The History of Pipe Design: Denmark

As we've discussed in previous installments of The History of Pipe Design series, briar pipe making began in France before spreading to England, Italy, and elsewhere across Europe — including Denmark. English pipes in particular were popular among Danish pipe smokers through the initial decades of the 20th century; however, the turmoil of WWII, and the briar shortage it caused, decreased the availability of both English pipes in Denmark as well as briar pipes, in general, across Europe. Recognizing this void of quality smoking instruments, Poul Nielsen sought to fill it by making pipes out of beechwood. In 1942, he founded his new Danish pipe company and named it Kyringe.

The end of the War saw the return of briar pipes, with Kyringe transitioning to that medium, but as the market surged with the return of popular English makers, Poul's brand struggled to compete with the prestige of English manufacturers. Nielsen recognized the English-pipe preferences of his Danish customers, so in 1948 he rebranded Kyringe as Stanwell — a more English-sounding name — and even changed his own surname to match, solidifying the transition and proving his devotion to crafting quality pipes.

Stanwell became the first main exporter of Danish pipes, and as its popularity grew, and as other makers were established, so grew the diversity of pipe design. Two aspects that set Stanwell apart from other makers across the world, though, and that helped inform the style of Danish pipe design as a whole, were the aesthetic influence of Danish functionalism and the company's partnership with certain artisan pipe makers, most notably Sixten Ivarsson.

Danish Functionalism

The start of the Danish pipe-making movement of the 1950s and '60s came on the heels of the Danish functionalist design aesthetic: a style, especially active in architecture through the '30s and '40s in Denmark, that prioritized minimalism and functionality over gaudy accommodations lacking practical use. At its most extreme, functionalism rejected any aesthetic choice that didn't directly impact an object's function; in practice, though, the Danish functionalist movement was more nuanced, and its creations, while simple, were marked by an attractive elegance and sleekness. The work of Arne Jacobsen, an architect and furniture designer considered one of Danish functionalism's founding fathers, as well as that of other designers, informed the general aesthetic consciousness of Danish society and the broader Scandinavian culture. From there, then, the influence of Danish functionalism on pipes becomes an understandably natural progression.

Tom Eltang

Tom Eltang: Smooth Arne Jacobsen Lamp Pipe

Tom Eltang, one of the world's most esteemed artisan pipe makers, has been carving pipes in Denmark for over 40 years, and his style often reflects the principles of Danish functionalism. He's even carved pipes modeled after a signature lamp designed by Arne Jacobsen, not to mention a distinct Dublin pipe shape rendered after those smoked by Jacobsen himself. Reflecting on Denmark's pipe-making history, Tom says, "Stanwell and Sixten recognized the work of Danish designers — Arne Jacobsen, Hans Jørgensen Wegner, Poul Henningsen — and all those guys who changed the scene of architecture and furniture. They made stuff that was simple, but still very elegant, and Stanwell and Sixten applied that approach to pipe making, continuing the reputation that here, in Denmark, we could do something a little bit different and be successful at it."

When Eltang shapes a pipe, he says he prioritizes three elements: proportion, harmony, and balance. "Of course, I make a crazy shape every once in a while," he says, and he laughs with fondness at the mention of his wildly realistic snail-shaped depictions. "But otherwise, I carve simple, elegant, functional pipes — paying attention to full lines, balanced proportions, harmony between line opposites, etc."

In the same way that Italian pipe makers reinterpreted classic English and French shapes, dramatizing the relative proportions and presenting them in more evocative finishes, Danish makers also creatively expanded on the conventions of English and French pipe design. Pipe makers in Denmark, influenced by Danish functionalism, added further sleekness and elegance to traditional shapes. Using a classic Danish straight Billiard as an example, Sykes Wilford explains that "the widest portion of the bowl is often set lower toward the heel than on, say, a Dunhill 03, so it enjoys a longer taper as the sides approach the rim. Similarly, the shank will usually taper subtly toward the stem. It may look cylindrical, but it's actually tapered. When a shank is a perfect cylinder, it can even look as if it flares; when it tapers, the aesthetic becomes slightly more refined and svelte."

