Lessons in Rigidity

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James Krenov during a cello performance by Bernard Henderson and Marcia Sloane at the music stand he made in 1987. Photo by Paul Arnold.

We are taught from a young age that compromise and flexibility are golden attributes. I have seen their reward; I won’t go too far into my own sinuous background, but putting myself into different settings with good people, following their lead or being willing to bend my own path, has brought wonderful experiences and opportunities. In woodworking, it’s been ventures into chairmaking, Krenovian cabinetmaking, historic techniques, slapdash construction and basketweaving. In life, it means having a Master’s in computer music, working at a large media/publishing company, working with CNCs to produce violin parts, writing a book, living in five states in less than a decade and being an underemployed but happy craftsperson.

In my three years of researching, interviewing and writing “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” a second lesson in compromise has emerged. There is a lot in Krenov’s story that points to the other side of the coin – the side that makes itself apparent when someone refuses to compromise their worldview or creative practice, even at the cost of their own well-being or success. To me, both the reward and punishment of that second approach is no more apparent than in Krenov’s trajectory from an obscure travelogue writer to a widely celebrated cabinetmaker.

As I interviewed people about Krenov – his students, colleagues, friends, supporters and detractors – the downside of his attitude became apparent. Krenov’s frequent lack of diplomacy in expressing his approach to craft closed doors and alienated many. It took him several tries at educational institutions to find a situation that met his demands or could handle his irascibility concerning the validity of other approaches. His articles in Sweden’s FORM magazine express his disenfranchisement from Scandinavian contemporaries and consumers, often because he thought they would not appreciate or adopt his idiosyncratic approach (though it was there that he reached a level of renown few could hope for). His outlook often made Krenov hard to please, and kept him looking on the other side of the fence (or ocean) for greener grass. It made it difficult (for many years, impossible) to make a living at his craft.

But in this lack of compromise, we can see the seeds of Krenov’s success. At the beginning of his career, a time when Scandinavia was moving toward functionalism and practicality, Krenov declared himself and his work to be outside of those considerations. He called for craftspeople, amateur and professional, to enjoy their work, whatever the wider public insisted about its efficacy or profitability. He was the strongest advocate for the inherent worth of work done well.

Krenov talking to a student at Anderson Ranch in 1989, during a teaching stint that summer. He’s wearing a “samue,” a work jacket worn by Buddhist monks that he was given during his time in Takayama, Japan, in 1988.

So many of us who insist on making furniture or practicing a craft at the highest standards we can muster, rationalize our position and damn the time or impracticality of its execution. We insist that our work is more durable and a better investment, or more timeless and not subject to trendiness or fads.

At several point in his career, Krenov relays these considerations – but he was working to different criteria, not obviously connected to financial or aesthetic concerns. Looking over his work and the lessons he taught, it’s clear that these were secondary (or even tertiary) concerns. He encouraged impracticality and insisted that his way was too difficult to be of use to a professional woodworker. He wanted to be remembered as a “stubborn, old enthusiast.”

I don’t mean to imply a lack of subtlety to his position; in fact, many of his favored students eschewed his path in aesthetics, technique and financial success. I offer up the idea that the “middle path” Krenov described between handwork and machine work – a compromise from many perspectives – was part of what made it so successful and appealing to his hundreds of thousands of readers. And there were students who disagreed with his advice that he came to support or enable – in spite of their resistance. He butted heads with students who, like him, insisted on the value of their own ideas, but in the end many of them won his respect. He could be an inspiring teacher and a friendly mentor, whimsical and enthusiastic.

Krenov’s 1962 “No-Glass Showcase of Lemon Wood,” made just three years after his graduation from Malmsten’s school in Stockholm. The early appearance of some of Krenov’s signature techniques and aesthetics points to his early talents in the craft and is evidence of a lifelong refinement of their execution. Photo by Bengt Carlén.

Krenov’s ability to resist outside influence, especially in terms of income, was enabled by the support of Britta, his wife, who was a high school teacher with a degree in economics and finance. He was also supported by the socialist infrastructure of Sweden, which awarded him stipends and gave Britta a steady pension after her retirement in the late 1970s.

But there is a lesson that can be distilled from Krenov’s path. It isn’t exactly “stick to your guns” or “ignore the haters.” But, after years of my own consideration of Krenov’s story and the memories of those who crossed his path, I think one part of the whole reads something like this: Take in what you can from those around you when you set off, work hard to examine what you value and/or enjoy in your chosen pursuit and be determined enough to pursue it at whatever cost.

A photo of Krenov on his last day at the College of the Redwoods in 2002. Photo by Leonard Bechler.

It may not lead to success in any traditional sense. Krenov’s career might be measured in book sales or influence, but I think it’s best measured by the memories that were shared with me. His students remember Krenov’s satisfaction in shaping the leg of a stand late into the evenings, or the time he spent happily arranging and composing a freshly sawn batch of veneers. Pursue fulfillment; if you’re lucky or dogged or particularly talented, other measures of success might come to pass. If you’re not, at least you can say it wasn’t a waste of time.

There are many ways to poke holes in this idea as it applies to your own world; I’m not one to promote orthodoxy or dogma. You might be able to follow Krenov’s path with a more polite or amenable attitude. You could pick fulfillment as a guide, and still frequently change the tack of your pursuit. But if you read Krenov’s story (and I hope you will) I think the case study in rigidity and conviction that he lived is worthy of consideration. It is not a prescription, but it might be a part of finding your own path.

— Brendan Gaffney

We are taught from a young age that compromise and flexibility are golden attributes. I have seen their reward; I won’t go too far into my own sinuous background, but putting myself into different settings with good people, following their lead or being willing to bend my own path, has brought wonderful experiences and opportunities….Read MoreJames Krenov: Leave FingerprintsLost Art PressRead More

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