Quiet Book Club #2: Planes, Knives, Cabinets, Oh My!


Swedish Princess Désirée and Dag Widman examine an early wall cabinet by James Krenov at the “Form Fantasi” exhibition in the spring of 1964. Widman was then the director of the Svenska Slöjdföreningen (Swedish Craft Association), and was an influential supporter and advocate of Krenov’s in Sweden, and later would feature Krenov at the Nationalmuseum where he became chief curator in 1966.

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!

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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.

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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.

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Krenov’s “No-Glass Showcase in Lemonwood,” completed in 1962 – just three years after graduating from Malmsten’s school.

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!

— Brendan Gaffney

Source: lostartpress.com

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