When Eltang shapes a pipe, he says he prioritizes three elements: proportion, harmony, and balance

While Italian pipe makers altered the proportions of classic shapes in a manner we today call "neoclassic," Danish makers hewed closer to tradition, but the lines and curves were approached differently. "Danish pipe makers admired Dunhill's traditional design approach and looked to Dunhill as an example of what classic shapes are," Shane Ireland remarks. "But they started to subtly make their own changes — tapering the shank slightly, tapering the bowl more toward the rim, more defined cheeking around the transition and lower bowl — and these elements are what we now consider quintessential signatures of classic Danish pipe design."


Dunhill: Shell Briar with Silver Army Mount

Such aesthetic variation wasn't exactly intentional, but it wasn't completely happenstance either. In the same way language evolves over time due to cultural influences and other factors, or how a river's course changes depending on topographical differences, artistic notions also shift according to a variety of visions — whether cultural and societal, or based on the creative inclinations of various individuals. Danish functionalism was inherent to the artistic consciousness of Danish creators, including pipe makers, so new aesthetic aspects were incorporated into pipe making, becoming more and more familiar and recognized as factories like Stanwell grew in production and popularity. Unlike most other large-scale pipe-making operations, however, these Danish workshops enjoyed partnerships with individual pipe carvers who designed shapes for mass-production. One such artisan was Sixten Ivarsson, and his paradigm-shifting approach to pipe making ushered in a new era of the craft.

Sixten Ivarsson

When describing the narrative, Sykes likes to joke, "In the beginning, there was Sixten." He's being facetious, of course, yet it's difficult to overstate Sixten's influence on pipe making. Were there a Mount Rushmore of pipe making, his visage would be depicted. Ivarsson's shapes and innovations catalyzed the artisan pipe-making movement, forever changing the landscape of pipedom.

Danish makers hewed closer to tradition, but the lines and curves were approached differently

Ivarsson's pipe career began at Suhr's Pibemageri in Copenhagen where he learned to repair pipes and started making his own in the late 1940s and early '50s. A decade ago, Sykes interviewed interviewed Lars Ivarsson, Sixten's son and a legendary pipe maker in his own right, who passed away in 2018. The two spoke in 2011 about the early years of Danish pipe making, and Lars described the start of Sixten's career best:

[My father] started [making pipes] in the last years of the second World War. Actually he made himself a pipe but couldn't find a mouthpiece for it, and there [were] rumors around that there was a tobacco shop who made pipe repairs, [and that] they had ebonite mouthpieces. So, he went there and asked if they could fit him a mouthpiece. They couldn't because the repairman had broken his leg, so my father asked [if] maybe he could do it himself. They let him, and he repaired the lathe and then he made a mouthpiece. And they were very impressed [by] the work and asked if he could make some repair work for them. He agreed and from there, it just rolled.

While the pipes Sixten made were inspired by classic English designs, they bore the influence of the Danish functionalist movement from prior decades, displaying softer curves, sleeker lines, and a minimalist style. When Poul Nielsen visited the Suhr workshop, having already rebranded Kyringe as Stanwell, he admired Sixten's shapes and commissioned the artisan to design pipes for mass production. These shapes more or less inaugurated the functionalist-inspired style of Danish pipe design and, with the efficiency and high output of a factory setting, were able to reach a broad audience. "Back then, there were basically only pipe factories around," says Eltang, "and they made all the classic shapes, you know — Billiards, Dublins, Lovats, bent shapes, etc. — so the difference of Sixten's and Stanwell's style was slight but fantastic." It was different enough to the perfect degree, making for a distinct aesthetic that maintained the attributes that pipe smokers appreciated about classic English shapes.

In the beginning, there was Sixten."

