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11 May 2012

Nanna Ivarsson's Seven Day Set
 Pipe History in the Making

       -Posted by sykes-

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.


  Sykes Wilford: Founder/President

Posted by sykes at 1:58 PM | Link | 0 comments

22 August 2010

Danish Chronology; Trip Overview, Part IV
 Part IV of IV of my Danish Travelogue...

       -Posted by sykes-

In keeping with the previous theme, I'm further obfuscating the Danish chronology by finishing blogging about that trip half way through our blogging about the IPCPR show in New Orleans that took place almost two weeks later. Still, not one to leave a chronology without its terminus, it seems time for me to launch into the last day and a bit of that trip before I write any more about New Orleans...

Following the visit at Orlik, we came to the first distance driving of the trip, all the way up to Aalborg in the far north of Jylland. Crossing over from the island of Funen to Jylland, the only part of Denmark that is part of continental Europe, and then north from there, Kevin and I spent a few hours in the car, generally getting goofier and goofier as the lack of sleep and long stretch in the car took its toll. That, my dear reader, is how the Mac Baren vs. Orlik Throwdown came to be. Put two purportedly grown up men in a car on little sleep for a few ours without any adult (read: female) supervision and they tend to act more and more like teenage boys. Give them an internet connection and two highly trafficked websites and they'll do it publicly. We had it pretty much worked out by the time we made it to Aalborg, then spent the next couple of hours putting it together and getting it up. The drive is beautiful; to my eye, there are few places as beautiful as the gently rolling countryside of rural Denmark.

The following morning, we headed even farther north, to Frederikshavn, near the very tip of Jylland, near where the Baltic Sea and North Sea come together. This is where Mogens 'Johs' Johanssen makes about two thousand pipes each year. By himself. I've been in dozens of pipe workshops in a nine countries and I've watched many pipe makers work. Johs, as one might expect for one who makes that many hand shaped pipes a year, is insanely fast. We posted a video of Johs shaping a pipe back in late July, right after I got home from the trip. Johs' pipes are among the best values out there, ranging up from (on $68, and it's really this execution at speed model that he has that makes this possible.

Having sat and had coffee, Johs took us on a little tour of the workshop. At first, the place seems tiny, but one little room opens into another and it's really a pretty good size. In the back room, he has bags upon bags of briar that he had recently purchased, many thousands of blocks in all. It didn't take much pushing at all to get him to shape a pipe for us, so we could video the process and get some photos of that too. Plus, unlike a lot of other makers, I'd never actually seen him shape a pipe, so that was interesting too.

After a couple of hours, we said our goodbyes and headed back south, for the long trek back to Copenhagen. Kevin's girlfriend had flown in part way through our trip there and I had to deliver him to her, then I had plans to have dinner with Nanna and her family that night. Most every time I go to Denmark, my visit to Lars' home is with his daughter, Nanna. I'll pick her up somewhere in Copenhagen and we'll trek up there together. For this trip though, her second son, Mathis, who was just two months old, made things a little more difficult. Instead, we settled on dinner at her home.

Nanna has been making fewer pipes than she'd like lately, as the two baby boys have consumed a lot of her time. It seems like every time I speak with her, she has plans to spend more time in the workshop; these plans are usually semi-successful. I certainly do not envy her trying to continue to make pipes regularly (which she's done an admirable job of) while contending with two infants. Still, things should begin to settle down some over the next couple of months and she'll be able to return to a more productive routine. There are lots of folks clamoring for her pipes right now, not that they don't when she's in full production mode, it's just a little more extreme right now.

We had a really nice dinner altogether, with Nanna, her husband Daniel, and her kids. I must sadly report that Sixten is now twenty months old and still not making pipes, though Nanna says he's expressing a lot of interest, especially with his experimental 'bite pattern' rustication finish, artistically rendered by trying to eat the briar. This makes sense, I think, given that Sixten smeared, threw, dropped or otherwise did not eat nearly as much food as he managed to consume at dinner. People tell me that this is par for the course, but I think he should really get with the pipe making...

Nanna and I have been friends for years, but I didn't know her husband Daniel terribly well; it was really nice getting to know him, and getting to see Sixten again (even if he isn't pulling his weight in the workshop yet), and meeting Mathis for the first time. Dinner was an excellent, freshly caught salmon from a friend who had just returned from a fishing trip to Iceland, and we spent a few hours just catching up and talking pipes. We could have spent all night chatting, but the travel and short nights were really catching up with me and I called it a night before it got too late.

By the time I was heading to the airport the following morning, I was both a little sad to be leaving, I love Denmark and my Danish friends, but also thoroughly exhausted and ready to be home, at least for a little while before we left for New Orleans altogether a couple of weeks later. While the pace of the trip is anything but leisurely and much of it is work, it's also enormously fun every year. It's a wonderful reminder of how lucky I am to be able to do what I do.

Posted by sykes at 5:33 PM | Link | 0 comments



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