Maigurs Knets, (the K is not silent), was born in Latvia and raised on a heavy dose of fine art education. He began to hone his skills by spending several years in art college in his home country. Since those early days, some 30 years ago, he has absolutely not stopped in his desire to learn and explore all facets of art and he has kept going this entire time, moving around from project to project, from painting to wood-working to small scale car model design to pipes. All the while he is searching for that special something that artist’s are always on the prowl for, the amazing artistic idea which ignites their inner senses and sends them into a fury of insane production. The amount of fine art background that Maigurs has accumulated over the years is immense. To my knowledge, there is no living or passed along pipe maker who has a longer list of credentials in fine art design than Maigurs Knets.
He is both a comedian & philosopher. He easily cracks jokes on numerous topics and at the same time is able to engage in very deep thought on a variety of subjects. At the moment he is trying to simmer down the conflict inside him regarding who he is as an artist. He is both a fine craft artist as well as a fine art pipe maker. The roller coaster tug of war between these two lands is an exercise he seems to be getting used to. Right now it is easiest to define him as a fine craft artist expressing himself in a pipe smoking world. I doubt that he would explain it so easily though. I personally think Maigurs and his artistic torment is a wonderful boon to current and future collectors of his work. Because Maigurs is so all over the place in terms of potential artistic direction, we collectors get to see his mind’s eye explore so much more in terms of these unique and interesting directions that he comes up with. No matter which direction he chooses to pursue however, you can be sure he will explore it thoroughly. The new ‘art’ direction in pipes that he is planning to cultivate shortly should further excite us even more, as you will soon read.
His ultimate dream is to have his work displayed in a fine art museum. And this is an important point which will help you understand his goals and how he approaches his work. Pipe are also not his only form of artistic expression. He remains today a fine craft artist. An artist clearly annoyed with the need to also be a businessman because it strongly conflicts with his preferred way of freedom of expression without the interruption of the annoying side of reality. Having to pay the bills in order for him to create art is the biggest nuisance of all for him. Without the outlet of fine art creativity, it feels as if Maigurs would be at an end. He has such a large number of ideas weighing on his mind. He is an incredibly deep thinking artist.
[box_light]I first heard about Maigurs on Nick Miller’s Quality Briar website. Nick is definitely earning his reputation of being a top notch pipe maker scout. Along with Maigurs and several other such pipe makers, Nick took a chance on Knets and brought him to the high end pipe retail level. Nick told me how their relationship began: “I bought one of his pipes in order to see how it was put together and I was immediately taken aback by not only his immense and incredible artistic talent but also his stem-work. What he does with stems is easily on par with some of the greatest pipe makers who have ever carved. Maigurs stems are honestly some of the best in the industry and the level of attention he gives that area is truly out of this world.”[/box_light]
Maigurs is now working with several major, high end pipe retailers and his potential is only now coming to light for many of us in the collector community. He has been working with Per Bilhall of Scand Pipes for quite some time already and he recently joined the Smoking Pipes roster. I spoke to Sykes Wilford, owner of SmokingPipes.com and asked him to explain his decision to start working with Maigurs. Sykes told me: “There are a host of factors that go into deciding whether to work with a pipe maker. The biggest one is that there needs to be a minimum level of fit, finish and engineering. And we set that minimum really high. To say that Maigurs does great on that front is a given. I’m really taken with his shaping, though. He has a really fluid, almost floral, aesthetic that I find intriguing. There’s also an aesthetic coherence to Maigurs work, which is something I very much look for in a pipe maker.” High praise for his work from some of the biggest pipe retailers in the industry.
Beyond the retailers, I also spoke to collectors about Maigurs. Two prominent pipe collectors, Dustin Babitzke and Mario Persico, collectively own more than 30 Maigurs Knets pipes. I asked both of them what it is about Maigurs that attracts them to his work. Mario mentioned what he finds appealing in both Maigurs Knets the person as well as his pipes: “The perfection of what he is trying to accomplish was instantly clear. He brings such a high level of integrity & discipline to each pipe he makes. If you speak to him even once, that is the first thing that jumps out at you. His understanding of air flow is also pretty incredible. I dont have a single Knets pipe that does not draw perfectly. I also think he is part of the renaissance of new carvers, coming from countries that have never been big players. Coming from this outsider perspective, they have chosen to take this profession as a craft and because of that outsider view, they come in and push the limits and they don’t accept the pipe as an average object.”
Dustin Babitzke’s strong relationship with Maigurs provides him an inside view to his shaping process. Dustin shared the following: “Each Knets shape is thought out on paper first, it is sketched over and over. Then he often makes a foam prototype of the pipe shape and cuts that prototype in half. By doing this Maigurs can observe that the air chamber and tobacco bowl line up perfectly and the draw will work for the smokability of the pipe. Only then does he choose a piece of briar whose grain will suit that shape and he begins to shape the pipe. Maigurs understands both engineering and art. His background demands that he merges both form and function. Each one of my Knets pipes smokes like a dream.”