Sixten continued to make pipes under his own name while creating shapes for Stanwell, but in 1950, he stopped designing for the Danish marque to focus entirely on his artisan pipe making. Ivarsson had developed an entirely new concept and process of hand making a pipe. "Up until this point," Shane explains, "a pipe was made by chucking up a briar block either on a lathe or a fraising machine, drilling the chamber and airway and shaping the bowl and shank all in one step." Essentially, before a briar block was even cut, the chosen shape was drilled and roughly shaped, and the quality of the grain and its relationship to the shape was more or less determined by luck.

Shape First; Drill Second

Sixten Ivarsson's Peewit design

Ivarsson inverted that convention and found it was possible to shape a block on a sanding disc before drilling the chamber and airway. This reversal of drilling and shaping allowed the carver to consider the briar's grain as they shaped and to carve it in a way that best maximized the grain without being mitigated by previously drilled holes. Instead of a pipe's grain quality and its relationship to the shape being left to luck, "a carver could start the shaping process first, basing the form on the grain and aligning it with their own creative vision, without being limited by the drilling of the chamber and airway," says Shane. Asymmetric pipe design was now possible, too, no longer bound by the radial symmetry that lathes and other machines required. "Suddenly, you could do a crazy shape, and then you could drill the necessary holes after," Eltang says. "So you could do a shape that wasn't symmetrical, and you had more freedom in how you shaped the lines. That process changed the whole perspective of pipe making. It gave pipe makers new opportunities, and most Danish pipes are shaped according to the grain: If you look at all those at the classic Danish shapes, they're based on how the grain runs, as well as being influenced by Danish functionalism."

As mentioned, these Danish shapes prioritized svelte lines, supple curves, and sleek proportions, and a number of Sixten's signature designs remain popular today and have influenced the aesthetic of other artisan carvers around the world. Perhaps his most iconic shape, the Peewit, is a take on the Acorn, the bowl and heel spur defined by supple curves and the shank slender and angled. Other renditions, like Sixten's Dublin designs, vacillated between fluid and angular versions, but all were marked by trim proportions and streamlined shaping, reinforcing this distinct Danish aesthetic.

Asymmetric pipe design was now possible, too, no longer bound by the radial symmetry that lathes and other machines required

Accompanying this change in shaping technique was a greater focus on accent work. While alternative materials weren't uncommon as accents, their incorporation into the overall composition wasn't as artfully considered until Sixten and the artisan pipe-making movement. Consider bamboo as an example: Dunhill pioneered its use in pipe making with their Whangee pipes, saving briar during its shortage in WWII, but Ivarsson and the artisans he mentored began using bamboo and other adorments as elements of pipe design, matching the rhythm of the material's knuckles with the base of the saddle stem and the heel. Other accents, like horn and boxwood, were similarly fashioned to tastefully complement the shaping of the pipe itself, often flaring elegantly toward the stem.

Tom Eltang

Tom Eltang: Sandblasted Billiard with Bamboo

Sixten's drill-second approach and artful execution of accents expanded what was originally thought possible when making a pipe, the boundaries dismantled and a new artistic frontier ripe for exploration, but it was a frontier unfit for mass production. Large, factory settings relied on the efficiency of machines, but Ivarsson's "drill first, shape second" technique and accent work could only be applied at the handmade, artisan level. His pipes and processes inspired a wave of artisan pipe makers intent on crafting quality pipes from their personal, creative visions — a process only possible because of Sixten's technique.

As Ivarsson and Danish pipes' popularity grew, artisan-style workshops were established, advancing the Danish design aesthetic via their handmade renditions, while also developing distinct styles within that overarching tradition. Pipe-Dan and W.Ø. Larsen gained prominence and helped jump start the careers of certain artisan carvers, many of whom enjoy renown today. Tom Eltang spent a number of years crafting pipes for Pipe-Dan, and Larsen's Select and Straight Grain pipes were handmade by the likes of Hans "Former" Nielsen, Teddy Knudsen, and Tonni Nielsen.

The Danish Fancy Style

Some carvers took this freedom of shaping to the extreme, crafting dramatic Freehand shapes full of fluting channels and eccentric ridgelines. The ability to approach briar as a blank canvas, as opposed to one restricted by a pre-drilled chamber and airway, allowed for an endless possibility of designs, and this more extravagant end of the Freehand spectrum became known as the Danish Fancy style.

