Meeting James Krenov in Exile

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.

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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.”

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“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.

John Sheridan

James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” the biography of James Krenov by Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney, is available here.


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