graduate of the classes of ’01 and ’02. Jim Budlong is still a core member of the faculty and a fundamental presence since joining it in the fall of 1989. Ejler Hjorth-Westh and Greg Smith are there, having taken Krenov’s position in 2002, and they bring their own skills and perspectives to the curriculum. Under Mays’ directorship the school hasn’t missed a beat. A wave of passion, ever-refreshed with new perspectives, meets returning alumni and visitors alike at the door.
Perhaps the most amazing thing I saw in my time at the school was the strength of its community. During my cohort’s midwinter show (a show that has been held every year since the early 1980s), a hundred or so alumni came to see the work on display, some flying from distant cities for the chance to reconnect with old friends and check in on the school. Britta Krenov, then in her 90s, came to visit; she made sure to commune with the student work and encourage the makers. By the year of my attendance, there were more than 500 graduates of the program. I don’t know many schools that can bring back a fifth of its alumni for a yearly gathering.
Today is James Krenov’s centennial – 100 years ago on Oct. 31, 1920, James Krenov was born among the Chukchi people in Uelen, Siberia. In concert with the completion of my biography, “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” and Krenov’s centennial, I’ve been working with The Krenov Foundation to organize an online exhibition of Krenov’s pieces that span his career. Today, we’ve opened the exhibition for viewing online.
In September, The Krenov Foundation gathered several of Krenov’s pieces at The Krenov School to record a series of short exhibition videos discussing the work. I provided background narration to establish the pieces in time and give an overview of their features. The current stewards of each piece (Tina Krenov, Les Cizek, Brian Newell and David Welter) all contributed memories and insight to the videos in a way that we’re excited to share with everyone. The videos, shot by Brendan McGuigan, are beautifully detailed and provide a close look at several of Krenov’s finest pieces.
Along with this online opening, I’ll be live on The Krenov Foundation’s Instagram account from noon – 2 p.m. Pacific time (3 p.m. – 5 p.m. Eastern) doing a live Q&A about Krenov, the exhibition and my biography.
So, I invite you to come and check out the exhibition, which is now live here:
It’s a hard question, perhaps made complicated by my years of research – I could’ve rattled off a favorite cabinet or two with ease before I knew his full body of work. Furthermore, divorcing his life from his work is impossible. There are pieces I love because of their context, but are not his most technical or aesthetically pleasing works. And, frankly, this question asks my opinion, which I’ve tried not to exercise too much during the journalistic pursuit of writing his biography! But, I thought I’d share three pieces here that, after all my work, I find particularly appealing.
All of these pieces, and a couple dozen more, can be found in the gallery of Krenov’s work at the back of biography. And, if you want to join in the game of browsing his work and picking favorites, you can find a huge body of his work on The Krenov Archive, and share them in the comments below!
Cabinet of Andaman Padauk (1979)
If you held my feet to the fire and asked me what I thought best summarized Krenov’s technical and aesthetic body of work, it would be this cabinet. Made in Andaman padauk, a wood that Krenov spent many words praising, with drawer-fronts of pearwood and Lebanon cedar drawer interiors, this piece’s form, wood composition and technical execution put it high on a list of “classic Krenovian” cabinets.
The graceful curves are emblematic of Krenov’s work toward the end of his time in Sweden, as are the floating door panels, which lift nicely away from the frame in which they’re suspended. The cove between the stand and cabinet carcase is nicely faceted, showing his penchant for gouge and knife carving. And, his use of the lighter padauk in the panels, which came from the same planks as the darker surrounding padauk used in the stand and carcase body, is a deft illustration of his careful choice of woods. If I were assigning a county-fair-esque superlative, this might come in at “Best Overall.”
Fossil Cabinet (1993)
If the “Cabinet of Andaman Padauk” is “Best Overall,” this cabinet might be something like the dark horse of Krenov’s oeuvre. Made in 1993, a dozen years after his resettlement from Sweden to the school in California, this piece came in the midst of a flurry of cabinets that played with parquetry and veneer composition. Its unusual use of spalted olive veneers, inlaid into the veneered kwila carcase, make it singular in Krenov’s output. Throughout the 1990s, in his 70s, Krenov played with new ideas and forms, a fact that is missed by many historians, who consider his work to be relatively unchanged over his career.
