The following is excerpted from “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” by Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney. After years of research and more than 150 interviews, Gaffney produced the first and definitive biography of Krenov, featuring historical documents, press clippings and hundreds of historical photographs. Gaffney traced Krenov’s life from his birth in a small village in far-flung Russia, to China, Seattle, Alaska, Sweden and finally to Northern California where he founded the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program.
While the school [what is now the Krenov School of Fine Furniture]was preparing for his withdrawal, [James] Krenov, too, was making plans for his life after the program. His craft practice had been uninterrupted in his last year, in spite of the turbulent conditions of his departure. He completed three cabinets, even venturing into a new form, a “drawer cabinet” whose interior was occupied by an array of drawers, with little or no open space inside the carcase. As he prepared to leave the school, unsure if he would or could return to the facilities, one student remembers that Krenov spent a sizable amount of time preparing and sawing materials for the cabinets he hoped to make when he returned home. The students, too, helped with Krenov’s move. Along with helping him with the physical move of his materials, the students built him a going-away gift of a veneer press, smaller than the school’s but sized to Krenov’s smaller scale of work.
Erik Owen, a student from the class of ’96, worked with the family to build an addition to the cabin behind the house on Forest Lane, to serve as a small workshop reminiscent of his Bromma basement workshop from Sweden. Into the shop they moved his workbench, a few small machines and his still ample supply of wood, all he needed for the construction of his small veneered cabinets on stands.
The move home was turbulent, and after leaving the school, it would be several months before Krenov would complete a cabinet in this diminutive space. But his family and friends also were careful to help see that Krenov would not have to endure too long a separation from his daily routine, for both Krenov’s and their own sakes. Tina remembers that Britta knew it was time for her husband to retire, having seen his demeanor and attitude with the school worsen, but was saddened to see it happen on terms not entirely his own.
Krenov’s ultimate critique of the school he gave after his retirement, now coming out from under his 20-year tenure, was that it could not bring the students to a place of maturity, both as technically solid craftspeople and capable designers. Krenov had never shied away from helping those students who sought his help, and many of his favorite students had come to the school without any background in furniture. Krenov had delighted at bringing many of those students far past a point of accomplishment that they themselves had thought possible. But he had long used an analogy that he had overheard Arthur Rubinstein, the famed Polish-American pianist, give when addressing the talents of his students.
“For example, you cannot teach a person to be musical,” he told Oscar Fitzgerald, just a few years later. “You can teach them to play, but you can’t teach them to be musical. I was in New York and I came back to my hotel room and they were having the 80th birthday concert by [Arthur] Rubinstein – Carnegie Hall, the whole ball of wax. And they were interviewing him in the intermission and somebody asked him … about the students of that time. He says, ‘Oh, such technicians, such skills. Oh, sometimes I ask one of them, when are you going to make music?’”
In May 2002, Krenov officially retired from the program, after his 20th year at the school. Burns remembers that the last day was cathartic. Knowing that their time as colleagues was over, he and Krenov had a final argument, one that was their last conversation. However turbulent Krenov’s last years had been, the school’s faculty, with the addition of Hjorth-Westh and Smith, would forge ahead without Krenov, and the school continued outside of his presence on staff.
Krenov himself would not retreat, in totality, from the school for a few more years. He returned on occasion in subsequent years to see and advise on student work, suggest or offer up a board of wood for a certain project and, sometimes, to fill his pockets with dowels from the boxes in the machine room. The school’s students, too, would not cease to visit Krenov. Laura Mays, a second-year student in the first year without Krenov in residence, remembers that many of her classmates, even those who hadn’t studied under Krenov, would make frequent trips to the Krenovs’ house for tea and conversation. And alumni, those who had stayed in the area or who returned for visits, would come to their teacher’s home to check up on the aging cabinetmaker. Krenov would even weigh in on some students’ attempts at recreations or reinterpretations of his own designs; as late as 2008, Krenov advised one student, Tom Reid, on his version of Krenov’s “Carved Curves” cabinet, and gave Reid the compass plane he had made decades earlier for his own construction of the cabinet.