Different from classic Danish design, the Danish Fancy movement didn't prioritize the standards of classic English and French pipe design or incorporate elements of Danish functionalism. Minimalism wasn't considered a virtue. Instead, grandiosity was prized, each shape designed to awe and often following wild grain patterns regardless of where they went and without concern for traditional standards of proportion and line. Workshops like Preben Holm and Nording popularized this aesthetic, and it arrested the attention of pipe smokers throughout the '70s and '80s, particularly in the United States. Though the Danish Fancy fever of decades ago has since worn off, comparatively speaking, it still remains a beloved style by many, and Erik Nording's success speaks to the aesthetic's continued popularity. Stylistically, it couldn't be further from classic Danish pipe design, the style rendered by Sixten and other Danish makers, but the existence of Danish Fancy pipes nevertheless proves the envelope-pushing effect of Ivarsson's shaping approach.

Passing the Torch

Sixten's shaping innovation alone establishes his legacy in pipe-making history; however, his significance would mean considerably less had he not passed his knowledge on to other carvers. Mentorship was perhaps Ivarsson's most powerful gift, having guided a number of other artisans in the craft: Carvers like Jess Chonowitsch, Bo Nordh, Hiroyuki Tokutomi, and Sixten's own son and granddaughter, Lars and Nanna, would all grow to surpass their teacher in both skill and recognition, crafting some of the finest and most sought-after pipes ever known. Even artisans not directly mentored by Ivarsson stand on the shoulders of his innovation and design style, passing it down to future artisans — Teddy Knudsen, for example, training Benni Jorgensen, who then taught the craft to his son Lasse Skovgaard, and Poul Ilsted working with Nording and Former before mentoring Manduela Riger-Kusk. Were it not for Sixten's tutelage and guidance in his "shape first, drill second" technique, it's possible that today we would discuss artisan pipe making only in the past tense, observing it like a fossil of something that once was. Instead, artisan pipe making flourishes today and now covers the globe, an expansion whose roots began with Sixten. In Eltang's own words: "Sixten, of course, was the whole foundation for the artisan pipe business. If it hadn't been for him, I'm convinced the whole pipe industry would look very different today."

Other artisans, Tom perhaps most of all, have followed in Ivarsson's footsteps by training, guiding, and mentoring younger carvers through the early years of their careers, and the vibrancy of today's artisan pipe-making movement is, in part, due to this apprenticeship mindset. In more recent decades, a number of artisan carvers from across the world — the United States, Greece, Portugal, Germany, Japan, Poland, Russia — have travelled to Denmark to learn from the likes of Tom Eltang, Hans "Former" Nielsen, Nanna Ivarsson, and others, not only learning craftsmanship essentials but also refining their eye for aesthetics. Combine such a phenomenon with the global interconnectedness of the internet and social media, and the influence of Danish pipe design on the broader artisan pipe-making community is clearly evident in pipes from non-Danish makers. All handmade, artisan pipes depend on Sixten's shaping innovation, and many of them also reflect design cues inherent to classic Danish pipe design.

Mentorship was perhaps Ivarsson's most powerful gift

The significance of Danish pipe design and of Sixten Ivarsson and their impact on today's current pipe-making milieu, especially artisan pipe making, cannot be overstated. Like many artistic movements, pipe making has experienced a number of revolutions and paradigm shifts throughout its history: The use of briar as a material was one such shift, setting the course of pipe making on a new trajectory from the prior dominance of clay; the rise of mass-produced pipes in France and England during the late 1800s and early 1900s and how that process helped create the standard shape chart could well be considered another; Dunhill's innovative contributions, from popularizing the sandblast and systematizing shapes and finishes to developing a globally recognized brand, certainly earn a place on the timeline too. Sixten and the development of classic Danish pipe design add yet another bookmark to the pipe-making story, contributing a distinct design aesthetic to the worldwide pipe portfolio and changing the craft's landscape for the better through artisan pipe making.

