While there are many notable pipe collections in our pipe community, Richard Friedman’s Sea Creature collection is unique among them. Taking its inspiration from Richard’s life at sea, his collection is populated with a vast array of ocean creatures—some so exotic and other-worldly that it boggles the mind that their essential shapes or natures could be imagined, let alone rendered, in briar.
While some shapes, like the blowfish, fugu, and whale, have made their way into the mainstream, others like the manta ray, the sea horse, the squid or the octopus will almost certainly never become commonplace. Among these rarities, one in particular stands out: a Leafy Sea Dragon by Tonni Nielsen that Richard acquired at the last Richmond Pipe Show.
I was present when Richard first saw this pipe. When he handed it to me for my inspection, I was astonished. I did not so much examine the pipe as try to keep it from wriggling from my grasp. Most of all, I was struck by its dynamism. I have never seen such a complex shape that made such masterful use of the medium from which it was crafted. Tonni’s placement of plateau, planes, ridges, and curves simultaneously reveals the best of what the block had to offer while endowing the shape with such flexing muscularity that the pipe seems more than organically inspired. It seems alive. It’s contours suggest that DNA made it, not Tonni Nielsen.
Attending as many pipe shows and visiting as many collectors as I do, I see a lot of pipes. This is a good thing and a bad thing. It is good because comparison and contrast with a large array of work trains the eye and hones the sensibilities. It is bad because one sees far more middling than excellent work. This cannot help but be the case because not every artisan is equally gifted.
As the artisan population has grown, there are more and more very skilled wood-crafters out there. As the overall technical level has risen, the fit and finish levels of what is offered has made it difficult to differentiate one artisan from another, especially in technical terms.
What matters to me most, however, is aesthetics. I am jaded because I have seen far too many perfect pipes lacking in beauty. I have seen very few pipes that approach the mastery evidenced in this creation. This is among the two or three most exquisite creations in briar I have ever seen. It fulfills all the criteria I ascribe to a masterpiece, and I do not use this word lightly. I examined this pipe for five days—including photographing it— and I never ceased marveling. Not for one second.
The most remarkable quality of the pipe concerns its movement dynamics. Depending on one’s angle-of-view, the pipe seems variously moving or at rest. From one vantage point, the leafy sea dragon seems asleep, camouflaged by the ocean flora in which it had nestled itself. From other perspectives, it seems captured mid-dart, avoiding some peckish predator.
I can imagine the inner musings of some of you as you read this. You are billiard or dublin smokers. Your idea of an adventurous shape is a bulldog. “That’s weird,” or “That’s not a pipe, that’s a sculpture,” is riffing through your thoughts now, assuming you’ve even read this far. I can relate. I possess fairly conservative pipe-shape preferences, myself. One’s tastes, however, are beside the point. Like Bo Nordh’s ballerina or Ramses, this pipe inverts the landscape. I will never see innovations in shaping the same way again after having interacted with this Leafy Sea Dragon.
Because I spent so much time with Tonni at the show, I also had hours to talk with him about the pipe: why he made it, what he tried to accomplish, what his challenges were, and how he went about trying to solve them.
I will be frank with you here. Having visually scrubbed this pipe for hours for any flaws or deficits, it became increasingly apparent to me that the principal quality required of this pipe’s creator had to have been insanity. Just the finish-sanding—don’t even consider the shape-sanding—had to have required tens of hours, something that Tonni confirmed. “I thought I was in sanding purgatory,” he quipped in his understated Danish humor.
This pipe was made on spec. As Tonni sweated through its creation, he had no buyer. While he made the pipe with Richard in mind, there were no guarantees. And as the hours mounted while Tonni pushed the envelope—challenging his own limitations as well as the briar’s—the entire effort could have come to nothing with the emergence of a flaw. This sort of endeavor is a high-wire walk in a place where the wind can suddenly gust without warning. It is not for the inexperienced, the gutless, or the artisan who values cost-efficiencies over making great work.