Krenov’s departure began the last chapter of his life. In those years, visitors to his home remember his fondness for Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Krenov, with failing eyesight, arthritis, body pains and faltering hearing was moving toward the end of his life, but retirement was never an option for the 82-year-old. From his small world on Forest Lane, he would still host a rotating cast of visitors, friends and well wishers, reach out into the world by phone and written word, and continue to pursue a craft practice by any means necessary.
James Krenov, the well-known furniture maker born in Russia, author of the hugely influential “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” for 21 years the lead instructor of what is now the Krenov School in Fort Bragg, Calif., and who died at 88 in 2009, was not always revered. When my late wife, Carolyn Grew-Sheridan, and I met with him in 1974, in a suburb outside Stockholm, Sweden, he had been rejected for a teaching position at the School for American Crafts at the Rochester Institute of Technology and thought himself to be in exile. His wife, a native of Sweden, was supporting them as a high school teacher of economics. His professional world was a tiny basement with small machines and a bench where he made his signature handplanes.
While cleaning out several old boxes, I recently found notes from our trip to Scandinavia. Carolyn and I had taken a six-week backpacking and youth hosteling trip to visit woodworkers, museums and schools there. We had just finished a 14-month apprenticeship with Karl Seemuller and Andy Willner at the Peters Valley School of Crafts in New Jersey. Arrangements for that placement, which saved us huge tuition bills, had been made by Dan Jackson, a creative genius who died far too early.
On May 15, 1974, I wrote the following short notes without the benefit of a tape recorder:
A four-and-a-half-hour visit to a meticulously maintained shop. A chance to hear master cabinetmaker, James Krenov, formerly of Seattle, talk about wood, furniture and, most importantly, people. We made the appointment on the recommendation of the editor of FORM magazine, Kirstin Wickman.
I wrote that “he lives in a pleasant house 25 minutes outside the city. Huge high-rise complexes built for the commuter rail line surround his detached house and others in the area, but the overall feeling in May is of light and sunshine. He met us at the train and immediately showed himself to be on the defensive. He asked me why I was wearing hiking boots, ‘those heavy things.’ Well, I didn’t want to tell him that I used to own a pair of shoes like his Wallabies, but they hurt my feet. So I just said that my boots were comfortable for our traveling.
“This short, strong, grey-haired man then led us toward his house while our attempts to make conversation failed. But that didn’t stop him from talking. It simply meant that there was no exchange, at least for a while, until things warmed up. We were offered the hospitality of cake and coffee and a tour of his workshop. We found his basement space to be immaculate, with perfectly sharpened tools and handmade planes. Everything was in its assigned place. He had a few of his pieces there, including a clock with one hand.
“Krenov appeared to Carolyn and me to be working on a delicate scale with discipline and consistency. He made only minimal, preliminary sketches and did not believe that woodworkers have to know how to draw.
His opinion was that “they can respond to the wood. Too many students get lost in their drawings and find themselves only able to think on paper.”
During our conversations he apologized for his being antagonistic, but said that he didn’t know how people felt about him, or his methods and style of work. He was tired of being a curiosity. He was defensive. We heard (and he confirmed) that in Scandinavia young people were not interested in training to be cabinetmakers. New companies like IKEA were being created. (We brought home as a souvenir the first IKEA catalog). He felt that he himself needed only simple tools and machinery. He loved and treasured his wood collection.
He was not accepted for a teaching position at the School for American Crafts at RIT after teaching and auditioning there. He came to the conclusion that the school drove out the sensitive students, was trying to be everything to everyone and, as a result, was not serving its purpose. The curriculum was not congruent with his philosophy and techniques.
He was critical of other prominent furniture makers and not content within his own work. Krenov singled out Art Espenet Carpenter, founder of the Baulines Guild in the California Bay Area. “Beauty doesn’t come by the pound,” he said. In addition, I noted that he called Carpenter’s work “amateur dabbling” and regretted that Carpenter had been such a big influence on the West Coast.