Aside from the fact of its unique place among his work, this cabinet is also attractive in its proportions and shaping. By 2000, Krenov would focus his work almost entirely on small cabinets on tall, leggy stands, and this piece foreshadows that trend. The shaping in the stand is also quite appealing, and hearkens to the first joined stands Krenov made in the 1960s for his “Silver Chests.”
Pearwood Drawer Cabinet (2002)
This is the only piece of the three shown here that I’ve seen in person; in fact, it was the first piece of his I ever saw in the flesh, when David Welter (its owner and the long-time shop technician at The Krenov School) brought it to the school when I was a student. It’s graceful in just about every way; the carcase veneers are carefully arranged, without being loudly bookmatched or otherwise worried over, the legs sweep gracefully and the interior is full of asymmetric and sweetly pillowed drawer fronts.
This was the last piece Krenov made at the school; at the end of the school’s 20th year, Krenov retired at the age of 81. Not only is the cabinet impressive considering the maker was in his eighth decade, it shows his continuing evolution as a maker. Welter was quick to point out that the legs, albeit joined and arranged in a typical fashion to many of Krenov’s later cabinets, feature a shaping profile and style that was new to Krenov’s work.
Before I sign off, I want to mention something that I’ll go into greater detail on next week. During the past three months, I’ve worked with Michelle Frederick, Kerry Marshall and Laura Mays in Fort Bragg, Calif., on an exhibition celebrating Krenov’s centennial, which is this coming Halloween. They’ve begun releasing short teaser videos that hint at the videos we’ve made for the exhibition on this Instagram feed. Next week, I’ll put up a post with insight into our process and what you can expect when the exhibition goes live on Oct. 31. But if you want to start getting excited, I encourage you to check out their Instagram.
For many American craftspeople (including many I interviewed who had a close relationship with James Krenov and his work), it appeared that Krenov emerged from Sweden a fully formed writer and cabinetmaker. That’s an understandable position; before the release of “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” Krenov’s foothold in America consisted of a few short appointments at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Craftsmen and Boston University’s Program in Artisanry, and a single article in Crafts Horizon in 1967, “Wood: ‘… the friendly mystery…’”. Many of his students in California, even from the earliest classes, assumed that Krenov’s career began with the success of his books, or that he had been relatively obscure before their publication.
Inversely, looking at Swedish magazines, furniture histories and newspapers, you might get the impression that Krenov’s story ends after his meteoric rise to fame and his departure from Sweden in 1981, just after the release of his books. While a few of his closest friends and colleagues in Sweden wrote about Krenov or included him in their writing on modern Scandinavian furniture, the line goes pretty silent there after Krenov’s resettlement in California.
A rewarding part of writing “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints” was understanding and marrying these two disparate careers, and looking for the through-line to Krenov’s successes in both places. While this constitutes at least a few chapters’ worth of writing in the biography, I think it’s worth examining in a shorter piece as a means of understanding why James Krenov was a touchstone in the two different craft contexts in which he rose to renown.
When Krenov came to cabinetmaking in his late 30s, he was an outsider in Sweden and its crafts scene. He attended Carl Malmsten’s Verkstadsskola from 1957 to 1959, and it was there he impressed his first, and maybe most influential, pair of advocates.
The first was Malmsten; by this point in his career, Malmsten was perhaps the best-known figure in Swedish craft, having risen to his stature by designing a huge volume of furniture that blended the honest construction of the English Arts & Crafts movement with a strong Swedish vernacular aesthetic. Malmsten designed for the simplest homes and the most luxurious Swedish state houses; he was a household name.
