While more than a few pipe collectors and smokers appreciate and seek out sculptural and conceptual pipes, many – if not most, of us still feel a deep connection to classic shapes. There is a reason that billiards, bulldogs, lovats, canadians, rhodesians, pots, zulus, dublins, authors, and other classic shapes have endured. Their lines, proportions, and feel have propelled them into the canon, and while there are myriad expressions of each shape, if a variation strays too far from the canonical, it becomes something else. It may be breathtakingly beautiful. Its originality may be compelling, but it is no longer a classic.
Every aesthetic realm feels tension between a desire to be rooted in its canon and a desire to break free of classical restraints. For me, this tension rivets my interest. I simultaneously hunger for what’s established and for what’s fresh. Indeed, were there no classical realm, how would we measure innovation? One cannot strike out in new directions if every direction is new; one cannot wander from a path that has never been walked. We need the classics to understand invention.
It was during the early 1990s that I studied with the author, philosopher, and futurist, Jay Ogilvy. At the time, Jay was working at SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute) working with his colleagues on identifying and tracking large social and cultural trends.
During one of our seminars, Jay spoke with us about the rhythms of relative liberalism and conservatism over the centuries. Using myriad examples throughout history, Jay demonstrated that the most liberal times occurred at the end decades of centuries and the most conservative times occurred in the beginning decades of centuries.
Although these trends do not strictly follow the calendar, at the time we were entering not only the last decade of the 20th century, but also the last decade of the second millennium. Understandably, a vigorous discussion ensued where we wrestled with how the millennial end might amplify a readily observable hypothesis observable at the end of centuries. We explored the idea in philosophical, artistic, religious, financial, social, and economic terms.
Not long after, I saw further evidence of this trend in books like Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. The rise of religious fundamentalism was already occurring, and not solely in Islam which Huntington so presciently described, but also in Judeaism and Christianity, signal culturally conservative movements accompanied by considerable social impact.
When I think about this macro-scaled trend writ small in our Liliputian pipe world, I wonder if the revival in interest in classic shapes is yet another feature of a swing toward a more conservative zeitgeist. Is a growing popularity of classic shapes another manifestation of a desire to hold onto the familiar and the known? Do we find comfort, or even safety, in those shapes that were smoked and loved by the likes of Samuel Clemens, C.S. Lewis, William Faulkner, or even fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes? Perhaps.
While there may be a revival in our interest in the classic shapes, innovation continues within that realm. Although degrees of variation may be narrower and subtler, there are still artisans who have successfully put their stamp on fresher versions. Rad Davis, for example, has so successfully innovated within the rhodesian vocabulary that collectors have coined a new word for his variation: the “Radesian.” Jess Chonowitsch’s billiard and apple are brilliantly lyrical departures that remain as connected to their taproot as the most vital of oaks.
Michael Lindner is another very successful innovator, especially of late. His recent output of apples, billiards, princes, and authors is nothing short of exquisite. It is also remarkably consistent, and while his virtuosity is detailed and subtle, it is as present as oxygen. Michael Lindner is producing classic work that equals Jess Chonowitsch at his best. I recognize just how big a statement this is, and I believe it wholeheartedly. In the classic realm, Mr. Lindner is as good as it gets. Fortunately, for those of us who want more of his work, his output has recently increased.
I spoke with Mike yesterday during a call I made about a prospective commission. As is usually the case, I wanted to probe his thinking a bit with respect to whether he saw the same generative influences that I have been picking up on lately. I love talking with him about this subject because he is such an experienced collector as well as a facile thinker.
“People are always surprised to find out that my shapes are influenced by French pipes from the 1920s, or Sasienis from the 30s,” Michael said. “I’ve spent a lot of time studying these pipes and my own shapes come from what I think is best about their sources of inspiration.”
Several weeks ago I purchased an early-1930s vintage Comoy Deluxe Straight Grain author from Michael. In his description, he mentioned that this particular pipe was both inspirational and referential in his development of his own author shape. I have observed that Michael’s author appeared to have Comoy roots, a shape vocabulary that is distinctly different from Dunhill, GBD, and Barling.
Since I am fond of the author shape and Michael’s version, in particular, I snapped the pipe up with the enthusiasm a hungry panda has for budding bamboo shoots. I couldn’t wait to get it so that I could compare its lines and proportions with the Lindner versions I own.
Examining the pipes closely, they reveal a family resemblance that is not so close as children, but not so removed as cousins. Thus, his classical versions do not feel derivative of their sources of inspiration, but rather evolved from them. It is in being able to innovate with such finesse that Lindner’s artistry shows up. He possesses a mastery of detail that eludes many other makers. His command of subtlety is what makes him so exciting to observe as he works within the classical realm.
As I sit here, thinking about and writing this post, I wonder just how many more artisans will narrow their focus and further develop their classic vocabulary. Examples come to mind; Adam Davidson’s silver army-mount prince confidently straddles the old and the new. Michael Parks’ version of Dunhill’s 120 shape surpasses its originator, seeming to defy the possibility of drilling the pipe for smoking. Vollmer and Nielsen almost effortlessly seem to surpass their pipes’ forbears. Jack Howell’s versions of the Comoy 283 shape evolved into something sleeker as he worked through his 50+ iterations. Jimmy Craig’s stealthy advances from Bill Taylor’s foundational Dunhill work are exciting to see. Finally, we see innovation pressed with just a bit more muscle by Chris Askwith who, for me, is emblematic of the UK’s artisanal future.
Certainly, the Danish and Italian pipemaking schools are exciting. Their departures from the canon have enriched and enlivened the pipe world, but there is something magical and extraordinary going on within the narrower confines of the canon that is equally deserving of attention.