He felt that Wendell Castle, also teaching at Rochester and who was becoming a towering presence in sculpture and woodworking, was ignorant about wood as a material and a bad teacher. “Castle made too many Wendell Castles,” he said. He emphasized that when teaching at RIT he wouldn’t even grade some of the student projects that were Castle-influenced. He accepted Castle as a sculptor but he thought that he was not responsive to the wood itself and that he should be working in another medium. This was in reference to Castle’s stack-laminated and carved work. (Krenov was unaware that Castle received an MFA in cast bronze sculpture.)
He was fond of my informal mentor at the Philadelphia University of the Arts, Dan Jackson. He thought that Jackson had a lot of sensitivity and ability. At the same time he said that the school encouraged too much originality and “razzmatazz.”
When talking about his own work he mentioned the importance of achieving “the singing drawer” in a cabinet. The fit of the drawer in the finished cabinet. He thought this was a crucial quality that needed be discussed and understood. For him a completed piece has to be good from every side and should not contain plywood. For a woodworker the “joy is in taking a piece completely through each step,” in contrast to industrial line production where the employee has to do the same thing over and over.
He thought that the quality of tools in Europe and the United States was declining (this was in the early 1970s) so he recommended Japanese saws, which were then new to us. In addition, he had a collection of older tools and plane irons. The specialty tool makers that we know today did not exist then.
It was his experience after being in many shows that in Scandinavia those awarding commissions did not often think of ordering a cabinet for a specific space. Usually such work went to weavers or painters. However, Krenov felt that in the United States a buying public for works in wood could be developed if the buyer was able to appreciate the cost of the time in the work.
For someone whose worldwide fame was still in front of him, but very close, we noticed how worried he was about how much longer he would be able to work. He worried about his strength and alertness, even though he was only 53 when we met him.
Unfortunately, we took no pictures of our visit with James Krenov. In the months that followed we finished our second summer as assistants in the Peters Valley wood studio At the same time, Carolyn, who had worked for three years after college as a book editor, attempted to organize Krenov’s thoughts and notes into a publishable format. Eventually she sent her files back to Krenov, who found a publisher for his best-selling “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook.” We started our Grew-Sheridan Studio in San Francisco. It seemed to us to be the cheapest city in the country in which to find working space. There was no “tech.”
Some notable Krenov quotes from the visit:
“Americans want to design a piece on Tuesday and have it ready on Saturday.”
“They want originality. There is none.”
“Craftsmanship has its own justification”.
“Craft must be able to offer something that factories cannot.”
“It is a fallacy to say that a craftsman can make a better joint than a factory.”
“There is a need to explore questions of value and aesthetics.”
“I enjoy teaching.”
“I don’t feel that the best craftsmen will survive but the most aggressive will.”
“I don’t like curves that are just part of a circle. Too boring.”
“Asymmetrical work should be subtle not forceful.”
“No tool is a magic key.”
We had been traveling to see “Scandinavian Design.” Krenov thought it was “living on its past laurels.” IKEA was just getting started. The future of studio furniture making was in the United States.
One of the first furniture images in “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints” – Brendan Gaffney’s biography of a 20th century woodworking icon – is the “Pagoda Cabinet” that Krenov built in 1971 from European cherry. David Welter, a student of Krenov’s then a long-time faculty member at the school he founded (now called the Krenov School), chose it to showcase in his foreword for the book because it’s one of his favorite furniture pieces.
The Pagoda Cabinet, which remained in Sweden for 50 years, was recently acquired by a former student of the Krenov School, who turned it over to Welter for cleaning and conservation. In June 2022, Welter gave a talk to the school on the cabinet and his process. Watch it below, courtesy of the Krenov Foundation.
James Krenov (1920-2009) was one of the most influential woodworking writers, instructors and designers of the 20th century. His best-selling books – starting with “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” – inspired tens of thousands of people to pick up the tools and build things to the highest standard.
Yet, little is known about his life, except for a few details mentioned in his books.
After years of research and more than 150 interviews, Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney has produced the first and definitive biography of Krenov, featuring historical documents, press clippings and hundreds of historical photographs. Gaffney traces Krenov’s life from his birth in a small village in far-flung Russia, to China, Seattle, Alaska, Sweden and finally to Northern California where he founded the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program (now The Krenov School).
