We are taught from a young age that compromise and flexibility are golden attributes. I have seen their reward; I won’t go too far into my own sinuous background, but putting myself into different settings with good people, following their lead or being willing to bend my own path, has brought wonderful experiences and opportunities. In woodworking, it’s been ventures into chairmaking, Krenovian cabinetmaking, historic techniques, slapdash construction and basketweaving. In life, it means having a Master’s in computer music, working at a large media/publishing company, working with CNCs to produce violin parts, writing a book, living in five states in less than a decade and being an underemployed but happy craftsperson.
In my three years of researching, interviewing and writing “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” a second lesson in compromise has emerged. There is a lot in Krenov’s story that points to the other side of the coin – the side that makes itself apparent when someone refuses to compromise their worldview or creative practice, even at the cost of their own well-being or success. To me, both the reward and punishment of that second approach is no more apparent than in Krenov’s trajectory from an obscure travelogue writer to a widely celebrated cabinetmaker.
As I interviewed people about Krenov – his students, colleagues, friends, supporters and detractors – the downside of his attitude became apparent. Krenov’s frequent lack of diplomacy in expressing his approach to craft closed doors and alienated many. It took him several tries at educational institutions to find a situation that met his demands or could handle his irascibility concerning the validity of other approaches. His articles in Sweden’s FORM magazine express his disenfranchisement from Scandinavian contemporaries and consumers, often because he thought they would not appreciate or adopt his idiosyncratic approach (though it was there that he reached a level of renown few could hope for). His outlook often made Krenov hard to please, and kept him looking on the other side of the fence (or ocean) for greener grass. It made it difficult (for many years, impossible) to make a living at his craft.
But in this lack of compromise, we can see the seeds of Krenov’s success. At the beginning of his career, a time when Scandinavia was moving toward functionalism and practicality, Krenov declared himself and his work to be outside of those considerations. He called for craftspeople, amateur and professional, to enjoy their work, whatever the wider public insisted about its efficacy or profitability. He was the strongest advocate for the inherent worth of work done well.
So many of us who insist on making furniture or practicing a craft at the highest standards we can muster, rationalize our position and damn the time or impracticality of its execution. We insist that our work is more durable and a better investment, or more timeless and not subject to trendiness or fads.
At several point in his career, Krenov relays these considerations – but he was working to different criteria, not obviously connected to financial or aesthetic concerns. Looking over his work and the lessons he taught, it’s clear that these were secondary (or even tertiary) concerns. He encouraged impracticality and insisted that his way was too difficult to be of use to a professional woodworker. He wanted to be remembered as a “stubborn, old enthusiast.”
I don’t mean to imply a lack of subtlety to his position; in fact, many of his favored students eschewed his path in aesthetics, technique and financial success. I offer up the idea that the “middle path” Krenov described between handwork and machine work – a compromise from many perspectives – was part of what made it so successful and appealing to his hundreds of thousands of readers. And there were students who disagreed with his advice that he came to support or enable – in spite of their resistance. He butted heads with students who, like him, insisted on the value of their own ideas, but in the end many of them won his respect. He could be an inspiring teacher and a friendly mentor, whimsical and enthusiastic.
Krenov’s ability to resist outside influence, especially in terms of income, was enabled by the support of Britta, his wife, who was a high school teacher with a degree in economics and finance. He was also supported by the socialist infrastructure of Sweden, which awarded him stipends and gave Britta a steady pension after her retirement in the late 1970s.
But there is a lesson that can be distilled from Krenov’s path. It isn’t exactly “stick to your guns” or “ignore the haters.” But, after years of my own consideration of Krenov’s story and the memories of those who crossed his path, I think one part of the whole reads something like this: Take in what you can from those around you when you set off, work hard to examine what you value and/or enjoy in your chosen pursuit and be determined enough to pursue it at whatever cost.
