James Krenov shaped the world of handmade furniture in the late 20th century by introducing a new aesthetic, an approach to woodworking that emphasized grain and joinery. He also influenced generations of students.
This beautifully written biography of Krenov, by Brendan Berhardt Gaffney, brims with the details of his life that have been hidden from view. It is full of interviews, letters, press clippings and archival photographs.
Born in Siberia
As a young boy, james krenov was born in Siberia to Russian nobility. His parents had escaped St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution and had relocated to Shanghai and Alaska before moving to Seattle and then Sweden.
Krenov grew up among native peoples, living in remote villages where he learned to make furniture. He said that his experiences in Siberia, Alaska and Sweden influenced him as a designer and artisan.
He remained in Sweden for most of his adult life. During the winters, he worked at dreary factory jobs, but he spent his summers in a van traveling Europe with his life partner Britta.
The first of his four books, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” was a major turning point in the revival of interest in handmade furniture. But it was a book that was only the beginning of what would become a rich career in woodworking, teaching and publishing.
Moved to Sweden
In 1947, Krenov left his home in Russia for Sweden. He was a self-taught carpenter who found a lot of unsatisfying work at an electrical appliance factory, but whenever he could, he travelled Europe.
He enrolled in a school run by Carl Malmsten, a leader of the Swedish Arts and Crafts movement who also trained many of the country’s most influential cabinetmakers. Like Malmsten, Krenov was interested in the functional side of furniture; he wanted to create pieces that were both beautiful and practical.
At the same time, he sought out a way to work with wood that involved the maker and the material. He also longed to reach out to people through his work.
After a few years in Sweden, Krenov moved to California in 1981, where he founded the College of the Redwoods Fine Furniture Program. Over the next two decades, hundreds of passionate and dedicated woodworkers learned from Krenov’s unique perspective. His first book, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, articulated his vision for a new approach to woodworking.
Became a cabinetmaker
The long-haired, bearded krenov crafted cabinets until his failing eyesight prevented him from working. His work is displayed in museums in Sweden, Norway, Japan and the United States.
He began his career as a boat builder in Seattle, then moved to Sweden to study cabinetry with Carl Malmsten, considered the father of Swedish furniture design. He soon gained a following and started lecturing around the world.
In 1968 he was invited to teach at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Krenov wrote three books, including his first, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” which is considered one of the best books about woodworking.
In 1981 Krenov persuaded the College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg to start a program dedicated to fine woodworking and furniture making, which he ran until his retirement in 2002. He was an internationally recognized figure who mentored hundreds of students, wrote five books and impacted the field of woodworking in many ways.
Moved to California
As a cabinetmaker, you build furniture to order and work with customers to create pieces that will be as beautiful and functional as possible. A career in cabinetmaking can lead to a variety of different opportunities.
Krenov was one of the first cabinetmakers to introduce American woodworkers to a new way of approaching furniture making. He was influenced by the Swedish furniture designer Carl Malmstem and his deep respect for the process and artistry involved in making fine pieces.
When he moved to California in 1981, Krenov developed and directed the College of the Redwoods’ Fine Furniture Program. His students traveled from all over the world to learn his craft.
In addition to his own practice of furniture making, Krenov was also a popular lecturer. He taught in the USA, Sweden and Norway.