A Life in Cabinetmaking

James Krenov was born Dmitri Dmitrievich Krenov on October 31, 1920 in Uelen, Russia, the easternmost settlement in Siberia, where his mother Julia had taken a remote job teaching the local indigneous Chukchi people after being forced from her home in St. Petersburg by the Russian Revolution. His parents were Russian nobility and loyal to the Imperial Government, and were subsequently chased from Russia by the Bolshevik revolutionaries, after which the family spent two years in Shanghai, China. In Shanghai, Krenov’s father Dmitri found work as a lawyer under his father, Alexander Sergeyevich Khrenov, an influential architect and watercolorist whose upper-crust social status had also necessitated his fleeing the revolution.

After his parents could no longer stay in Shanghai, due to his grandparents’ departure for Europe, the Krenov family left Asia for Seattle. After months of piecemeal housekeeping and nannying work, his mother obtained a position with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a teacher. Her work took the family to Alaska for two postings, first in Sleetmute, nearly 400 miles up the Kuskokwim River from 1924 to 1928, and in Tyonek, on Cook’s Inlet, from 1930 to 1933. During these remote stints in the Alaskan wilderness, Krenov developed a determined self-sufficiency, various hunting and bushcraft skills and absorbed the animated fables of the indigenous families among which they lived, all of which would continue to shape his perception of the world around him throughout his life.

In 1933, the family relocated to Seattle where Krenov went to high school and began building small watercraft, aided by friends and Everett “Cap” Coffin, a retired sailor. After school, at 19, Krenov began a career working with ships, including time at Jensen Motor Boat and at Sunde & d’Evers chandlery, while spending leisure time sailing small boats around Puget Sound. As a result of his position at the chandlery and his background, he was sought out as a Russian interpreter for the Lend-Lease program before America’s involvement in World War II, and continued to work at the port as an interpreter for a few years after the end of the war.

In 1947, Krenov and his mother moved to Sweden, where his mother perhaps hoped to re-enter Russia and where Krenov had heard there was bountiful work and a new landscape to explore. He alternated winters of factory work and summers exploring the northern reaches of Scandinavia or post-war mainland Europe, during which time he also worked as a short story and travelogue writer. During one excursion to the Continent as a “pre-Kerouac hippie” (his own words) he met his future wife, Britta, herself a Swede and on a trip to visit a mutual friend in Paris. After losing the card with her information, Krenov ran into Britta on the streets of Stockholm a year later, and they were married in 1951.

His career as a cabinetmaker began in 1957 when a display in a fashionable shop in Stockholm captured his interest. Upon inquiry, he found that the graceful, sturdy furniture that appealed to him was designed by Carl Malmsten, who operated the Malmsten Verkstadsskola, where Krenov studied for two years. After graduating in 1959 he went to work on his own designs, eventually setting up shop in the basement of his home in Bromma, Sweden. After a number of small exhibitions and group shows in the craft stores and galleries of Stockholm, Krenov caught a break in a large tastemaking exhibit, “Form Fantsi,” held at the Liljevalchs Kunsthall in 1964. A year later, he held his first solo exhibition “Liv i Trä” (“Life in Wood”) at the prestigious “Hantverket” gallery, operated by the Svenska Slöjdföreningen (Swedish Society of Industrial Design).

After working closely with Carl Malmsten, writing for the Svenska Slöjdföreningen’s journal FORM and attracting the attention of Swedish curators and collectors, Krenov extended his pursuits to an interest in teaching. He hosted several young Americans in his workshop through the 1960s and 1970s, including Craig McArt, Martin Puryear, Alan Marks, Joe Tracy and Paul Epp. He lectured at Malmsten’s school, his alma mater, several times in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his international engagements began with an invitation from Wendell Castle (referred to Krenov by Craig McArt) to teach at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Subsequent teaching engagements included the tumultuous establishment of a woodworking at the Program in Artisanry for the Franklin Institute of Boston University and guest lectures and appointments at John Makepeace’s School for Craftsmen in Wood in England, the Technische Universität in Graz, Austria, and at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, California.