Category:   Makers and Artists
Tagged in:   History Sixten Ivarsson Tom Eltang


    • DAVE SOMMER on March 14, 2021
    • WOW I never thought the process was so intense. Thankyou for bringing this to all of us. I think we think its just a easy thing to do. I guess it takes brains and talent to design a pipe and make one as well.

    • Phil Wiggins on March 14, 2021
    • Awesome Pipes Beautiful

    • Bill Pope on March 14, 2021
    • An excellent article that greatly helps to appreciate what the “Danes” have brought to pipe smoking and pipe making as an art. While most are out of my price range it’s like a fine Masters painting, you don’t have to own it to appreciate it.Thank you and well done.

    • J.B. on March 14, 2021
    • Just have to add Gert Holbek here, who last I heard was still amongst the living in his 90s, although long retired from pipe making. He did some classic designs for Pipe Dan when Sixten Ivarsson was also designing for the company. A 1/4 bent Holbek "Osric" from the Pipe Dan "Elsinore" collection is my ultimate Holy Grail pipe...he also designed silverware for Georg Jensen. He's worth a Google!

    • Lucky_Felix on March 14, 2021
    • As a person who splits wood by looking at it, much less trying to shape or work it, this is an amazing article.

    • Dave on March 14, 2021
    • I would say the three most important and influential pipemakers/designers in what I call the Early Danish Modern period were Sixten Ivarsson with his designs for Stanwell, Sven Knudsen with his designs for W.O. Larsen, and Gert Holbek with his designs for PipeDan.Not in the same category as the three above, but worth a special mention is Svend Axel Celius, whose pipes, particularly the numbered shapes, could never be mistaken for something from any other maker.

    • Dave on March 14, 2021
    • A little bit more about Gert Holbek. In the late 1950's, "Apparently a customer of Holbek's wanted him to make a series of pipes in the style of the Shape Reformed pipes...a series created by the famous pipe shop Pibe-Dan in Copenhagen. That proved to be a fortunate move, even if it did not start so well. The owner of said shop was furious when he heard about it and went to Gert's workshop to scold him for making cribs. But that came to nothing, when he saw Gert's pipes. Instead Pibe-Dan said - "I buy everything you make." ".Born in 1928, Gert Holbek began making pipes in 1956 and stopped in 2007 at age 79. From Jan Andersson's book Scandinavian Pipemakers,"All pipes Gert made have been carefully documented - there were exactly 6662 pieces made."Comparing apples to apples, a high grade Gert Holbek pipe would have cost about the same as a Sixten Ivarsson pipe back in 1961.

    • Joseph Kirkland on March 14, 2021
    • Excellent article! Most informative.

    • D. on March 14, 2021
    • Very educational, thank you. I have been considering donating a body part to purchase a nice Eltang, Former, S.Bang, Nanna Ivarsson, Anne Julie, or a Jess Chonowitsch pipe. Maybe I'll give up an eyeball, kidney, part of my spotted liver, 1 testicle (approximately $35K to $50K), or start donating plasma on a regular; if I give up enough and start to look like Mr. Potato Head without his attachments, maybe then I could own a pipe from all the great masters. One day...

    • Andrew R Marks on March 15, 2021
    • During my visit with Sixten, in the early seventies, he drilled a pipe. This he did with the pipe held in his hands,thereby achieving his drillings,, as well as all else, virtually freehand. Beautiful Gentleman. Memorable visit.

    • NightShayde on March 16, 2021
    • Very informative..

    • Richard Pedersen on December 12, 2021
    • Where would I get information on 4 foot smoking pipe?The pipe in question was gifted to my father from his mother in Denmark over 60 years ago. Also pictures of similar sized pipes. Thanking in advance Richard Pedersen Victoria British Columbia Canada

    • Rogelio Velazquez on August 14, 2022
    • Excellent article

    • Benjamin C on December 26, 2023
    • Thank you for such a concise, well written article!

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