More behind the scenes, but no less influential among the tight circles of Stockholm’s art and craft scene, was Georg Bolin, the principal teacher at Malmsten’s school. Bolin was, by that time, an influential furniture maker and technician of the highest degree. He went on, through the latter half of his career, to design everything from fine furniture to novel “alto guitars,” and even a piano played for many years by Abba, Sweden’s second-largest monetary export, only outpaced by Volvo (until the arrival of IKEA).
As a student, Krenov impressed both Malmsten and Bolin. Shortly after his schooling, both men helped Krenov find a place for his work in the craft galleries and exhibitions of Stockholm, at a time when the Swedish craft scene was casting off functionalism for a more craft-oriented, holistic aesthetic that put craftspeople and handwork at the center.
While Krenov enjoyed minor successes in small shows and galleries (which any craftsperson would be proud to count on their resume), his inclusion in the 1964 exhibition “Form Fantasi,” at the Liljevalchs Kunsthall, was his big break. The exhibition was touted as a point of inflection in Swedish furniture and craft, and at the center of it were two of Krenov’s pieces, a wall cabinet and a silver chest. Krenov got into the juried show as a relatively unknown name (a newspaper article a few months prior misspelled his surname), but his friendship with Bolin and Malmsten certainly helped prime the judges for his work. (Both Bolin and Malmsten were also featured in the exhibition). When the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported the event, Krenov’s “Silver Chest” was chosen for the feature photograph out of the 2,500 pieces from 250 craftspeople. After this show, Krenov won the favor of influential critics and curators, including Dag Widman, director of the exhibition and editor of the publication FORM from the Svenska Slöjdföreningen (Swedish Society of Industrial Design). This led to a solo exhibition, “Liv i Trä” (“Life in Wood”) in 1965, and a cavalcade of features, press and exhibition opportunities, as well as a stipend from the Swedish government given to artists and craftspeople deemed to be doing work important to Swedish culture.
While his cabinetmaking opened the door to his success, there is significant evidence that Krenov’s strong voice as a critic and singular personality helped him rise in the ranks of Swedish craftspeople. He started appearing at public conversations about craft at the Nationalmuseum (which appointed Dag Widman as its chief superintendent in 1966). At the time, Sweden was wrestling with the position of the designer-craftsperson; for a long time prior to the 1960s, Swedish craft had largely followed the trends of continental Europe, with a distinct separation between the designer and the person executing the work. With the revival in craft, Sweden saw an explosion of craftspeople who designed and made their own work, more akin to artists than potters, silversmiths, weavers and woodworkers.
Krenov did not see himself in either of these groups. His education had been technical, focusing on exacting execution according to measured drawings. Krenov eschewed this rigid process after his graduation, but did not swing all the way to the more free-form position of craft as art, which eschewed historic context and technical skill for expression and artists’ statements. His unique position between the two led to a lonely post as an advocate for designer-craftspeople working with traditional joinery and historic forms that were distinctly furniture. He focused on solid construction, graceful form and a distinctly functional intention, but made no attempt to divorce his influences and personality from a piece’s execution. Alongside his appearances at public discourses, Krenov also began writing for FORM, where he took on the voice of an advocate for craft against the bulwark of both unchecked artistry and functionalist design.
By the mid-1970s, Krenov was at the top of Swedish crafts; he was a featured presenter, author and craftsperson in many of the museums and galleries. Few could aspire to more, but his feelings of under-appreciation in Sweden (spurred on by his unique position between two trends) left him looking to the other side of the ocean for greener pastures. In 1966, Craig McArt, a student from RIT, studied with Krenov for several months and persuaded Krenov to share some of his writing. McArt brought an essay back to the United States – the one published in 1967 by Craft Horizons. This first contact with America, and specifically McArt’s advocacy, led to his appointments at RIT and BU. These were combative but engendered a small but enthusiastic following of U.S. students and colleagues. Krenov would have had no problem in Sweden publishing his first book, an extensive elaboration on Craft Horizons essay that became “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook.” But he thought that in the States, unlike Europe, there existed a strong independence around craft, so there would be an eager generation of students who would be receptive to his philosophy – so he wanted his book published in English for an American audience.