My personal interest in Maigurs originates mainly from his different approach to pipe making. Whether Maigurs agrees with it or not, he and pipe makers like Revyagin, are part of a new wave of carvers who are focused on bending the rules of traditional pipe making and because of their exploration, they are creating some of the most unique and truly artistic pipes the market has ever seen. I remain more so on the traditionalist’s side in terms of shaping but I continue to find myself intrigued to no end, by what this new breed of pipe maker is creating. I own two Maigurs Knets pipes, a poker and a bent egg and while both of them have some very unique and gentle extra artistic features, they are still overall traditional shapes. Slowly but surely however, I am gently creeping over to this ‘new pipe art’ side and I am searching for inroads towards it with each new request for commissions I make, to somehow take these ideas gently into account. I doubt I will ever catch up to Maigurs however I am making progress.
Depending on who you talk to, there are a host of different opinions on the man. Whatever those opinions may be, none of us can deny that Maigurs Knets creates some of the most unique pipes on the market today. His approach is incredibly special. More over, for someone like him to waltz right into the hobby with less than 5 years of pipe making under his belt and for him to make such a quick impact as he has and doing so while absolutely holding firm & true to his artistic guns, is terribly impressive in my opinion and therefore he cannot be ignored. Pipe traditionalists should make no mistake about it, the world of pipes is changing and a fine craft art as well as general artistic approach, is steadily pushing it’s way in and people like Maigurs Knets are at the front of this small revolution. Maigurs balances both the very old ideas and the very new ideas and he does a very good job at it. If you have ever had an inkling to explore some unique and different direction for your pipes, Maigurs Knets may be the carver to talk to help you realize those ideas. I hope you enjoy learning about Maigurs Knets in detail in the below interview.
David M: How many years have you lived in the United States?
Maigurs Knets: I’ve lived here since 1990 so it will be 22 years shortly.
David M: What impact did your time as well as art education in Latvia have on you & on how you approach your work today?
Maigurs Knets: If there is something left, then it is only the world of art that I experienced in Latvia, this is one thing which never fades away. It’s very uniquely sentimental by nature for me, it’s irreplaceable. It was a difficult time for me in Latvia because we lived under soviet occupation at that time and that difficulty in life gets translated into the way I make pipes, it’s the Latvian style. I measure 7 times and cut once. If I do something and feel no pain, then something is wrong, that is art the Latvian way.
David M: With such an intense fine art background as yours, I am curious to know who some of your favorite painters are to better understand their influence on you and your work.
Maigurs Knets: Early in Art College I was all into Rembrandt and the Dutch masters. I did a lot of painting in College. Something like 8 hours a week for 4 years. Since living in America I have not found the time to return to that level of painting that I did but I still have a dream to try once again soon, just for sake of personal joy. In the mid nineties I fell in love with Maxwell Parish and Alphonse Mucha.
“My thought was very simple, I was thinking that I wanted to kick my friend Alex’s [Florov] butt!”
– Maigurs Knets
David M: How did you choose to start making pipes?
Maigurs Knets: It happened completely by accident, I actually should not even be involved in pipes at all. I’ve known Alex Florov since 1993, I consider him a friend and we have always worked close to each other. The model maker community in Chicago area is small so no matter where you go, there is always a big chance to run in to each other time and time again. So, Alex and I have been friends and once in 2006, Alex appeared in my shop with one of his pipes proudly in his hand and honestly at that time, I did not care to so much about pipes because I was so deeply involved in my scale car models using exotic hardwoods of the world but somehow for the simple sake of friendly competition with Alex, I also made one and off it went.
David M: An unplanned & chance circumstance placed you in a position to express your fine craft art knowledge in pipes. How lucky for us. What were you thinking while you were making that first pipe?
Maigurs Knets: My thought was very simple, I was thinking that I wanted to kick my friend Alex’s butt! [laughs] Here was a guy who was always in my face, always trying to show me up and I was thinking, well, let’s see what I can do. It was a friendly fire thing and that is how I got sucked into it. You also can’t forget that since my country Latvia was under Soviet occupation for many years, there is a lot of bad historical blood between us, kind of like the Jews & Palestinians. Obviously in the present time and here in American we do not have that problem at all anymore and like I said, Alex and I are friends and I respect him immensely. In the friendly rivalry environment though and everybody should completely understand my friendly rivalry meaning here and not overreact. I was thinking back to my time in Latvia, we were under a soviet occupation and I was thinking that those soviets were always so…let’s use the word annoying back then [laughs] so in my mind, it was one nation against another and Latvia wanted to show the Russians that we were better.