It may not lead to success in any traditional sense. Krenov’s career might be measured in book sales or influence, but I think it’s best measured by the memories that were shared with me. His students remember Krenov’s satisfaction in shaping the leg of a stand late into the evenings, or the time he spent happily arranging and composing a freshly sawn batch of veneers. Pursue fulfillment; if you’re lucky or dogged or particularly talented, other measures of success might come to pass. If you’re not, at least you can say it wasn’t a waste of time.
There are many ways to poke holes in this idea as it applies to your own world; I’m not one to promote orthodoxy or dogma. You might be able to follow Krenov’s path with a more polite or amenable attitude. You could pick fulfillment as a guide, and still frequently change the tack of your pursuit. But if you read Krenov’s story (and I hope you will) I think the case study in rigidity and conviction that he lived is worthy of consideration. It is not a prescription, but it might be a part of finding your own path.
“Krenov’s first commission, a teak cutlery box, was commissioned by an American anti-Communist spy turned short fiction writer in 1958, and was paid for with a bottle of Scotch whisky.“
That’s a fun mouthful. It’s one of the crazier sentences I jotted down as I interviewed people for my forthcoming biography “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints.”
During the research for the book, which spans the nine decades of James Krenov’s life and four continents, I was lucky to converse with people who knew and worked with Krenov from the 1950s to the late 2000s. The biography, due out this year, will reveal the fruit born from these connections. And as I reflect on the process now, with the book nearly ready for publication, I’m amazed by the people I had the privilege of talking to throughout my work.
Since September 2018, I interviewed about 150 people around the globe, and I think that highlighting a few of these far-flung folks might hint at the breadth of Krenov’s life.
I reached back as far as I could to find living voices, and I was terrifically lucky to find three people who knew Krenov at the outset of his cabinetmaking career in 1957. The first, and perhaps the most “larger-than-life” character, was Harley Sachs. Today, Sachs works as a board game designer and fiction writer, and has retired to a quiet life in Oregon after living in five countries and traveling the world. He’s now in his late 80s, and was a terrifically loquacious interviewee.
Sachs went to Stockholm in 1957 on the GI Bill after (what he describes as) an odd stint as a misfit in the American military during the war in Korea. While in Stockholm, Sachs worked as an English language teacher and an informant and undercover agent for the American government, who worked against Communist influences in Sweden. Sachs doesn’t recall how he met Krenov, but says his work as a spy drew him to the man. Krenov’s own history, as a Russian-born, trilingual American citizen in Stockholm, would have made him a great potential agent. But Sachs recalled that Krenov was uninterested, though they struck up a friendship that would lead to Krenov’s being Sachs’s best man in his wedding in 1960.
While Sachs only knew of Krenov’s woodworking tangentially, not being a craftsperson himself, he was, perhaps, Krenov’s first client. Sachs commissioned a small dovetailed teak cutlery box, for a nice set of stainless flatware he bought while in Sweden. Unable to pay a satisfactory price, Krenov instead enlisted Sachs (and his connections at the American embassy) to find a fine bottle of Scotch whisky. The case is still in use today by Sachs’s daughter, Cynthia Sachs-Bustos, and holds that same flatware that it was made for more than 60 years ago. A small inscription on the underside of the box’s removable tray, written by Sachs years after its construction, notes that the box is the “first cutlery chest made by Jim Krenov,” an allusion to the fact that Krenov would go on to make a series of “Silver Chests” in his career as a woodworker.
I was able to track down and interview two more people from the 1950s who knew Krenov well, and both were woodworkers themselves. Krenov attended Carl Malmsten’s Verkstadsskolla from 1957 to 1959, and thanks to Malmsten Foundation Chairman Lars Ewö (by way of one of my chairmaking students, Matthew Nafranowicz) I was able to get a list of students from Krenov’s years at the school. After some sleuthing, I contacted Manne Ideström and Kjell Orrling. Neither Ideström or Orrling continued on in their careers as woodworkers. Today, Ideström works as a minister and choral director in Ontario, after moving from Sweden in the 1970s as a partner in his father’s furniture manufacturing business. Orrling is just an hour’s drive away from him, also in Ontario, where he now works as an incredible watercolorist, having sold the lighting fixture business that brought him to Canada in 1973.
