“I take a look at the grain, take away what’s uninteresting, and shape what’s left. I do the same with life”

Some of Denmark's most acclaimed pipe makers are women, producing internationally sought after collector items. James Clasper spoke to four of them

Earlier this year, hundreds of Danes gathered in Frederiksberg for the Danish pipe-smoking competition and exhibition, an annual event now in its 39th year. The competition’s popularity – in which contestants battle to keep their pipes lit for as long as possible – typifies the enduring appeal of pipe-smoking in Denmark.

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Indeed, the country has long been believed to possess the highest number of pipe-smokers per capita. It has a remarkable legacy of pipe-making, too. After the Second World War, a number of craftsmen found fame making pipes. Their beautiful creations remain collectors’ items around the globe, often fetching tens of thousands of kroner

Perhaps more astonishing still, given pipe-smoking’s reputation as a traditionally male pastime, is the fact that Denmark now boasts a number of top female pipe-makers. Some have been doing it for decades, while others are in the nascent stages of their careers. Either way, they upend the notion that pipe-making is only for men.

A family affair
Nanna Ivarsson (left) has been making pipes since her childhood. “I behaved like an old man when I was 16,” laughs Ivarsson, now 42, who preferred the work to hanging out with friends. She inherited the trade from her late grandfather, Sixten, and her father, Lars, who are themselves considered among the most skilful pipe-makers in the world.

The second of two daughters, Ivarsson grew up in her father’s workshop. “I was fascinated that you could take a piece of wood and make an extremely beautiful shape,” she says. “I thought it was magic.”

Nanna Iversson creations. Photo:

She began using her father’s tools and sold her first pipe when she was nine. At 18, she went to work with her grandfather in Copenhagen and later studied at Denmark’s top design school. She now makes between 50 and 60 pipes per year in her workshop in Køge, a coastal town southwest of the capital. Collectors snap them up from as far afield as the US, Germany, and China.

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Ivarsson describes her pipes as “very organic,” with feminine curves. With each pipe, her aim is “to respect the wood and display its grain in the most beautiful way.” Besides being well-balanced and pleasurable to smoke, a pipe should be “very friendly and loving,” she explains. “A pipe is like a little pet. You have to want to sit with it.” The next generation seems to be in good hands, too. Ivarsson’s eight-year-old son, Sixten, has already started making his own pipes.

The legend of Læsø
Anne Julie was only 27 when her first husband, a renowned pipe-maker named Poul Rasmussen, died. After mourning him for several months, she resolved “to make every day the most beautiful day” of her life. She also began to make pipes, having experimented with Rasmussen’s carving tools while he was in the hospital. With a handful completed, she headed to the United States from Denmark and wound up appearing on the celebrity panel show ‘What’s My Line?’

“They showed my pipes all over America,” she says.

That was in 1967, when, as a woman, she had to be “twice as good” as men at making pipes. Fifty years on, Anne Julie is considered one of the world’s most original pipe-makers.

“My pipes are like sculptures,” the 76-year-old says. Indeed, with their ornate carving, liberal use of gold, silver and copper, and red-and-white maker’s mark, her pipes are strikingly distinct and highly coveted, especially by collectors in China, Japan, and the U.S.

Anne Julie. Photo: Sharri Rabbi

Inspiration comes from her surroundings on the remote island of Læsø — especially its flowers — and also from women’s bodies.

“They’re the most beautiful shapes you can find,” she says.

Though thrice-widowed, Anne Julie describes herself as “one of the happiest people on the planet.”

The secret, she explains, lies in how she carves a new block of briar root.

“I look at its grain, take away what’s uninteresting, and shape what’s left,” she explains. “And I do the same with life.”

Slow-smoke champion
In May, Manduela Riger-Kusk (right) will defend her title at the US Slow Smoke Contest, an annual competition held at one of the tobacco industry’s fanciest trade fairs, the Chicago Pipe Show. The 49-year-old has won the women’s contest five times since 2009, and last year kept her pipe lit for 43 minutes.

Victories aside, smoking competitions hold fond memories for Manduela, who is known professionally by her first name – just like the pop stars she once wanted to be. The first five pipes she made and submitted to a Danish contest were snapped up by a tobacconist at Copenhagen airport in 1987. The enthusiastic letters she received from jet-setters who had bought her pipes at the airport suggested she could make a living from them.

One of Riger-Kusk’s pipes. Photo: Lars Kiel

After running a workshop in Copenhagen for many years, she now lives on Denmark’s second-largest island, Funen. Often working at night to avoid distractions, Manduela makes pipes quite unlike the cheap corncobs she smoked as a teenager. She prefers classic shapes like the Bulldog, with its tapered stem and grooved bowl, because it demonstrates her ability “to read the grain of the wood” and carve it accordingly.

Her signature details include colourful stems – instead of black or brown, she prefers hues like blue or amber. She believes half are bought as collectors’ items and will never be smoked. Even so, what drives her is the same impulse that first attracted her to pipes. “I want to make the perfect pipe,” she smiles. “And if I ever do, I’ll stop.”

New kid on the block
In 2013, the president of Japanese pipe company Tsuge flew from Tokyo via Copenhagen to spend four hours on the Baltic island of Bornholm. His aim? To persuade a young Danish woman named (left) Marlene Micke to visit Japan and learn to make pipes. Before his death in 2005, Micke’s father Jørn had enjoyed success as a pipe maker, and had sold pipes to Tsuge. Tsuge’s president now hoped to revive his name, and believed his talent could be hereditary.

“That was a crazy day,” Marlene Micke laughs. “My life turned 180 degrees.” She accepted the offer without much hesitation. After leaving school, Micke spent nearly two years as an apprentice in Tokyo, overcoming the language barrier with “a lot of body language” before returning to her native Bornholm to make pipes exclusively for Tsuge for three years.

For now, the 25-year-old only makes her father’s designs, which were often modelled on women’s bodies. “He really liked curves,” says Micke, who used to hang out with her father in his workshop. “I grew up with his pipes, so that’s what I think pipes should look like.” Inspiration also comes from Bornholm’s abundant natural beauty, which Micke explores on long walks with her Papillon–Pomeranian mix called Bailey.

Micke holding one of her pipes. Photo: Justine Hoegh

She recently sent her first batch of pipes to Tsuge, and she hopes they meet her father’s standards.

“He didn’t send anything to Japan that wasn’t perfect.”

In any case, Micke believes she has the right mindset. “All pipe makers are weird,” she says. “I’ve never met a normal one. If you followed the stream, you wouldn’t be a pipe maker.” M

The May 2017 issue of The Murmur with historian Adam Holm on the cover.


By James Clasper

Contributing editor. @jamesclasper

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