For over twenty years, hundreds of passionate, fine woodworkers enjoyed the unique experience of learning directly from James Krenov, founder of what was then known as the College of the Redwoods, Fine Furniture Program in Fort Bragg, California.
James Krenov trained under Swedish furniture designer, Carl Malmstem. Like Malmstem, Krenov reached out to people through his furniture. He loved the functionality of fine furniture, he marveled at the process of furniture making, and he deeply appreciated how each piece tells a story. As a recognized furniture maker and popular lecturer, Krenov moved from Sweden to Northern California in 1981, where he was invited to develop and direct the Fine Furniture program.
The school became not just a simple workshop, but more like an informal atelier: a studio where students could study with a true master. From design to production, through more than four iconic books and countless classes, Krenov’s passion for fine woodworking, specifically cabinetmaking, changed the way serious craftsmen and artists approach the fine art. Following is a passage from a letter that Krenov wrote to the incoming class in 1997:
We try to demystify the process of working wood; we simplify it. We concentrate on the logic and the simple physical and mental relationships in any given process. From the very beginning we work with people, leading them to the realization that wood is a vastly rich material and that different kinds of wood call for different methods of working. Wood also has colors, patterns, and textures that can fit into the work. We help people discover the graphics of wood, and that any shape or proportion can be given additional life through proper use of the wood, whether it’s in a cabinet or a something as sculptural as a chair.
We hope that in viewing what we are offering here, you will pay attention to the details, notice the results, and come to realize that if one cares enough, if one pays enough attention to the richness of wood, to the tools, to the marvel of one’s own hands and eye, all these things come together so that a person’s work becomes that person; that person’s message.
In this work, in these details, in these elements, something of a person is included. Their fingerprints or their sense of proportion, line, and detail are there; and what you’re experiencing is something very personal from each of these people: something that they’ve put their heart and soul into.
The tradition continues today in what is now a world-renowned program, led by one-time Krenov student, Laura Mays. With a degree in architecture from University College Dublin and a Higher Certificate in Furniture Design and Manufacture from GMIT Letterfrack, Laura attended the College of the Redwoods Fine Furniture program from 2001-2003. She was fortunate in her timing—she was able to take Krenov’s final classes.
After completion of the two-year program, she moved back to Ireland for eight years where she completed an MA in Industrial Design at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. She later lectured on Furniture Design and Manufacture at GMIT Letterfrack. In 2005, Laura partnered with Rebecca Yaffe, to create Yaffee Mays. Their contracted art pieces range from wood boxes to cabinets and from tables and chairs, just to name a few.
Taking over as program director in August of 2011, Laura continues the Krenov tradition with flexibility. She keeps one eye towards past tradition, and one eye on the future, but always staying true to Krenov’s core principles. In 2014, Mays founded The Krenov Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to continue the legacy of James Krenov by offering scholarships to the school in Fort Bragg, CA and also by showing Krenov’s work in various exhibitions and online collections.
Out of the hundreds of people that apply worldwide for the Fine Furniture program, only 23 students are accepted, simply because there are only 23 benches for the students to use. Over the course of the nine-month program a sometimes mismatched group of students—bound singularly by a love of craft—evolves into a tight-knit community of woodworkers.
Although the median age is 30, students of all ages attend. A few come straight out of high school; some are transitioning from another career; while others are sharpening a life-long desire to turn an avocation into a profession. Class time is usually about 48 hours a week for a minimum of nine months, with classes beginning at 8:30am and ending at 5:30pm, Monday-Saturday. With such a rigorous schedule, sheer desire is not enough—this program requires a serious commitment.
Students start the year learning the basics of fine woodworking with a focus on cabinet and furniture construction. A variety of exercises on cabinetry and joinery are taught using tools of the trade, such as fine-planes and chisels. Students also learn how to make a wooden hand-plane, one of Krenov’s most valued skills.
The second semester focuses on advanced techniques leading to the creation of an individual project developed and implemented under staff consultation and supervision.
At the very least, graduates of the program continue fine woodworking, nurturing their love of marrying creativity with making fine furniture. Many strive to showcase their work at gallery showings and through contracted work. Some return to their previous work, incorporating the information from the program into their newly enhanced lives.
In a past student’s blog called, Wood Movement, Douglas MacKay offers his perspective as he begins the program:
I remember our first discussion group back in August; we watched a video of James Krenov teaching a class from the mid-1990’s. On screen, beyond the heads of bygone students, he stood at the front of the bench room where our lectures still take place. The screen hung where Krenov had been filmed standing, making a curious comparison between past and present at the College of the Redwoods woodshop.
Krenov spoke on screen about the students who are drawn to the intensive nine-month program and how they are each part technician and part dreamer. He told his students that their work is the balance of an idea, its structure and execution. This balance is achieved when you learn to work with sensitivity, finding a personal harmony. He continues, that through skill and sensitivity you gain freedom as a craftsman.
We sometimes wonder what it must have been like to study here under Krenov; it carries a certain cachet. But new layers are being added, making for a rich, more diverse learning environment. I have often found that what makes a place interesting is its accretion of layers over time, rather than embodying a single cohesive idea. Recently Ejler said of Danish modern design that there is no innovation without tradition, and no tradition without innovation. I think his words ring true for this whole place. You get all the good stuff from the past, filtered through instructors who trained here with Krenov. But you also get new perspectives and an openness to change that feels healthy and inspiring.
According to Mays, “Some of our students do not complete the program for career purposes, but for personal enrichment. I think it is fair to say that all who wish to pursue a career in woodworking do so. However we don’t have measurable metrics, like salaries. On the other hand, we have innumerable testimonies of graduates saying the program was amongst the best and most important experiences of their lives. To quote just one student from last year, Ben Stephenson: ‘I have learned more about the world, myself and the meaning of life and work in my time @thekrenovschool than through any other formal education in which I have partaken—and I am incredibly fortunate to say that I have a lot of comparison points. Paradoxically, by focusing intensely on what is immediately in front of one’s eyes, knowledge of the whole world opens.’”
College of the Redwoods continues to be one of the most respected programs for serous woodworkers. Any aspiring fine woodworker would be privileged to attend.