Often times, in interviewing people about past events I feel guilty asking them to recall those memories – who can be expected to reach back so far with any clarity? But both Orrling and Ideström easily recalled Krenov, perhaps due to his oddity and unique presence as a student. His classmates were largely in their late teens or early 20s, but Krenov was 37 when he enrolled at Malmsten’s school, and Orrling remembers Krenov’s penchant for reciting poetry and reading from his favorite books during mealtimes in the workshop, a habit that Krenov kept up when he later became a teacher. Orrling also provided photos, some of which are reproduced here, from his time at Malmsten’s school. And there is Krenov, the earliest photo of him working wood. How appropriate it is that he is using a doweling jig and a small hand drill – both practices he would share with readers and students.
Perhaps the most memorable interview for the book wasn’t with someone who had ever heard of Krenov, though he did know about the church that Krenov’s father, Dmitri, built in Sleetmute, Alaska.
Much of Krenov’s early life is tied to the lives of indigenous people of Siberia and Alaska, in particular the Chukchi of far Eastern Siberia, the Yupik people of Sleetmute, Alaska, and the Dena’ina people of Tyonek, Alaska. The Chukchi people of Siberia are a well-researched and documented group, and I had a wonderful time researching them as a part of my writing. But when it came to the natives of Alaska, I had a hard time finding the correct terminologies, histories and surviving documents. Unequipped with the all-important “keywords” that might bring up the correct documents, I decided to rely on one of the great interconnecting presences in America – the postal service.
Last spring, while Sleetmute was still covered in snow, I found the number of the local post office branch. Sleetmute is a town of 86, hundreds of miles up the Kuskokwim River from Bethel, and I suspected that if I could get in touch with just one resident, they would surely know who might be able to answer my questions. The clerk, sure enough, told me to call “Frank,” the oldest of the village elders who he thought would welcome the odd call from Kentucky. Frank answered and was happy to spend an hour on the phone with me. I wish I could give you Frank’s full name, or link to a website as I did with the people above, but I never got any such information, nor did it seem appropriate – Frank was happy to be in a place he noted as deeply isolated. He was able to share what he knew of Sleetmute’s history, confirmed the dates of the flood that Krenov’s mother noted in her unpublished memoir, and even better, he was simply happy to chat with a curious outsider. His father was Yugoslavian, his mother was Yupik, and he had lived all of his seven decades on the Kuskokwim River. He also had a few choice jokes about Columbus and his being the “first person to collect American welfare” from the natives he came to colonize and enslave, and told me a good five-minute story that turned out to be a pun on the name of the Yupik tribe (the punchline was something like, “No, YOU pick!”).
This biography, which I am thrilled to say will be in the hands of readers soon, is really just a spun thread composed of the collective memories of dozens of such conversations, writings and photographs. Over the course of the years of research, I’ve realized the power of picking up the phone and finding a friendly and talkative person on the other end of the line. I’ll end with an encouragement, one I heard from many. Share your stories with those around you and with those strangers who might just be interested. Harley Sachs surely has, as is evidenced in his voluminous list of publications. So, too, have Manne Ideström and Kjell Orrling, through their music and artwork. And so, too, did Frank, with the curious young man calling from Kentucky.
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.
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 second chunk of “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” by James Krenov, up to page 51. Next week, we’ll reading up to page 69, and you can leave comments and questions about pages 51-69 in the comments section below, which I’ll answer and incorporate into next week’s post. One note: a focus for next week’s posts will be the picture pieces in that section of the book, in particular the Oregon pine violin cabinet, the chess table and the music stand, so give those a good look!
The first essay in this second section, from pp. 24 to 27, is classically Krenovian writing – it weaves its way through a half-dozen topics, roughly orbiting a prompt about approaches to woodworking and education. I could have included it in last week’s writings. It has more in common with the first essays of the book in that it’s somewhere amongst critique, observation and a call to arms. But it is a great three-page bit of writing, if you don’t mind the jump-cuts in topics.
