The Krenov Effect archive

Friday 15 January 2010

Derek Jones and top makers consider what the philosopy and techniques of James Krenov mean to them


The founding editor of Furniture and Cabinet Making, Paul Richardson, introduced me to the James Krenov way a number of years ago. I am fairly sure he described himself then as being from the Krenovian school of cabinetmaking, which actually meant very little to me at the time. I had just enrolled on a course to study 3-dimensional design where students were actively encouraged to look beyond their normal sphere for inspiration of any kind, creative or otherwise.

I learnt a great deal about a great number of things from working alongside Paul but nothing that I could easily attribute to James Krenov. The furniture that Pul made did not resemble that made by Krenov and his working methods were not entirely in tune with that of Krenov either. So what did he mean? Where was his influence? It is only now that I think it likely his philosophy and the notion that making furniture was and could be a proper job was a significant driving force.

Krenov learnt his craft from Swedish furniture designer Carl Malmsten and almost single-handedly put American furniture making on the map. His style and approach to making in general was born out of necessity as from an early age he built toys for his own enjoyment.

Commenting on his early development he admitted to having A kind of reverence for fine things, a statement that we can expect to be used in reference to his own pieces from now on. His effect on a generation of makers is immense and could be accused of holding back the development of furniture design, particularly in America.

Consequently his influence is like a faint mist gently circling around our heads, thinner in parts but never completely absent. I wonder if we will ever be really free from it or even if we should stray too far from a philosophy that encourages man and materials to work in perfect harmony.

Aesthetic barometer

Not unique in the world of art but definitely in the world of furniture, his aesthetic barometer connected nature and the way things are. His cabinets have fragile but athletic poise. The making of his pieces evolved in a way that was outside the conventional realm of design, develop, deliver.

They emerged freely somehow yet not without control. This was expressed as an intuitive response to material and form which often allowed the material not only to influence design but also to dictate the outcome.

From a design perspective I would argue that this was tail wagging the dog territory and represented far too easy an option for anyone other than a true master of the process to grasp. For this reason it is also too easy to fall in love with the idea of being James Krenov.

There is a trend however, and it would seem that he mostly influences folk early on in their development as either designer or maker. His talent for simultaneously working these two disciplines into a single art form has such great appeal that once encountered the lesson remains learnt.

What he left us with though is more than fine furniture and objects of desire. It is a philosophy and a style that has become quintessentially American although its roots are firmly planted in European soil. Its true lineage is identified by the use of millimetres and not feet and inches on some of his hand-drawn sketches.


The author of four crucial books for any serious woodworker, Krenov taught a philosophy that has become a prerequisite for advanced cabinetry throughout the world.

Krenov lectured at schools and universities all over the world and received numerous awards for his achievements both as a trailblazer and a craftsman. He was regularly featured in numerous magazines worldwide. A recognised furniture maker in Sweden, he moved to Northern California in 1981, where he created and led the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking School. In his 20 years with the school he taught hundreds of eager students from around the world while continuing to build his own fine furniture. He retired from the college in 2002, still actively creating cabinets in his home workshop. As his eyesight failed him, he continued to make planes by touch until the spring of 2009.

James Krenov is represented with works at museums in Sweden, Norway, Japan and the US.

The timeless quality of his work will ultimately be measured by the inspiration he gave to a generation of artist craftsmen. Perhaps his greatest legacy will be his students, but for me he will always be responsible for creating the movement towards what we now have come to recognise as studio furniture, of which he was a master.

We asked some top designer/makers how the work and techniques of James Krenov had influenced their work. Here is what they said.

Andrew Varah

After reading his books many years ago his influence, probably subconsciously, has remained with me ever since. The only time I feel I can say his concepts were instrumental to my work was when I did not have a client brief in front of me. I could, as he often said, let the wood speak for itself.

He is responsible for leading the way in adopting an approach that respects the integrity of the material in which all makers were encouraged to think, a notion many had not considered before. He was a key figure in my early days, often referred to and amongst those few icons who gave young students a benchmark within which to work.

The aspect of his work that I admire the most is probably his ability to leave so much of the material in its natural form, almost effortlessly. Of course that was an illusion as it took such skill to do this. Consequently whenever I have had the opportunity to show simplicity, such as the handles of a cabinet for example, it was probably his maxim of not adding a functional piece, such as a knob to a drawer, but to integrate the design of the opening mechanism so that it became part of the piece.

