07.07.08: James Krenov

To my mind, there are two names that come to mind when thinking of the most famous and influential makers of the last forty years. The two names that top the list are Sam Maloof and James Krenov. Today I met Krenov. I have left quite some time between meeting him and posting about it, mostly because I want to be fair and accurate, and I've needed time to digest the experience. 

I had read all of Krenov's books, and found his ideas to be inspiring beyond my enjoyment of their romanticism. His reputation precedes him, and he seems to be a man about whom there are divided opinions. Some clearly worship him as the person who expressed real craftsmanship in his furniture and writing, who led the way for a resurgence in intimate, careful work, while others found him to be hugely egotistical, rude and difficult. I must admit that I was a little nervous to meet the man about whom I had heard so many different accounts, and whose ideas I so admired. 

I think it is best for me to describe our meeting and leave opinions for others to form. I arrived at Krenov's home/workshop, and was immediately surprised by its humble size. I eventually found Jim in his workshop, through the trees a little from the main house. He greeted me by saying, "Oh yes, you're the Australian aren't you?" - in a previous phone call he remarked how I sounded like I was from New Zealand, and I assumed that this was what he meant. I told him again that I am from England, and he invited me into his shop, which is an extremely warm (the heating was on in July in California), small, but very comfortable space with a lot of natural light. He invited me to sit down on a stool while he stood at his bench, and spoke for much of the time without looking in my direction, but when he directed his gaze at me I felt the intensity of it. 
Initially Jim asked me about myself and my trip, essentially it seemed reminding himself of our previous contact. When he found that I had been to see Sam Maloof, he said, "Sam Maloof! There's only one thing I have to say about Sam Maloof - he's a very good promoter of Sam Maloof." 
Jim spoke in a somewhat circular manner, in fact remarking that this was what he preferred - not to be too direct about things, but to talk around them. Much of what he said pointed to three things: devotion to your craft, intimacy with your work and love of wood, your material. 
He showed me his planes and explained about how he couldn't make cabinets anymore due to his failing eyesight. In fact, he said that he has had no less than three operations to prevent him from going blind, and that he sees everything in a haze. This seemed to me a very sad occurrence, and not something that Jim has found possible to deal with completely. He told me about how he does a "little song and dance" for the students at the Inside Passage school once a week - giving lectures by telephone, which he seemed to find somewhat amusing but is also something of a lifeline to him after leaving the College of the Redwoods.

At some point he stopped speaking and asked me if I had anything to record our conversation with. I replied that I had brought my notebook, but have a good memory and tend to sit and write about my experiences after they have happened. He took exception to this, saying that "In this day and age there doesn't seem to be a good reason not to have a pocket tape recorder! That seems like a terrible error to me - that you've come all this way so unprepared. I don't mean to be rude, but you can't remember all of the things that I'm saying to write them in a notebook."
Once Jim realised that I had no tape recorder, he quickly became agitated and lost interest in talking to me. I tried to keep calm, and to keep the conversation going, but when I asked for his advice, he said, "I don't teach anymore! I don't like these questions, 'What advice could you give me MR. KRENOV? How do you do this MR. KRENOV?". He proceeded, "I'm sorry but I don't see the point of continuing, I don't think I have anything else to offer." I asked him if he wanted me to leave, and he said that he would never kick anyone out, but didn't see the point of continuing. Continue he did, for a little while, but then I thanked him for his time, "I have found your books and your furniture a great inspiration, and thank you for taking the time to meet me." 
In all honesty I was flustered and somewhat angered by Jim's behaviour, but at the same time recognised that had obliged me by letting me meet him, and that being as kind to him as I could was the right thing to do. I am still baffled by that whole experience, and somewhat divided in my opinions of it and of Jim. In any case, that is what happened. 


  1. I have just started to read Krenov's books and I find him very interesting and inspiring they way he talks about cabinet making. I once me Alan Wale an English cabinet maker of abou the same period perhaps a little early, he set up a school in Australia, and is now blind. It is such a shame, and must be so frustrating for them. I would hate to have the same happen to me.

  2. Wow..sounds like you caught him on a bad day. then again if i was in the same situation as Jim i wouldn't be able to be a happy camper all of the time.

  3. I agree to what both Jiddo and Amish have stated, however I thought Krenov of all people would understand memory and the power of the mind. People got away with memory and pen and paper for hundreds of years why the ant-traditionalism? Pore old Krenov seems to be stuck between the past and present, hooked up on recording what seems to be his last testament.

  4. Maybe Krenov also feels he got the short end of the stick. Lets face it, when people mention great designers and woodworkers that changed the way we do things, often people skip Krenov. When i first read A CabinetMaker's Notebook, i didnt feel the instantaneous love other's speak about. He was a hippy that "listened" to wood and let the wood dictate what was to be made. But there was just something about his furniture that drew me closer, after buying the other 4 of his books, i understood what separated his work from other's. SOUL. I understood why he listened to the wood and spent the time to correct grain graphics and such, to "listen" to the wood pays off big time.

    Now he can't see well enough to keep at it, it breaks my heart, after falling in love with his work and words, i can't see what he comes up with next.

    My grandfather is about the same age as Krenov, and he gets upset when if i use 2 different glasses to drink out of in a day...so the grumpiness seems to come with age.

    As for why sam maloof is such a pleasant man...i suspect it has something to do with the porsche he's driving around.. :)

  5. It seems odd, but as people get old, they seem to go one way or the other.
    They either embrace all that is new and all things either amuse them or not. The others grow bitter at the changes in the world and anything that doesn't fit into their previous experience is bad. Of course, the same can be said of those of us that are still "young".
    There is also the possibility that Mr. Krenov suffers from something like the beginning stages of dementia or some other neurological problem.
    That said, I feel it's important to give the benefit of the doubt that no harm was meant.

  6. Very typical JK. I believe that his words were very important to him--he did not want to be interpreted, he wanted to have his own words express his thoughts and ideas. At his age, he had earned that.