The most interesting part of that first essay is the discussion of the roles of schooling. There is a lot of personal experience there. By the time of this writing, Krenov had taught in a few schools, and he hadn’t been happy with the situation at any of them. One note jumps at me, in particular:
Education assumes (in order to justify itself to trustees and public) the role of being both selective and “democratic.” This is often disastrous, and results in work on a level of generalities.
The best is by its very nature selective: why not accept it as such? This doesn’t make crafts as nostalgia or entertainment or therapy less justifiable. It’s simply that as a dedication, as the center of one’s life, craft is one thing – and as anything else it is a different and separate matter.
Both are needed. Between them we should have an enticing dialogue. But force them together and you get gibberish.
Krenov would never fall on either side of the “democratic” or “selective” tug-of-war that he saw occurring. From this passage, you might think he would consider himself in a camp with “the best.” But later he refers to himself as an amateur – certainly more on the “democratic” side of things. But maybe he is an amateur that has taken his craft “as the center of one’s life?”
This isn’t a critique of his writing or reasoning – in fact, as Ryan Stadt noticed in last week’s comments, it’s one of the things I appreciate most in this book. It’s contradiction, or maybe something more like exploration, trying on different outfits or approaches and seeing what each one evokes. It leaves a lot to consider for its readers, and yet still forms a cohesive impression of Krenov, if not firm descriptors. “Dedicated amateur” is both a fitting title and nonsensical.
I also mentioned that you might want to look at the 1967 Craft Horizons article “Wood: The Friendly Mystery” last week, and I hinted it might be relevant here. That article, too, is typically Krenovian in structure – a bit rambling and stream-of-consciousness. But to my eyes it doesn’t stagger. It’s more like a quick jog between pointed thoughts.
To give you some insight into why I picked the Craft Horizons article to accompany this week’s passage – you may have noticed that in some cases they were one and the same. One of Krenov’s more poetic passages (I remember it was frequently present at the school) is the last paragraph on p. 32 of “Notebook,” beginning “I stand at my workbench.” You may have seen it on the second page of the Craft Horizons article, too.
But it isn’t just this one paragraph that repeats. In fact, according to Craig McArt, an early student and friend of Krenov’s, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” was, in fact, just an elaboration and extension of the 1967 article for Craft Horizons.
McArt studied with Krenov during his “Scandinavian Seminar” from RIT in 1966. He had secured a Fulbright scholarship to study with European designers, and he began working with Krenov in the basement workshop in the Stockholm suburbs. When McArt returned from Sweden later that year, he carried with him a short essay by Krenov, which would be published a year later by Craft Horizons, titled “Wood: The Friendly Mystery.” It was Krenov’s first published writing on woodworking in the United States. McArt encouraged Jim over the next several years to write more, and eventually dictated passages began arriving at RIT in 1973, the tapes which became “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook.”
So, this earlier article is a fascinating insight into the larger form of the book. There are paragraphs in that essay that become entire essays in “Notebook” – tales of uncovering fine hardwoods in the rough, visiting clients, all of it was expanded upon to form much of the independent passages in “Notebook.”
Scott (tsstahl), in his comments from this reading, picked up on a phrase that I, too, found really amusing in the Craft Horizons article – “calculated originality.” Krenov is discussing a series of traps that can decide one’s craft quality, aesthetic or output:
To turn dull tools, clumsiness, or lack of patience into that rustic touch. Or to make a curiosity of the craft by a brand of calculated originality. Or to be only practical, weighing costs against time against salability—and accepting all the consequences. All.
This quick list is one that jumps out at me – it touches on three compromises nearly every woodworker has made or has caught themselves considering. Laziness and dullness turned into an affect is everywhere – and everyone has had that frustrated moment of defeat where you decide to like the result of something because you know the other option is a lot more work. We’ve fallen into the first trap. We’ve all thought “wouldn’t it be cool, or so like me, to put a _____ on this piece?” And, then, we fall into the second trap. Or, we think “maybe I’ll just make these boxes with miters, not dovetails – for those people and that money…” The third trap closes around our foot.