Along with many others this concept has relevance for makers today and it should be mandatory for every maker to read his books. I doubt there would not be one who, from that moment, would not be influenced by him.

The qualities that have made him such an iconic figure must surely be his lack of pretension, his integrity, and his ability to make us feel very humble when comparing what we do and what he has never succumbed to.

Most makers innately or otherwise have the ability to work and create in wood. Very few have his depth of philosophy and determination of soul to live by it throughout their lives. His contribution to the craft has certainly been an influence on my own work.

Robert Ingham

When a person who has played an important part in progress of any craft dies, there are bound to be many acknowledgments of their contribution.

I met James Krenov at Parnham College in the second year of its existence when he came and spent a week with us. We were all in awe of this icon and listened to every word he said. As the week progressed I became increasingly aware of his very strong authoritative attitude. It reminded me of many of my tutors at Loughborough Training College who imposed their knowledge on the students. The phrase This is the right way to do it stuck in my mind. There was no encouragement to experiment and expand the envelope of knowledge and experience.

The textbook approach was overwhelming. Charles Hayward and Ernest Joyce were the founts of information and their books were the prime reference source for woodworkers of the time. When James Krenov published his book it was seen as a breath of fresh air to many of the aspiring makers particularly in America. That is why we invited him to Parnham.

In my opinion, his attitude was still so authoritative that he did not encourage my students to think. He expected them to follow his formula. Unlike the Scandinavian designers who broke new ground in the 1950s and 1960s, the attitude of Krenov to design and expression was to impress his narrow style on his students.

The College in the Redwoods taught the craft of furniture making to a very high standard but from what I have seen it did not encourage technical progress and creativity. Maybe he was a product of his time. I am encouraged to believe that we are now in a situation where teachers, students and practitioners are prepared to share their knowledge and respond to the saying, This is an approprite way to do it, rather than the notion of right and wrong.

Matthew Burt

I was influenced by Krenov, most of it positive. Sometimes his pedantry would drive me to distraction, but his simple forms helped me stick to my guns in my early days. It was reassuring to feel there was someone out there who was making a living doing simple considered work. I was subsequently crestfallen that his living was heavily subsidised through teaching. I was searching for those who were able to show me that it was possible to survive by making furniture.

Woodworkers Institute

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James Krenov , Derek Jones

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James Krenov Timeline

1920 Born in Wellen, a Chukchee village on the Arctic Circle in north-eastern Siberia, to Russian parents who were working there as teachers
1924 Moves with parents, via Shanghai and Seattle, to Alaska, where he carves bows and arrows and model sailing boats
1933 On the separation of his parents lives with his mother on Seattle waterfront where a retired sea captain teaches him about shipbuilding. Sails boats he makes himself
1938 Wins bicycle for making a model ship to promote the film Mutiny on the Bounty. Goes on to work at shipyard and chandlery
WW2 Russian-English interpreter for US Lend-Lease programme
1947 Moves to Sweden, does factory piecework to earn money for travel. Meets his future wife Britta in Paris
1951 Marries Britta
1957 Enrols as mature student at Carl Malmsten School of Cabinetmaking in Sweden where he learns the value of tools, particularly the plane. After graduation sets up tiny workshop in Sweden, making whatever he feels like making, and teaching at Malmsten school and then in New York and Boston
1976 Begins writing a series of books
1981 Invited by the College of the Redwoods, northern California, to set up its Fine Woodworking School, going on to teach nearly 500 students over 21 years
1992 Society of Designer Craftsmen makes him first non-British recipient of its Silver Medal
2000 Elected a Fellow the American Craft Council
2001 Receives one of the first Awards of Distinction presented by the US Furniture Society
2002 Retires from Fine Woodworking School
2006 Failing eyesight and arthritis force end to cabinetmaking but he continues to make planes by touch alone
2009 Dies on 9 September at age of 88, leaving wife and two daughters

Krenov On The Joy Of Planes

Krenov wrote in The Cabinetmakers Notebook, For me, now, it is the tool, in the sense that I enjoy planing the wood with a true plane more perhaps than any other aspect of working.
He described the thrill of working with planes thus, Shavings curl from the plane in my hands, swish-and-slide, as I rock to the motion of the work. The smell of fresh-cut wood, a slick, silvery yellow surface gleaming under the tireless plane and a feeling of contentment. Nothing is wrong. Here am I, here is my work - and someone is waiting for the fruits of these fleeting hours. Hands will caress this shimmery surface, a thumb will discover the edge which I am rounding.