After his visit to Krenov in 1966, Craig McArt returned to the United States with an article written by Krenov, which was subsequently published by Craft Horizons (the American Craft Council’s publication) under the title “Wood: ‘…the friendly mystery…’.” This reception of this first article, encouragement from American colleagues at RIT, his continued writings for FORM and his rising star in the Swedish Craft scene led to Krenov writing his first book, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” (Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976). The book was a resounding (and, for his publisher, surprising) success, and led to the rapid composition and publication of three further titles with Van Nostrand Reinhold, “The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking”, (1977), “The Impractical Cabinetmaker” (1979) and “Worker in Wood” (1981). This led, in turn, to a fateful invitation from the University of California, Santa Cruz, to conduct a workshop. Three of the students in attendance were members of the Mendocino Woodworkers Guild who enticed Krenov to conduct a workshop at the Mendocino High School in 1978, which was extended and repeated in 1979 and again in 1980.

In the meantime, Guild members and visiting students, with the support of local board of trustee members and instructors, persuaded the College of the Redwoods (CR), a regional community college with a budding branch in Fort Bragg, to establish a cabinetmaking program built around Krenov’s approach and technique. Early students in these first workshops, among them Michael Burns, Creighton Hoke and Crispin Hollinshead, became the founding staff and built a community that persuaded the Krenovs to move permanently from Stockholm, where Krenov had now lived for 34 years, to the Mendocino Coast. The school’s workshop, where classes are still held today, was finished with the help of the first group of students in the fall of 1981. In the first decade, Robert Lasso, Patrick Stafford and Michael DeHaven helped teach and run the school; in the fall of 1989, the staff lineup of James Krenov, Michael Burns, Jim Budlong and David Welter solidified, which would remain unchanged until Krenov himself retired in 2002.

Krenov continued his speaking engagements and cabinetmaking practice as his school in California grew in renown and his books continued to garner a wide readership. He presented two months of workshops as a Fulbright Guest of The New Zealand Crafts Council in 1984. In 1989, the newly established Hida Global Institute in Takayama, Japan invited him to conduct their first series of workshops and lectures by a visiting craftsperson. He has also led workshops at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass Village, CO in 1989 and 1990, and at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine, in 1995. In between these longer arrangements, Krenov was invited to countless lectures, jury positions and exhibitions across the globe.

Krenov took pride in being the first non-British recipient of the Annual Award of the Society of Designer-Craftsman’s Centennial Medal, bestowed upon him in 1992. The American Craft Council elected him to their College of Fellows in October of 2000. In 2001, Krenov was a recipient of the annual Award of Distinction by the Furniture Society. After spending much of the 1980s and 1990s working to balance his continued cabinetmaking practice and his work as a teacher at his school, Krenov worked to publish “With Wakened Hands” (Linden Publishing & Cambium Press, 2000), a showcase of his students’ work, both from their time at the school and in their professional careers after graduation. On top of the hundreds of thousands of copies sold in English, at least two translations of Krenov’s books exist. A German translation of Fine Art, “Die Kunst Des Möbelbaus”, was released by Ravensburger in 2000. Shuhei Mitsuhashi, Krenov’s student at the Hida Institute and later at CR, translated “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” into Japanese in 2008 (Nakaishoten, Osaka).

Upon his retirement from teaching in May of 2002, Krenov set up a shop in a small building at his home where he continued to create cabinets and welcome visitors. During this time he served as an advisor to Inside Passage School of Fine Cabinetmaking, at Roberts Creek, B.C., Canada, a facility set up by CR graduate Robert Van Norman. By 2006, Krenov’s eyesight degraded to the point that he no longer was confident in his ability to work with the care to which he was accustomed. With hopes that he could continue his work in the shop, he put his energies into making his signature wooden hand planes for customers around the world. A minor incident with a router in July of 2009 convinced him that it was time to close the shop, and soon after he passed away on September 9th, 2009.

Since July of 2017, the Fine Woodworking program has been administered by Mendocino College out of Ukiah, CA. The facility is now called The Krenov School.

Biography Credit: Brendan Gaffney, author of James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints, and Krenov School graduate 2015.