The Smithsonian Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. had long sought one of James Krenov’s signature pieces for their collection, but had neither a suitable piece nor the funds to purchase one. In the fall of 2012 Dr. Oscar Fitzgerald, professor of Art History at George Mason University and the author of several important books on furniture history, in addition to his work with the Smithsonian, approached David Welter at the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program with a proposal: If an amount of money could be raised by donation, Oscar and his daughter Molly would match the amount to create a sum sufficient to buy a piece for donation to the Renwick, should one become available.
Welter got the word out to the school’s alumni and within two or three weeks had raised a considerable fund from Jim’s former students and supporters. Oscar and his daughter chipped in an equal amount, and the search for a piece was on. Few Krenov originals come into the market, and eventually the search led right back to Ft. Bragg.
During the spring, summer and fall of 1985, at his bench in the CR classroom, Jim built a version of his “cabinet of old Swedish Elm” (published in his book The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking), this time out of ash wood. We students in the room had the privilege of watching this piece take shape, and observing a great craftsman at work. He explained to us that, when revisiting an old design, he never intended to replicate a previous version exactly. With each iteration, he allowed his eye to determine the proper dimensions, proportions and details for the particular type and character of wood that he was using. Jim didn’t work from a drawing – rather, he designed and built on the fly, by “composing.” He’d make a sketch of a piece after it was complete and only then make note of the primary measurements and details that his eye had led him to. Later, after he had made a new version, he would compare these sketches to note any differences. Rather than trying to improve a previous design, he simply allowed the new piece to take shape as organically as the original.
My classmate Roger Moore (CR ’86) and his wife Jan bought that ash cabinet from Jim, some time after it was complete, and it remained part of their collection at their home in Ft. Bragg for years afterward. When word got around in 2012 that a piece was being sought for the Renwick, Roger and Jan decided to offer theirs for consideration. The cabinet was evaluated by the experts at the Renwick and deemed suitably representative of Jim’s work, and would be accepted into the collection if donated.
Early in 2013 the necessary hoops were cleared, the purchase made, and the piece was shipped off to Washington, D.C. for presentation to the gallery. Oscar Fitzgerald was asked by the Renwick to give a “gallery talk” about Krenov and the ash cabinet, which was scheduled for March 20, 2013. As it happened, my wife and I were planning a trip to the D.C. area at about the same time, so we adjusted our plans to allow us to be at the Renwick for Oscar’s talk. David Welter made the trip from Ft. Bragg, representing the school, and Larry Hinckle, another alumnus who lives not far from Washington, also attended the event.
For me, personally, having been in the room when Jim created the piece, finding it in the magnificent setting of the Renwick was moving. Oscar talked not only about the piece, but about Jim and the personal relationship they had developed in the last few years of Jim’s life. Considering the substantial personal sacrifice Oscar made to see that one of Krenov’s pieces assumed its, and its maker’s rightful place in the pantheon of American studio furniture, there’s no doubt of Oscar’s considerable regard for Jim and his work.
*Books by Dr. Oscar Fitzgerald include: Four Centuries of American Furniture (1995) and Studio Furniture of the Renwick Gallery (2008). Also of interest will be Dr. Fitzgerald’s interview of Jim Krenov for the Smithsonian (2004)