March 26, 2023


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James Krenov presents his “Oak Parquetry” cabinet from 1997 to the class at The College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program (now The Krenov School). Photo by David Welter.

The process of writing “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints” has left me with a few qualifications: I’m happy to sit before an audience and talk about his roots and aesthetic history, or work with The Krenov Foundation to design and present a centennial exhibition (more on that in a bit). But, a question that I get asked frequently that I don’t feel 100 percent qualified to answer is: which is your favorite piece of James Krenov’s?

It’s a hard question, perhaps made complicated by my years of research – I could’ve rattled off a favorite cabinet or two with ease before I knew his full body of work. Furthermore, divorcing his life from his work is impossible. There are pieces I love because of their context, but are not his most technical or aesthetically pleasing works. And, frankly, this question asks my opinion, which I’ve tried not to exercise too much during the journalistic pursuit of writing his biography! But, I thought I’d share three pieces here that, after all my work, I find particularly appealing.

All of these pieces, and a couple dozen more, can be found in the gallery of Krenov’s work at the back of biography. And, if you want to join in the game of browsing his work and picking favorites, you can find a huge body of his work on The Krenov Archive, and share them in the comments below!

Cabinet of Andaman Padauk (1979)

1979’s “Cabinet of Andaman Padauk,” pictured in Krenov’s fourth book, “Worker in Wood,” pages 16-23. Photo by Bengt Carlén.

If you held my feet to the fire and asked me what I thought best summarized Krenov’s technical and aesthetic body of work, it would be this cabinet. Made in Andaman padauk, a wood that Krenov spent many words praising, with drawer-fronts of pearwood and Lebanon cedar drawer interiors, this piece’s form, wood composition and technical execution put it high on a list of “classic Krenovian” cabinets.

The graceful curves are emblematic of Krenov’s work toward the end of his time in Sweden, as are the floating door panels, which lift nicely away from the frame in which they’re suspended. The cove between the stand and cabinet carcase is nicely faceted, showing his penchant for gouge and knife carving. And, his use of the lighter padauk in the panels, which came from the same planks as the darker surrounding padauk used in the stand and carcase body, is a deft illustration of his careful choice of woods. If I were assigning a county-fair-esque superlative, this might come in at “Best Overall.”

Lower curved details of the padauk cabinet’s stand. Photo by Bengt Carlén.
The pearwood drawer drawer fronts and curved panel of the padauk cabinet. Photo by Bengt Carlén.

Fossil Cabinet (1993)

Krenov’s “Fossil Cabinet” in kwila, spalted olive and hickory from 1993. Photo by David Welter.

If the “Cabinet of Andaman Padauk” is “Best Overall,” this cabinet might be something like the dark horse of Krenov’s oeuvre. Made in 1993, a dozen years after his resettlement from Sweden to the school in California, this piece came in the midst of a flurry of cabinets that played with parquetry and veneer composition. Its unusual use of spalted olive veneers, inlaid into the veneered kwila carcase, make it singular in Krenov’s output. Throughout the 1990s, in his 70s, Krenov played with new ideas and forms, a fact that is missed by many historians, who consider his work to be relatively unchanged over his career.

Aside from the fact of its unique place among his work, this cabinet is also attractive in its proportions and shaping. By 2000, Krenov would focus his work almost entirely on small cabinets on tall, leggy stands, and this piece foreshadows that trend. The shaping in the stand is also quite appealing, and hearkens to the first joined stands Krenov made in the 1960s for his “Silver Chests.”

The interior of the “Fossil Cabinet,” showing the simple interior. Photo by David Welter.

Pearwood Drawer Cabinet (2002)

Krenov’s “Pearwood Drawer Cabinet” from 2002. Photo by David Welter.

This is the only piece of the three shown here that I’ve seen in person; in fact, it was the first piece of his I ever saw in the flesh, when David Welter (its owner and the long-time shop technician at The Krenov School) brought it to the school when I was a student. It’s graceful in just about every way; the carcase veneers are carefully arranged, without being loudly bookmatched or otherwise worried over, the legs sweep gracefully and the interior is full of asymmetric and sweetly pillowed drawer fronts.

This was the last piece Krenov made at the school; at the end of the school’s 20th year, Krenov retired at the age of 81. Not only is the cabinet impressive considering the maker was in his eighth decade, it shows his continuing evolution as a maker. Welter was quick to point out that the legs, albeit joined and arranged in a typical fashion to many of Krenov’s later cabinets, feature a shaping profile and style that was new to Krenov’s work.

The pearwood drawer cabinet’s interior, showing the asymmetric drawers and their satisfying pillowing. Photo by David Welter.
The legs of the pearwood drawer cabinet, showing the sweet shaping that was new to Krenov’s body of work. Photo by David Welter.

Before I sign off, I want to mention something that I’ll go into greater detail on next week. During the past three months, I’ve worked with Michelle Frederick, Kerry Marshall and Laura Mays in Fort Bragg, Calif., on an exhibition celebrating Krenov’s centennial, which is this coming Halloween. They’ve begun releasing short teaser videos that hint at the videos we’ve made for the exhibition on this Instagram feed. Next week, I’ll put up a post with insight into our process and what you can expect when the exhibition goes live on Oct. 31. But if you want to start getting excited, I encourage you to check out their Instagram.

— Brendan Gaffney