“James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints” brims with the details of Krenov’s life that, until now, were known only to close friends and family.
In the fall of 1981, 22 students arrived at the new building at the end of Alger Street in Fort Bragg to begin the first year of The College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program. The small shop was equipped with all of the elements Hoke and Kavanaugh had procured to Krenov’s specifications. The northern end of the building housed a wood room with two bays (one for exotic woods and one for locally sourced lumber), a small office, a supply room, a bay of lockers that would be swapped out for a small kitchenette after the first two years, two bathrooms and a neutral entry space that housed a table for informal lunches and the school’s library of craft books. In the middle of the building was the heart of the school, a large bench room, outfitted with 22 new cabinets, stools, bench lights and workbenches. Through the back doors on the eastern side of the bench room was a small field that backed up onto a bluff overlooking Pudding Creek; out of the front doors on the western side was a small yard, in which a volleyball court would soon be installed. Through double doors at the southern end of the bench room was the machine room, housing a number of new machines: a drill press, an 18″ planer, a large jointer, band saws, mortisers and table saws. These were joined by a few of Krenov’s machines from his basement workshop in Bromma: a small planer, jointer, band saw and combination table saw/mortiser.
The school’s layout and arrangement would hardly change in the coming decades. A small outbuilding for storing air-dried planks and a small finishing and storage room attached to the southern end of the building would be the only significant additions to the building’s footprint through the years. The environment built out in that first year remained almost unchanged over the next four decades, visiting alumni often remarking on the time capsule-like quality of the space.
Down the eastern and western sides of the bench room, carefully placed windows and skylights allowed a flood of natural light, raised above the level of the tool cabinets and out of a direct line that would cause unwanted glare. Each source of natural light was outfitted with a shade that could be drawn to cover the window, allowing for slide presentations and more controlled lighting when work was exhibited and photographed. At the front of the bench room, just inside the main entrance, was the teacher’s bench, where Michael Burns, Crispin Hollinshead, Robert Lasso and Krenov would begin lecturing and teaching.
The first cohort to attend the school came from a variety of backgrounds. Some, like Paul Reiber, were local craftspeople, thrilled at the prospect of an affordable education in fine woodworking, not necessarily drawn to the program by Krenov’s presence. Others, like Hoke, had upended their lives to come to study with Krenov on the remote Mendocino coast, and many had been excitedly awaiting the program’s opening. There was an overwhelming feeling among the first class that they were a pioneering group, entering at the ground floor of what was, by all accounts, a new kind of woodworking program. Nationally, the school was novel in its affordability, being a community college education. Furthermore, Krenov’s name and reputation would be a unique draw for the school, one that would save another key expense in opening such a program: advertising. Krenov’s presence would prove to be enough to attract a wide audience, augmented in part by the thriving local craft scene and the craftspeople relocating to the area. Furthermore, the program was affordable. For California residents, the program cost $100 for the two-semester program; for out-of-state attendees, the program was just more than $3,000, well less than the tuition of established programs elsewhere.
In addition to its affordability and high standards, there was also the emphasis on Krenov’s “quiet expression and enjoyment and sensitivity,” as he told a reporter covering the new program. That emphasis was different from other schools. It was more concerned with personal pursuit and enrichment, and acknowledged that it was not strictly vocational training for professionals. While there was an air of excitement and novelty in the introductory year, it was attenuated by the consideration that the school’s faculty and students were still gaining their footing. Hoke, Burns, Hollinshead and Lasso were learning Krenov’s process and peculiarities. There was little disagreement among the faculty about Krenov’s work and philosophy, but each of the faculty members was still learning how to interact with Krenov as a colleague. Krenov could inspire and raise the spirits of a student doing his or her best work, but it was often the other instructors who would bolster those students struggling with the high standards put forth by Krenov’s demanding eye and approach. Krenov made no attempt to disguise his judgment of the choices made by students, and encouraged them to pursue the same rigorous and uncompromising goals he had set for himself.
