It's 2010, y'all! I don't have many New Year's resolutions this year, but one that I did make was to catch up on some of the essential things that I've been meaning to post on Extreme Craft, but didn't. At the top of the list is writing about James Krenov, a titan of the woodworking world who died last year at the ripe old age of 89.
I've got a small connection to Krenov. I teach at the main campus of College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California, which is the parent school of the fine furniture program he started in 1981 in Fort Bragg, California. I never got to meet him, but I did get to visit the woodworking program back in November, and I was blown away by Krenov's presence there.
The school he started was, and continues to be a very special place. A very select group of one dozen students are selected every year for an intense 9-month program that takes them from the basics of cabinet and furniture design through multiple projects, ultimately setting them on their own path. An even more select group of five students are chosen to continue their studies for a second year.
Even though Krenov hasn't taught in the program for almost a decade, the students all know their connection with him, and many of them apply to the program based on his legacy. Krenov's spirit is everywhere in Fort Bragg. When Claire and I went into a cozy little restaurant for dinner, the owner regaled us with stories about Krenov when he found out I teach at College of the Redwoods. I've heard from more than one person that he was "crusty" and "difficult" and "strong-willed", but he was also generous, with a large, infectious spirit that pushed students to achieve new heights.
Here's a link to a (rather long) video of his memorial service in Fort Bragg. Colleagues, students and family members all took turns telling stories. The entire video lasts nearly 1 1/2 hours, but it's riveting.
James Krenov was born in Siberia in 1920, but moved with his family to China, Alaska, and finally, Seattle. Krenov was always attracted to wood, making toys and carving objects from the time he could hold a knife. In his twenties, he moved to Paris, where he met his wife, and then they moved to Sweden, where he got a job as a model maker for an architectural firm. In Sweden, he studied with Carl Malmsten, a legendary Scandinavian furniture designer, and ultimately set up his own shop.
Krenov was also a prolific writer. He published his first book, A Cabinetmaker's Notebook back in 1976. Rather than serve as a step-by-step technical manual, the book serves as a philosophical document, justifying why a human being would choose a career laboring with their hands in an industrial world. Krenov published many other books and articles, including a novel, as well as The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking and The Impractical Cabinetmaker.
Krenov's work and philosophy weren't sexy...at least not in the conventional sense of the word. His work didn't have Sam Maloof's sinuous, organic lines, and he didn't work exclusively in rare, exotic woods, and when he did, they were used in just the right way. He taught his students to use veneers in the traditional European sense (as opposed to the debauched Ikea sense), cutting them with hand tools. Krenov taught students his common-sense approach to woodworking, encouraging them to understand the physics and logic behind wood as a material instead of pushing them into postmodern exploration.
His cabinets are simple and exquisite. Krenov would often let a piece of wood sit around his studio for years before figuring out just the right use for it. Here is a photo of the last, unfinished cabinet that he left in his studio when his eyesight failed him several years ago. After that, Krenov devoted himself to making the hand-plane tools he taught his students to make, which he could do by touch.
James Krenov died on September, 9th, 2009. He was surrounded by friends and family, and he reportedly died with a piece of wood in his hands.
Why do I consider someone like Krenov "Extreme Craft"? To study hand cabinetmaking in the Krenov style is an incredible leap of faith and intuition in this age of technology. Krenov was wedded to his materials in an intense, philosophical way. He encouraged his students to think for themselves, encouraging revolution from within. He traveled far away from the mainstream with work that was firmly attached to the trunk of the woodworking tradition, and he will be missed.
I encourage you to find out more about the College of the Redwoods Fine Furniture program and Krenov's legacy. Here is a LINK to the program's website and a LINK to James Krenov's website. Here is another LINK to a transcript of an interview conducted with Krenov in 2004 that is stored in the Smithsonian archives. Finally, here's a LINK to the video of his memorial service.