Along with Sam Maloof, George Nakashima and a few others, James Krenov introduced America to the idea of the artist-woodworker. His books inspired a generation to approach wood furniture in a profound and organic way, and the cabinetmaking program he founded in northern California has turned out some of the most masterful makers worldwide. A couple weeks ago I traveled on assignment to a school northwest of Vancouver, where one of Krenov’s most talented and devoted disciples is carrying the legacy forward in an incredible way.
As Krenov was winding down his career at College of the Redwoods, he was being discovered by maybe his most faithful follower. Robert Van Norman, who was teaching shop class to at-risk kids in Saskatchewan, had read “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” Krenov’s first and most influential book, and like many was inspired to follow a similar path. He took a chance and called the iconic Swedish-American educator out of the blue.
Known to be alternately crusty and warm, Krenov was nothing but encouraging to Van Norman and they struck up a friendship, talking often as the younger man left teaching and began working with a German cabinetmaker.
But the work was commercial and unfulfilling, off the pure path Krenov had described, so Robert left to make original work. He did commercial cabinetry jobs at first, but soon found that his spec pieces were beginning to sell, like this beautiful double rocker.
Van Norman lived in a series of homes and shops as he built a name for himself, while his ever-supportive wife Yvonne ran a home-cleaning business and helped raise their young family.
Where the story gets really amazing is when Robert fell one day on the ice and permanently injured his back and legs (he recovered but has chronic pain). Looking for answers he re-read the foreword to “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” in which Krenov mused about one day turning to teaching, when he was too old for “hoisting big planks” and other rigors of full-time furniture making.
Van Norman decided to visit Krenov at College of the Redwoods, to finally meet him in person after 12 years of phone conversations. At the school, Robert and Jim hatched a novel plan. Already an incredible craftsman, Van Norman would attend the school for just one year instead of the usual two, with the intent of becoming a teacher in the master’s mold. It took a tremendous family effort for Van Norman to attend CR, but he did it, and halfway through his year, they were already giving him CR students to teach.
When Van Norman got back to Canada, he took a few unfulfilling teaching positions , eventually ending up at Rosewood Studio near Ottawa, as the school’s “resident craftsman.” His wife and kids made the move too.
The school was a good one, but still not deep-dive program Van Norman was imagining, and he knew the only solution was to start his own. At the same time, Krenov was aging and being forced into retirement, and the cabinetmaking program he started at CR was changing direction slowly. He was captivated by Van Norman’s venture. In fact, Krenov donated every one of his machines, tools, and workbenches to Van Norman’s school, as well as his entire archive of slides and photos, many never before seen.
In Krenov’s words:
“It makes me happy that this small school intends to return to the traditional. To the values and no gadgets methods which have nourished our craft for a very long time. Dedication, a simple logic in what we do and how we do it. For some, there is a lure; mysteriously elusive wood, tools that follow one’s intention, an awareness that our craft is an intimately timeless education. If you feel even a bit of this… persevere. Enjoy. The journey may change your life.”
What is just as beautiful is the place the Van Normans chose for the school. Northwest of Vancouver, B.C., in a remote section of coastline only accessible by ferry, they found the little town of Robert’s Creek, perched along the Inside Passage, Canada’s vast coastal waterway.
There he and Yvonne bought a little homestead, adding a big mortgage to help build the school. In 2005 their perfect little building opened its doors with a beautiful bench room and nicely outfitted machine room, everything they needed to educate 10-12 students at a time. They have been full from the beginning, drawing students from 37 countries, most inspired by the same books that captivated Van Norman so many years ago.
The story gets even more touching then. Krenov was much older now, losing his eyesight and realizing he would have to stop making cabinets. So Robert asked him to give weekly lectures to the students, over a speaker phone. He gave 300 hours of one-hour lectures to the students at Inside Passage, an hour a week, and they were legendary, ranging from the how to the why.
When Jim died in 2009, Robert was devastated, and couldn’t bear to hear Jim’s voice for a couple years. Then he started using the lectures again, in a beautiful way.
On Friday mornings at the school, Van Norman gives the floor back to Krenov, combining snippets of the lectures with photos of Krenov’s work and a short Q&A. It is every student’s favorite part of the week.
It hasn’t been easy for Robert and Yvonne, but their little school is the embodiment of Krenov’s philosophy and techniques, with Robert’s gentle manner and innovative ideas taking Krenov’s pure path ever higher.