And so, with the help of the RIT administration and McArt, Krenov published “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” with Van Nostrand Reinhold, a publisher of art and craft books based in New York. After its publication, Krenov’s reputation in the United States exploded (which surprised his publisher; it had hardly promoted its release). Three more books came in just five years, as did invitations to present and teach stateside, and a few particularly motivated craftspeople on the West Coast established a school based on Krenov’s idiosyncratic approach. It was the school that ultimately convinced Krenov to make his move across the Atlantic, but by 1981, it is clear (in his writings and correspondence from the time) that he had been looking for a landing pad in the States for the better part of a decade.
So, in truth, Krenov entered the American context at a particularly high moment in his career – it was among an American audience that he passed from renowned furniture maker to celebrated author, teacher and influential craftsman. In Sweden, his advocates called for the books to be translated into Swedish. They wanted Swedes to read the philosophy and sensitivity that both Swedish aesthetics and opposition thereto engendered in Krenov. The books were not translated, however, and while there are echoes of Krenov’s influence in Sweden’s woodworking trends (particularly in Malmsten’s schools at Capellgården and Krenov’s alma mater, the Verskstadsskola), his move to the States also largely closed the book on his lasting influence in Sweden.
Krenov’s aesthetic and technical approaches, however, were certainly born in his nearly four decades in Sweden. I would argue that his arrival and warm reception in America constitutes a potent reverberation of the European Arts & Crafts movement’s influence on American woodworking, with Krenov’s direct lineage from Malmsten, who had visited Gimson and the Barnsleys in the Cotswolds in the 1920s. Krenov rose from the plateau of fame he had reached in Sweden to an even higher perch in America, on the back of both his writing and the establishment of his school. If nothing else, he was a singular presence in both countries; his resonance with the curators and critics of Sweden was matched by his reception among the dedicated woodworkers of America – those who were looking for a different approach than the technical manuals that dominated American woodworking publications in the middle of the 20th century. Neither country can claim Krenov as their own; certainly it was Sweden that fostered his development, but it was the United States that gave him his biggest audience, an appreciative student body and a warm reception.
But Krenov never found exactly what he was looking for. He was a Russian-born, American expatriate living in Sweden for decades, including the first two decades of his career as a woodworker. For several years in the 1960s, before the Schneider v. Rusk decision on the status of naturalized U.S. citizens living abroad, he was even a stateless person, having lost his naturalized American citizenship after not returning to the States for several years. While he regained his citizenship in the mid-1960s, it is perhaps most fitting to consider Krenov a stateless craftsperson; it suits his position as an independent force in both countries, someone who never settled for the successes he won.
A story that might sum up his tireless, even contrarian, position was told to me by Tina, Krenov’s youngest daughter. She recalled that in Sweden, when she was growing up, her father insisted that they find turkey for their Christmas dinner, something he remembered from his teenage years in Seattle. But upon the family’s resettlement in California, where turkey might have been much easier to procure, Krenov insisted on ham for their holiday dinner, as the Swedes had preferred. It might be this resistance to comfort that gave Krenov the drive to look to the next opportunity. It is certainly a factor of his success in Sweden, and the driving force behind his relocation to California. With this lens, we can see the continuity in Krenov’s seemingly separate careers in Sweden and the United States, and we might better understand how the perceived loneliness or isolation of his approach ended up bringing him a wider audience and community than any one group or country could have provided.
I’m a furniture maker first and a writer second, or maybe third (after, perhaps, being a master of tangential side projects). So, when I approached writing “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” my biography of the cabinetmaker who was the founder of the woodworking school I attended, it seemed appropriate to take part in retracing some of his steps as a craftsperson.
