In the decade-and-change since Smokingpipes's founding there have been a handful of truly memorable times where I've found myself looking at a particular example of a pipemaker's work which has left me so amazed at the effort and artisanship that went into it, and so humbled by the implicit responsibility to act as a representative for it on my own part, that I've been left speechless. Receiving Nanna Ivarsson's first-ever set - a seven day set at that - was one of those moments. We received the seven briars and their hardwood case two days before we were to leave for the Chicago Pipe Show, where they would be displayed and sold, so after I spent some time ogling, they were immediately whisked away to be photographed by John Sutherland just prior to being packed up for Chicago.
Fortunately, I still had plenty of time to look at them, discuss them and ponder them while at the show itself. I arrived at the resort late on Monday and Nanna didn't arrive until Thursday, so I had plenty of time with the set all to myself even before she and I had a real opportunity to discuss it in detail. While I realized it was a monumental achievement and a piece of pipe history even before I arrived with the pipes at the resort, it was really during those few days that the importance of what Nanna had accomplished really had a chance to sink in.
I think a little background from a few different angles is in order. Nanna Ivarsson has been talking about making a seven day set for almost as long as I've known her. Sitting somewhere in the back of her mind was the desire, the conceptualization incubating for years, slowly maturing before she finally began to shape the briars that would in their final form render it all a reality. Indeed, she'd told me so many times of her plans to make the set that when she mentioned to me again back in January that she would do it, I didn't by any means expect to see the whole set finished and presented in less than a year. Pipe makers, especially great pipe makers, are always ambitious and always plan a little bit beyond their present ability to execute. This is hardly unique to Nanna. I've had similar experiences (though not necessarily associated with a set) with Jess Chonowitsch, Hiroyuki Tokutomi, Kei Gotoh and Nanna's father, Lars. There's something about a brilliant, artistic mind and temperament that causes these folks to expect slightly more of themselves than is immediately possible; it's what drives the discovery of new techniques, acquisition or invention of new tools and mediums, and of course the evolution and refinement of their own skills. Whether they consider themselves artists or artisans or both, there's always that nagging thought in the back of their head that by delaying a particularly important piece by another few months, or even years, they'll be able to create something that much greater. So, as it became increasingly clear that Nanna actually was taking the plunge and making the set this time, the reality of it took a little while to properly sink in.
Nanna has a lot riding on her shoulders. As the third generation of the Ivarsson dynasty, she is inevitably held to a remarkably high standard. Perhaps this is less of an issue for her now that she's been a professional pipe maker for well over a decade, but the sort of infelicities that would not cause a second glance, that one would expect from a pipe maker in his or her twenties, were subject to extraordinary scrutiny for Nanna: she had to live up to her name; a name shared by a father and grandfather who were both considered masters. I think far too often collectors and other pipe makers point to the benefits she's derived from bearing that name without properly considering what goes with it: the additional scrutiny and pressure that other young pipe makers simply are not subject to. Frankly, I would not want to have to fill my father's shoes in the same way she has had to fill her father's (and grandfather's). Comparisons along those lines are inevitable though, and Sixten and Lars are standards against which many a pipe maker, even some of the great ones, might have withered had they found their earlier efforts judged next to them by default.
It means that anything Nanna Ivarsson produces has to be pretty much perfect. Fortunately, as one of the most talented pipe makers in the world, she consistently pulls this off. It also means that anything she does that's particularly special, a seven day set for example, must be that much more special. It has to be a pipe-making accomplishment of eclipsing importance and quality. It not only has to be representative of her very best work, it has to be a fitting culmination of three generations of the greatest pipe-making family to have lived.
The set lives up to that and more. All seven briars are among her best work. Three of them bear her Fish stamp, denoting them as pipes that are the best of the best of her work. Indeed, these three bring the total number of uses of the Fish stamp to this date to five. Given that she's been making pipes for more than fifteen years now, that's an average of one every three years. So, three of the five finest pipes she's made, out of a career output that is somewhere north of five hundred pipes, are presented here. Moreover, the other pieces are so good that I couldn't guess which of the seven the Fish pipes were without actually checking shanks. I picked one out of three correctly at my first pass. After careful inspection and discussion with Nanna, I came to understand what makes those three extra special, but the level of quality on display as a whole was so high that the difference between the Fish-grade pieces and non-Fish just wasn't that pronounced to the eye of someone who hadn't actually made the pipes himself, and who therefore didn't know every detail of every step in the process of creating each one.
And more than just a collection of great pipes, these pieces fit together in non-obvious ways. A good friend at the show observed that it was a little odd that she didn't opt to use all silver or all boxwood or all mastodon ivory for the shank treatments. I'm sort of glad she didn't, though. Each of the seven pieces is capable of standing alone and would be an extraordinary example of pipe-making even without being part of the set. But rather than having a fixed shape, she varied; rather than conspicuously tying them together with identical shank treatments, Nanna emphasized variety. And yet there's still coherence there. All together in the box, for reasons that I cannot articulate, the pipes simply seem to belong together.
The box itself is simple, clean, minimalist and beautifully executed. It's mid-century modernism at its finest, emphasizing function over form with unobtrusive elegance, and serving to emphasize its contents over itself. The interior is finished in beautiful, supple white suede, contrastingly pale and pliant, almost vulnerable, compared with the severe jet-black finished hardwood and polished stainless steel hardware that serve as a protective layer to it all. The case as a whole is beautiful in its own right, but what it does most effectively is emphasize the pipes, acting as frame and gallery alike to their art. The case's aesthetics retreat to serve as simultaneous periphery and background both, highlighting and nestling the seven briars, giving them context and presenting them to the viewer without imposing on the experience.
Nanna Ivarsson created something rarely seen in the pipe world with this set, something that is a piece of pipe history. The set should be celebrated (as it was at the Chicago show) and Nanna herself should be proud of having added a remarkable accomplishment all her own to the rarefied reputation of the Ivarsson name.
For additional photos, please visit the listing for the set.
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