And in one paragraph he gets into that, and further, more eloquently and in a way that feels more familiar. As Scott noted, “the guy has a knack for really nailing down something.” I’ll agree to that – he had a bandolier of these axioms that were always around at his lectures, when he taught or when he played tennis. While I’ve been interviewing people for the biography, more than once I have had two different folks, separated in their interactions with Jim by 30 years, remembered the same phrase used in similar settings. The connections between this essay and “Notebook” further indicate that Krenov was not above reusing or elaborating on prior thoughts.
After this first essay is Krenov’s romantic passage on his handplanes, starting on p. 30. It’s a beautiful passage that I won’t pick apart too much. I find some joy in reading it, and I love the image of the hand plane as “the cabinetmaker’s violin.” For many outside of Krenov’s school or the world of studio furniture-making, Krenov’s most tangible legacy after the books is the planes, which many now call “Krenov planes.” And, hearing Krenov describe them in this passage makes the tool sound like magic. A good portion of the letters and writings that Krenov received after the publication of “Notebook” ask for more details about these planes. And in “The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking,” Krenov devotes significant time to their construction (starting on p. 80 in that book!).
Following this essay on planes is an essay on knives on p. 38. Krenov had a life-long love of knives – he had gotten his first in an air drop of supplies to one of the remote Alaskan village he was raised in, and from an early age he carried a knife. The carved elements of his furniture, the pulls, latches and small details, are part of what is so compelling in his work, to my eye. While it’s tempting to attribute this penchant for carving to a slöjd influence, maybe through Malmsten, I believe it was present in him before he thought to make cabinets. That said, some of the forms of these details were influenced by Swedish culture. David Welter, a long time colleague at Krenov’s school, remembers that Krenov had found inspiration for some of these carved elements from carved parts on the Vasa ship, which was first restored and exhibited in 1961, just two years into Krenov’s independent practice as a cabinetmaker.
Looking at this already lengthy post, I won’t try a deep dive into the last two essays of the assigned section – but they, again, embody the wonderful meandering and compelling stream-of-consciousness writing that makes this book so much more than a straightforward treatise on craft. His essay on signing work, which begins with his considerations on “perfection,” seems, to be under the influence of Yanagi’s “Unknown Craftsman,” which was released in English in 1972 and was one of Krenov’s favorite books on craft alongside David Pye’s “The Nature and Art of Workmanship.” Whatever you think of those books, I enjoy Krenov’s digestion of what it means to sign work – in the end, he concedes that he owes a signature to the customers who bought his work. In that moment, Krenov concedes that some of the value of his work is in its provenance. That narrowly escapes the contradiction of his assertion that a craftsperson’s presence should be felt in the form and aesthetics of a piece, not in a placard or the attachment of a signature. But, again, he plays the realist – and I certainly appreciate his practice of signing the work, as it’s made my investigations that much easier.
The last essay, which starts with a prompt concerning setting up shop, is more of a list of pessimistic considerations of what it is to be a craftsperson. This writing starkly resembles the body of writing Krenov did for Form magazine in Sweden – but his pessimism for those who might succeed him in his particular approach to craft is one that changed significantly over the first three books he wrote. Here, he suspects there are few who might be able to eschew trends, conveniences or that same “calculated originality” from the Craft Horizons article. A favorite bit of Krenovian advice of mine begins at the end of p. 45:
Try to find the sort of people for whom there is another originality – that of the quiet object in unquiet times.
This single sentence is again a place where Krenov’s dexterous use of language brings about a rich set of images. Maybe something stunning, exciting, compulsive or loud can be remarkable and persuasive (Chester Cornett comes to mind), but when I look at the objects of craft that I prize most in our home, most of them are unassuming and compelling in their “quietness,” so to speak. One of Peter Follansbee’s carved spoons I have on a shelf in the kitchen comes to mind, as does a small white oak basket I found at a local antique mall for a pittance. Out in the world, many of Krenov’s pieces strike me this way – so, too, does Noguchi’s sculpture, or much of Jere Osgood’s furniture, or Shoji Hamada’s pottery. Don’t get me wrong – I love sensation. But what Krenov is warning against is the pursuit of sensation as a means of aesthetic inspiration, not an organic embodiment of the maker’s personality.
