The following is excerpted from “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” by Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney.
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of research and more than 150 interviews, Gaffney has produced the first and definitive biography of Krenov, featuring historical documents, press clippings and hundreds of historical photographs.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.”