“A woodworker first must learn the alphabet,” Krenov told the Sacramento Bee in 1986, speaking about his prescribed steps in beginning a woodworking practice. “Then a little spelling, then a little grammar. Then maybe you will write a little poetry.” Krenov was wary of some students’ desire to move too quickly, or to begin exploring less conservative or traditional approaches. To temper this overextension, the first projects were limited in scope; they had to be “simple, small, solid (not veneered) and ‘sweet.’” Students who arrived with the aim of studying with Krenov had a wide variety of impressions of the man they met. Those with the most idealistic impression of Krenov’s philosophy were often surprised by Krenov’s forceful emphasis on technique and an unwillingness to compromise his standards when applied to student work. In the environment of the Mendocino coast, which proffered an egalitarian philosophy of inclusion, Krenov’s teaching style might have been perceived as an older and more “top-down” approach. Of course, the school had been built around his presence, and he was explicitly placed as the lead instructor and lecturer at the school.
“Some of them clearly had difficulty dealing with Krenov’s sometimes temperamental nature, especially after having formed an image of him based on his writings,” wrote Paul Bertorelli in his 1983 comparison of Krenov’s and Wendell Castle’s different teaching approaches for Fine Woodworking. “‘I think we all went in expecting a guru of woodworking,’ [Ken] Walker said, ‘but we found Jim to be a real person with all the same problems, conflicts and idiosyncrasies as the rest of us.’”
Michael Burns became a source of encouragement for students who had difficulties with Krenov’s critique; while Burns held a high standard and perception of the work the students could attain, he also took on a role of mediator and motivator. When a student encountered resistance or a negative critique of their work from Krenov, Burns often invited them out to the back of the school for encouragement or a beer.
“Most of his students, once past the first terrors of His Judgments, just call him Jim,” Glenn Gordon wrote in his 1985 profile of Krenov and the school for Fine Woodworking. Those who were able to endure Krenov’s demanding standards and frankness in feedback were rewarded by his talents as a lecturer and his “ability to enable students to do their best,” as one alumnus of the school remembers. Many students from the first years encountered a sensitivity and passion in his teaching that bolstered and raised their own considerations of what they could accomplish. In Krenov, they saw the spirited and impassioned craftsperson from the books, no less idealistic in person. Many came with the expectation to work in concert with Krenov’s philosophy and approach, and accepted a narrower focus of aesthetics and processes closely aligned with Krenov. Krenov did not demand that students emulate his exact aesthetic; in fact, he was often most critical or demanding of students who reproduced his designs, which rarely met his standards.
“If you’re going to do something that someone else has done, because you really like it, then maybe the best thing to do is not to tinker with it too much and start from scratch instead,” Krenov would later say in a 1994 lecture. “Just say, well, okay, I’ve got this thing in the back of my head, but what I’m gonna do is going to be different enough, and good enough, to where it will stand on its own and it’s not just a bad imitation.”
Krenov (1920-2009) was one of the most influential woodworking writers, instructors and designers of the 20th century. His best-selling books – starting with “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” – inspired tens of thousands of people to pick up the tools and build things to the highest standard.
Yet, little is known about his life, except for a few details mentioned in his books.
After years of research and more than 150 interviews, Gaffney has produced the first and definitive biography of Krenov, featuring historical documents, press clippings and hundreds of historical photographs. Gaffney traces Krenov’s life from his birth in a small village in far-flung Russia, to China, Seattle, Alaska, Sweden and finally to Northern California where he founded the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program (now The Krenov School).
“James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints” brims with the details of Krenov’s life that, until now, were known only to close friends and family. The book begins by examining the noble origins of Krenov’s mother in Russia, and her flight into the wilderness during the country’s revolution. After Krenov is born among the Chukchi at a trade outpost, the Krenovs flee to Shanghai and then the United States. After time in Alaska and Seattle, Krenov heads to Sweden where he works in a factory and tries to get his writing published.