The quiet object in unquiet times, as a prompt for a beginning craft aesthetic, is as good a place to start as I can think of. Naturally, everyone develops from there. At times Krenov’s own work went far from a quiet aesthetic, but the context of his prompt is important. He was definitely reacting to the postmodern furniture and second wave of studio makers making their way to the stage in the 1960s and 1970s.
I’ll wrap up my own words on the passage here, and highlight a few notes from the comments and questions you all had about this passage – I could go on, but for brevity’s sake, I’d better not.
Steve Schuler (literaryworkshop) asked which languages Krenov spoke. I answered in the comments, but I’ll echo them here also because it’s a question I see quite a bit, amplified by the confusion as to his nationality. Krenov was born in Russia to Russian-speaking parents, but from a young age was bilingual in Russian and English. His mother, Julia, was a language tutor most of her life, and was educated in the Empress Dowager’s school in St. Petersburg, so she grew up fluent in Russian and French. She also spent quite a lot of time in England in her youth, so she was proficient in English, too, and her memoir was written in English with no sign of struggle. Krenov also had some amount of Italian and French vocabulary, absorbed in his childhood around his mother and in his trips around post-war Continental Europe. And, he was, after a few years living there, fluent in Swedish, and his wife and children were bilingual English and Swedish speakers. So, he spoke three languages fluently, and a few more conversationally – he had a gift for language, to be sure.
Commenter Michael Valentinas was off by a few years in his remembrance of Krenov’s coming to woodworking late, but it is true that Krenov started his craft much later than most – he enrolled at the Verkstadsskola in 1957, at the age of 37. It’s a remarkable fact, made more incredible that by 1964 he was being shown in the most influential exhibitions at the time in Sweden. That betrays the fact that Krenov had an undeniable knack for woodworking. While I’ve never thought of the “10,000 hours” idea as anything more than a myth, he blows it out of the water – some of his first pieces were already nearly fully developed, and one that comes to mind is pictured above, built in 1962, just three years after his schooling. If anything, Krenov’s story is more like a “find what you’re good at and love to do” flavor of encouragement, though he was certainly a late-bloomer in that department.
I’m enjoying this series of posts, and I hope you all are still enjoying these long posts! For next week’s post, I’ll be moving up to page 69 of “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” though for next week, while I’ll be talking about the writing, I’d like to focus on the photographed pieces in that section. Three pieces are pictured here – his “Chess Table,” the Oregon pine “Violin Cabinet” and the “Music Stand,” the latter two of which can also be found in his fourth book for Van Nostrand Reinhold, “Worker in Wood,” published in 1981 (if you want some better photos). There is also some great writing here, too – 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 this quiet activity, a bit of light reading and careful thought, is something people are enjoying in these nutty times. Frankly, it’s one of the few things that’s helping me know when one week ends and the next begins!
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.
Ryan Stadt asked about the Chuang Tzu passage at the beginning of the book, translated by Thomas Merton. If you’ve got a minute, Merton is an amazing character to look into – he was a Christian mystic, and Ryan wondered if there was any deeper connection there.
In fact, I think the first time Jim encountered this quote was in Form magazine, the Swedish design magazine Jim wrote for a number of times in the 1960s and 1970s. The passage appears as interstitial material between a preceding article and Jim’s essay for Form in 1973, but it doesn’t appear to have been at Jim’s request nor is it relevant to the subject of his article. The text is shrunk and oddly formatted and, to my eye (I was a managing editor for, like, six months!), it looks like it was included to make the line and page breaks neat and without white space. But, obviously the poem is well-suited to Jim’s sensitivities – perhaps it was a moment of poetic chance, or was included at his direction? It’s a detail I can’t confirm, and so it doesn’t go in the book, but if it did occur that way then it’s a lovely moment of happenstance. Perhaps even mystical?
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!