“I never learned from anybody. I honestly have no joy in replicating other people’s work.”
– Maigurs Knets
David M: Looking at all of your pipes, from your first to your last, I find it difficult to see a natural extension in your work from the existing pipe world and traditional pipe design principles. I don’t see too many connections to past or current work or anything frankly. How do you approach a block of briar and begin working?
Maigurs Knets: I never learned from anybody. I honestly have no joy in replicating other people’s work. Other people’s art and my being exposed to it will only impact my own art negatively. I try and protect myself in that way as best as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely took the time and learned all the details about how to make sure that my pipes smoke good. Every single engineering tolerance has been evaluated by me in extremely great detail. All of the proper engineering in pipes has been fully absorbed. As for the shaping element however and this is what I call the ‘art’, I want to be able to create my own ideas and speak through my own voice as much as possible. This is what gives me pure joy, nothing else. To copy someone’s work is not fun for me. I am not challenged by that act and I literally feel bad about myself when I even spend some time in that idea.
The main reason I stay away from other’s work is because as soon as I see someone else’s craft, that vision that I get in my mind will immediately change the way I see things. I don’t want to lose the uniqueness of myself. It is purely a protection mechanism and not meant to give offense to other pipe maker’s work. I have more personal background in fine art than pipes, so therefore since I have been simmering in all my ideas going all the way back to Art College, when I spend too much time with someone else’s image, it changes my uniqueness which is deeply connected to my own art history. Whenever I do see something and obviously some of it is inevitable, I absolutely want it to leave my brain as quickly as possible. Because somewhere along the line I feel like it will damage my own vision.
“Why should I look at other people’s work if I have 10,000 ideas of my own?”
– Maigurs Knets
David M: So you absolutely don’t feel like you can take other people’s ideas and incorporate them into your own and more important, change them somehow, perhaps refine them and make them even better and build upon the initial ideas you see in other people’s shapes?
Maigurs Knets: No, not for me. Some people’s style is to do exactly that. The idea is to take someone else’s work and come up with a brand new way to express that idea. I am happy for the people that do that but it is not for me. For me, I am unable to see the difference between this pipe or that pipe when I see this happening. Some people’s entire style is like this, a gathering and combination of 10 or 20 different people’s ideas over a long period of time. I understand that the pipe hobby is built like this so I do not fault anyone for using this process but for me, I choose to approach it differently. I guess I see it as why should I look at other people’s work if I have 10,000 ideas of my own?
Maigurs Knets: I already know that I won’t have time to get to all of my shape ideas and that is why unfortunately I have to pick and choose which one’s to work on and which one’s to forget about. I have many exciting new pipe shape ideas to come that I cannot wait to begin work on.
Maigurs Knets: It’s tough to even get to work on some of my other shape ideas. When I get a re-order on a pipe and many people like a certain shape, then I obviously have to make it again and again. I do that with pleasure for my customers and my dealers. The fact of the matter though is that when this happens, it takes time away from exploring my other ideas & experimenting and it all takes time. I am sure I will slowly get to all of them though eventually. And when I do get to new shapes, that also takes substantial time. A new shape is not easy. A new shape takes a minimum of 6 pipes. That is how many blocks I have to go through in order to properly refine the idea in my head. It also takes that long to make it pleasing to the eye. Art and the way I approach it is not a fast moving train. It takes resources and a lot of time.
“…pipe shape, absolutely does not matter…”
– Maigurs Knets
David M: If you could teach a course on pipe making, how would you teach it?
Maigurs Knets: I would start off by telling my students that pipe shape absolutely does not matter, it only matters after you understand the main thing, that the pipe has to smoke properly. If the pipe does not smoke properly, the shape you have made is absolutely useless. This is where some of the old traditions of pipe making definitely make their way into my shop. To make the pipe smoke in the best and most precise way possible, you have to stick to the old fashioned techniques of the chamber, you can’t work around it too much, a ¼” thickness is required and is industry standard. Drilling is the second most important thing, it is paramount, it actually could be the most important thing. How precise the air-hole is drilled, how it enters the stem and how precise the stem is opened up at the end.
How the stem is opened at the end will usually determine how well the tobacco smokes. It will control the tobacco burn rate. Some people want fancy thin stems but then they run into problems with how to open it correctly. Smoke cannot have any resistance at all in that area. It is very hard to control how the tobacco burns in the chamber. That is how I would start my pipe making class, by focusing on engineering first. I would not even begin the conversation about shapes. Start off by getting your reputation so that people say your pipes smoke well. I see a lot of people ignore this area and they want to first break all the shape rules and make mortise and tenon breaks so radical that the air breaks so much that the pipe doesn’t smoke properly. It will all honestly be over if they continue to approach it like that and then there is really no point. Wall thickness and the precision of drilling, those are the most important areas.