By the 1990s, the students who were coming through the school were, like the wider public, most familiar with the work that Krenov had published. But in the subsequent decades since the publications of his books, Krenov’s work had continued to evolve, and he began pursuing pieces that had features that were novel and outside his previous work. Hjorth-Westh remembered that some of Krenov’s work during his school years pushed Krenov’s own aesthetics to a new place. While his output was exclusively free-standing cabinets, most of which took the cabinet on a stand form, the early 1990s saw the introduction of a number of new techniques into his work, due in part to the exchange of ideas and inspirations he had with students and colleagues at the school. In 1991, Krenov put a small wall cabinet with a painted interior, the “Spalted V-Front Wall Cabinet,” in the 10th anniversary show at Pritam & Eames. The use of paint was a shock to many of his students, though he had used paint on the interior of two other cabinets, the “Bits of Maple Wall Cabinet” in 1962 and the “Birdseye V-Front Wall Cabinet” made in 1972. He also began exploring the use of large laminated panels inside his cabinets, accentuating their unique division of the internal space by placing glass doors on all sides of the cabinet.
A defining example of Krenov’s late explorations of technique was a series of parquetry cabinets, in which he explored a painterly composition of shop-sawn veneers. He made the first of these cabinets in 1993, and took advantage of the emptying out of the classroom at the end of the school year to spread his freshly sawn walnut veneers across several of the benches. Interestingly, the pieces may have found their strongest influence from a series of linen presses Carl Malmsten had executed nearly 50 years earlier. Malmsten’s furniture designs often featured abstract and geometric arrangements of parquetry, and even used walnut veneers in their execution. After this first walnut cabinet, Krenov continued to include parquetry as a central feature in a number of pieces, including “Fire and Smoke,” a rare “titled” cabinet Krenov made with pear and alarice woods in 1994 that found its way to Pritam & Eames. He hinted at this willingness to experiment in his essays published in “With Wakened Hands” in 2000, the book he was working to produce throughout the 1990s to showcase both his and his students’ work.
“I work fairly well, seeing how I have to overcome the arthritis in my right hand,” Krenov wrote. “I am able to work in a way that pleases me, that fills me with a purpose and with a certain secret satisfaction I enjoy sharing with my students … These last few years I have found a new freedom to experiment and do things I have never before dared.”
These parquetry cabinets came to be a favorite among many of Krenov’s admirers, for their deft application of Krenov’s composition skills with wood grain. The use of veneers allowed Krenov the freedom to compose much more complex or rich grain figures. Brain Newell, who saw these pieces come together, recalls that they represented a moment of continuing innovation and exploration.
“The work shows me that one can be dynamic and innovative within a very narrow framework, and that reinventing the wheel in furniture is a game of diminishing returns,” Newell recalls. “Krenov kept his simple, straight forms and let the wood do the talking, and in this sense he remained true to his lifelong philosophy.”
After the painted wall cabinet from 1991, Krenov ceased making any form outside his freestanding cabinets on a stand, though the variety within that format was significant. By the 1990s, Krenov was unburdened by specific demands of his work; those pieces that were not speculative (undertaken completely at his own will and not for an intended customer) were commissioned by an audience that was happy to let the cabinetmaker make whatever pieces he was interested in making. Many such commissions were subject to some short correspondence, in which Krenov might solicit some vague guidance from the client.
“You indicated that sometimes a ‘hint,’ left gently in the wake of a former conversation, would revisit your mind’s eye while you were forming a piece, and you would find yourself creating a work that fit someone’s particular visitation,” one client wrote in 1992, accompanied by photos of a treasured set of cordial glasses the client hoped to store in the cabinet.
Krenov was, as always, more concerned with finding the right clients for his limited output than he was with receiving payment for his work. Where his contemporaries such as Wendell Castle were moving their prices into the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars via fine art galleries and exhibitions (while also employing techniques and assistants that allowed for a much larger output from their studios), Krenov was still charging just a few thousand dollars for his pieces, each of which took him somewhere between two and five months to complete. As always, Krenov’s lack of financial drive was rooted not only in his principles but the regular, though modest, income from other sources. Where in Sweden he had been supported by Britta and the artist’s stipends from the Swedish government, in his later years his income from the books, his salary from the school and Britta’s pension from Sweden (which she continued receiving, having been careful not to lose her Swedish citizenship) sustained the Krenovs’ comfortable and small lifestyle. The Krenovs’ modest two-bedroom home on Forest Lane was not the manse that some of his contemporaries built for themselves in their retirement. Tina Krenov recalls having to help her parents rebuff a photographer who wanted to photograph their home for a book about the dwellings of artists. Tina found herself explaining that her parents’ home was not a showpiece but a modest arrangement that suited their quiet life.
