James Krenov’s last College of the Redwoods Cabinet – Lost Art Press

The last cabinet Krenov made at the school, the “Pearwood Drawer Cabinet.” David Welter pointed out that this leg shape, with its tapered and faceted shaping, was a new style for Krenov. “Jim often said that it was curiosity that kept him going,” noted Welter. Photo by David Welter.

The following is excerpted from “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” by Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney. After years of research and more than 150 interviews, Gaffney produced the first and definitive biography of Krenov, featuring historical documents, press clippings and hundreds of historical photographs. Gaffney traced Krenov’s life from his birth in a small village in far-flung Russia, to China, Seattle, Alaska, Sweden and finally to Northern California where he founded the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program.

While the school [what is now the Krenov School of Fine Furniture]was preparing for his withdrawal, [James] Krenov, too, was making plans for his life after the program. His craft practice had been uninterrupted in his last year, in spite of the turbulent conditions of his departure. He completed three cabinets, even venturing into a new form, a “drawer cabinet” whose interior was occupied by an array of drawers, with little or no open space inside the carcase. As he prepared to leave the school, unsure if he would or could return to the facilities, one student remembers that Krenov spent a sizable amount of time preparing and sawing materials for the cabinets he hoped to make when he returned home. The students, too, helped with Krenov’s move. Along with helping him with the physical move of his materials, the students built him a going-away gift of a veneer press, smaller than the school’s but sized to Krenov’s smaller scale of work.

Erik Owen, a student from the class of ’96, worked with the family to build an addition to the cabin behind the house on Forest Lane, to serve as a small workshop reminiscent of his Bromma basement workshop from Sweden. Into the shop they moved his workbench, a few small machines and his still ample supply of wood, all he needed for the construction of his small veneered cabinets on stands.

The move home was turbulent, and after leaving the school, it would be several months before Krenov would complete a cabinet in this diminutive space. But his family and friends also were careful to help see that Krenov would not have to endure too long a separation from his daily routine, for both Krenov’s and their own sakes. Tina remembers that Britta knew it was time for her husband to retire, having seen his demeanor and attitude with the school worsen, but was saddened to see it happen on terms not entirely his own.

Krenov’s ultimate critique of the school he gave after his retirement, now coming out from under his 20-year tenure, was that it could not bring the students to a place of maturity, both as technically solid craftspeople and capable designers. Krenov had never shied away from helping those students who sought his help, and many of his favorite students had come to the school without any background in furniture. Krenov had delighted at bringing many of those students far past a point of accomplishment that they themselves had thought possible. But he had long used an analogy that he had overheard Arthur Rubinstein, the famed Polish-American pianist, give when addressing the talents of his students.

“For example, you cannot teach a person to be musical,” he told Oscar Fitzgerald, just a few years later. “You can teach them to play, but you can’t teach them to be musical. I was in New York and I came back to my hotel room and they were having the 80th birthday concert by [Arthur] Rubinstein – Carnegie Hall, the whole ball of wax. And they were interviewing him in the intermission and somebody asked him … about the students of that time. He says, ‘Oh, such technicians, such skills. Oh, sometimes I ask one of them, when are you going to make music?’”

Krenov lectures from the bench in his back room at the school in 2002. Photo courtesy of the Krenov School.

In May 2002, Krenov officially retired from the program, after his 20th year at the school. Burns remembers that the last day was cathartic. Knowing that their time as colleagues was over, he and Krenov had a final argument, one that was their last conversation. However turbulent Krenov’s last years had been, the school’s faculty, with the addition of Hjorth-Westh and Smith, would forge ahead without Krenov, and the school continued outside of his presence on staff.

Krenov himself would not retreat, in totality, from the school for a few more years. He returned on occasion in subsequent years to see and advise on student work, suggest or offer up a board of wood for a certain project and, sometimes, to fill his pockets with dowels from the boxes in the machine room. The school’s students, too, would not cease to visit Krenov. Laura Mays, a second-year student in the first year without Krenov in residence, remembers that many of her classmates, even those who hadn’t studied under Krenov, would make frequent trips to the Krenovs’ house for tea and conversation. And alumni, those who had stayed in the area or who returned for visits, would come to their teacher’s home to check up on the aging cabinetmaker. Krenov would even weigh in on some students’ attempts at recreations or reinterpretations of his own designs; as late as 2008, Krenov advised one student, Tom Reid, on his version of Krenov’s “Carved Curves” cabinet, and gave Reid the compass plane he had made decades earlier for his own construction of the cabinet.

Krenov’s departure began the last chapter of his life. In those years, visitors to his home remember his fondness for Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Krenov, with failing eyesight, arthritis, body pains and faltering hearing was moving toward the end of his life, but retirement was never an option for the 82-year-old. From his small world on Forest Lane, he would still host a rotating cast of visitors, friends and well wishers, reach out into the world by phone and written word, and continue to pursue a craft practice by any means necessary.

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