In Krenov’s body of work, there is one piece that always stood out to me for its graceful presence and idiosyncratic form: 1977’s “A Playful Thing,” detailed extensively in Krenov’s third book on cabinetmaking, “The Impractical Cabinetmaker.” The piece is a pivotal demarcation in Krenov’s output – both a reprisal of his 1962 “No-Glass Showcase of Lemon Wood” from the earliest stage of his career and a harbinger of his future output of leggy cabinets on stands. I also had the pleasure of seeing the piece in person; Krenov kept it and it is still in the family. Seeing it in person confirmed its appeal to me.
So, in February of 2019, I started my own version of the piece. I was happy to have both Krenov’s original drawings for the piece (published in “The Impractical Cabinetmaker”) as well as the insight I’d gained from examining much of his work. I had a pretty good footing to start on. But the understated form of this cabinet hides the complexity of its execution. Between the veneer work, the drawers that pass through both ends of the carcase, the carefully carved and chamfered legs and rails, and the drive to make every inch just right, even from unlikely views below or above, it is a real skill test. By the time I started this piece, I was five years out of the College of the Redwoods (now The Krenov School), and while I like to think my skills are always improving, the truth is that this kind of work requires constant practice and refinement of execution to be done properly and gracefully. I had some uphill battles.
Some progress shots along the way: sawing veneers, making drawers, carving stepped legs and little blackwood pulls.
Krenov’s original was made with East Indian rosewood and Andaman padauk, woods I wasn’t going to hold my breath looking for these days, but after trips up to Keim Lumber in Millersburg, Ohio, and C.R. Muterspaw in Xenia, Ohio, I came home with some stunning gonçalo alves for the stand/drawer fronts and densely figured soft maple for the veneered surfaces. I rounded those out with aromatic cedar for the drawer bottoms, hard maple for the drawer sides and African blackwood for the pulls, and I’m pleased with my choices.
The result, which I’m happy to still have in our bedroom a year and a half later (and 750 miles from Covington, Ky., where I built it), came out in the way as do many reprisals or reiterations of another maker’s design: different and telling of my process, but in the spirit of Krenov’s original, I think.
Are the proportions exact to Krenov’s original? No. Is the shaping identical? Definitely not. Am I James Krenov? Well, come on, of course not. But in making this piece, and walking a few months in Krenov’s shop slippers, I learned quite a bit. I noticed certain aspects of the piece’s construction that betray Krenov’s history: the dexterous use of a knife in carving the legs and the pulls recall his early life spent carving with a jackknife in Alaska; the aesthetic touch of stepped chamfers and an almost architectural composition echo his teacher, Carl Malmsten, whose roots were firmly planted in the English Arts & Crafts movement.
There is a second stream of influence the piece has exerted over the year and half since I finished building it. With an open and inviting showcase area, what Krenov referred to as a “stage,” it is too hard to resist constantly rotating and replacing small objects to showcase. I find myself picking up the objects in residence and looking them over, something I wouldn’t necessarily do if they were tucked away on a shelf or in a glass cabinet.
And this action, the constant consideration and handling of small, fine objects, might be the most impactful effect this piece had on my consideration of Krenov’s work. Krenov often insisted that his showcase cabinets “complemented” the pieces they displayed, and while the cabinet itself might be artfully done or worthy of examination, it wasn’t doing its job well if it couldn’t elevate or showcase its contents. While I’d read Krenov’s words regarding this, actually living with something that encouraged this interaction made it clear. Throughout his lectures, personal papers and his books, Krenov mentions craftspeople from other mediums, like the potters Bernard Leach or Eva Zeisel, in that light, showcase cabinets like “A Playful Thing” make perfect sense of his role as a cabinetmaker. It may be a “chicken-and-egg” problem – whether his appreciation for small crafts came before his penchant for making showcase cabinets or vice versa, but either way, living with this piece has made it clear how Krenov saw that role.
You can’t write a book by building cabinets. Nor can you build a cabinet just by digging through lumberyards and antique stores. But if you can balance these experiences in just the right way, they might just culminate in work that is more than the sum of its parts. I can’t say I’m sure I got there with my cabinet, but the cabinet helped me consider Krenov’s life and work.