After exclusively showing at Pritam & Eames through the 1980s and most of the 1990s, Krenov found a second gallery in which he showed some of his work in the late 1990s, a move precipitated by the hassle and risk of shipping his delicate work across the continent. In February 1997, Krenov delivered a lecture at the grand opening of Misugi Designs, a furniture gallery and Japanese tool and materials importer opened by Kayoko Kuroiwa in Berkeley. Kuroiwa had worked for a number of years as an importer of fine Japanese tools and hardware for Hida Tools, a store that Krenov had begun ordering his saws and chisels from decades earlier. The new gallery, not far from her former employer, was intended as a hybrid space of sorts, one that both catered to a clientele of woodworkers with goods from Japan but also displayed the work of Northern California craftspeople. Krenov’s presence at the opening served to drive a significant amount of attention to the gallery when it opened, and attendance at the opening was significant. But Ejler Hjorth-Westh noted that the attendees were largely woodworkers and craftspeople, and not necessarily the wider public audience that could support the gallery aspect of the store.
In the first year of showing furniture, Misugi Designs featured the work of several of Krenov’s students from the school. Hjorth-Westh noted that Kuroiwa was enamored with the work being done at the school, and saw “an almost spiritual connection with the Japanese philosophy of simplicity,” which Hjorth-Westh noted was also apparent in much of the Scandinavian furniture by which Krenov had been deeply influenced. Hjorth-Westh and a number of other recent graduates from Krenov’s school were in the opening show, and continued to show their work at the gallery in the next several years. Krenov sold the first piece he exhibited in the show, his last glass-door showcase cabinet, soon after the opening. This sale was, however, to one of his students, and the gallery’s effectiveness was impacted by a lack of promotion and publicity.
Misugi Designs operated for a decade after its opening in 1997, but its business shifted to selling Japanese hardware, materials and tools early in the 2000s. Krenov’s relationship with the gallery was short-lived. He never completely cut off his relationship with Pritam & Eames, and after showing a few pieces in Misugi he moved to largely selling his work that didn’t go to Pritam & Eames more directly, to visiting customers and friends.
Through his time at the school, Krenov often championed and featured the work of his students in lectures and presentations outside the community. Alan Peters noted that when Krenov presented in London, his slides had included a significant number of student pieces. A record of his presentation in Japan notes that his lecture focused “primarily on his students’ fine works.” He was also an advocate for his students’ work to be shown alongside his own. Krenov’s aim for the program was not designed to prepare students for a career, but starting in the 1990s, he began hoping to be able to connect his students with an appreciative public.
“I worry about these young people,” Krenov told Bebe and Warren Johnson in 1991. “I have this one last task: to build a bridge between fine workmanship done by generous, sincere, and responsible people who have a sense of adventure in their work, and the relatively small but very durable public that must be out there.”
On top of Krenov’s promotion of student work, in 2000 he had a chance to lend his writing to a student from 15 years earlier. David Finck, a student from the classes of ’85 and ’86, published “Making & Mastering Wood Planes,” which expanded on Krenov’s own approach to making his now-signature style of handplane. Krenov lent his own effort to the book’s publication, writing a short foreword to the book that detailed his decades of experience with making and adapting the tool to his approach. While the book was not Krenov’s, it served as another indication of a more material influence of his on the craft: the self-sufficiency and sensitivity that came with the creation of one’s own tools. Krenov’s approach to making the planes had always been, in his eyes, a first step in a sensitive approach to woodworking.
“Really, my simple message is that if you’re going to approach woodworking with sensitivity and maybe refinement, planes are a good way to begin,” Krenov wrote in his foreword. “They’re a start to improving the rest of your tools that need improving. After all, the hand plane is the first part of the woodworker’s aria. And what I’d like to see happen, through this book that David has written, is for you to make a plane or planes that will, in turn, make fine music.”