Then of course, to some extent and to help them start off, I would tell my students to learn shapes by copying some first. We had to learn the background of all Classical art when I was in Latvia. We had to learn the entire back-bone first. We were always told to start off by copying. I guess that is normal to an extent. Without that training in Latvia, I would have no idea what to do right now. I had to obtain all those basic elements of knowledge to begin my own exploration of art in pipes.
“…if there would be no sandblasting I would not be making pipes.”
– Maigurs Knets
David M: An artist who approaches their craft the way you do, must enjoy the freedom that sandblasting briar gives you. Is it another form of expression in the pipe medium for you that you enjoy.
Maigurs Knets: Absolutely yes, if there would be no sandblasting I would not be making pipes. Some pipes don’t look nice when they are smooth but they would be absolutely fantastic under the blast. I have started to sandblast all my fancy exotic burls. That has been incredibly interesting. I have even started to sandblast my American Black Ash burl and the most unbelievable ripples have come out, 10x more beautiful than briar.I am also starting to blast some Brazilian Walnut and seeing how it looks on stems and people will start to see some of that work in the coming weeks.
Normal briar is also a wood that always has a lot of natural damage. I lose at least 4 blocks out of 10. I can spend a whole day shaping and drilling and suddenly I need to throw out a whole day’s work because of a sandpit. It’s not just a $50 block that I am throwing away, that part I am okay with, it’s the whole day’s job that I am throwing away, that drives me nuts. A pipe with no sand-pits, maybe 1or 2 out of 10. It truly is a luxury item that piece of briar. So at least 50% of them have to be blasted.
“Solitude and tranquility, when I achieve it, it is absolutely perfect, I love it.”
– Maigurs Knets
David M: How do you set the stage for yourself when you carve pipes in your shop?
Maigurs Knets: What really matters to me is solitude and tranquility. Believe it or not I only listen to instrumental music. When I am carving I don’t want to hear lyrics, I stay away from anything that alters my thought when I am carving a pipe. If I was listening to lyrics, the words the people would be saying would get into my head and take me away. If that happened, even for a brief moment, I would lose my focus from the art I am making. Solitude and tranquility, when I achieve it, it is absolutely perfect, I love it. That is how I make all my pipes.
“I have never understood why so many people continue to copy other people’s work.”
– Maigurs Knets
David M: It seems like you are self-taught and self-influenced when it comes to pipes. Almost as if you work from inside a cocoon. Whenever you do venture outside, is there any current pipe maker whose work is influencing you?
Maigurs Knets: I have always wanted to make my and my thing only. I have never understood why so many people, when they are ready to go on their own and they have learned the basic’s, why they continue to always copy other people’s work. I understand that part of our business requires that we do this but whenever I have the chance to do something different, I must find a way to express my own ideas. You have to understand that I come from a fine art background and from this perspective, any slight touch of someone else’s work would destroy all the artist’s uniqueness immediately. If we all did this all the time, we would have nothing new, only everything copied and old. So whenever I can and as often as I can, I try to do my own thing. I still make pipe shapes for any customer who requests one and I always will but when I am experimenting and exploring and creating, I want to have one voice in the room, my own. This is why I try to limit the influence of other pipe makers work.
I do have to say that one of my favorite pipe makers is Michael Parks. I love his work. Somehow I feel like he and I are similar in how we approach things. His designs are clean and intelligent and the lines he produces are beautiful.
David M: There is an amazing ‘natural from nature’ element in your work. Why is nature your greatest inspiration?
Maigurs Knets: Nature is perfect and I like perfect things. In my belief system I believe that the way God spoke, at that moment he created all the forms and all the proportions. Everything come out as clear information on the subatomic particles level and was then shaped into atoms and molecules and cells. What he did was perfect and I have nothing to add to that. Changing anything within that frame of mind, would destroy the natural order. A lot of destructive weirdness occurs as soon one starts to mess around with perfect shapes, forms and proportions and I have no inclination to add anything to that mess. I take what I can find in Gods garden (nature) and then I make my own thing.
“My biggest disappointment in pipes was when I finally realized that pipes are about grains and how the grain looks.”
– Maigurs Knets
David M: Clearly your meeting market demands when you make this or that shape and sell it to the market or to a collector. Beyond that realm of work that is responding to the market, what are you yourself searching for or hoping to do through pipe design?
Maigurs Knets: I have decided that I want to be a fine craft artist who also makes fine craft high quality art pipes. That is only way I feel comfortable making pipes. For that purpose I will likely cut down my production to 1 or 2 pipes a week. The side effect however will be much better, much higher quality and even finer crafted pipes. I draw my main inspiration for this new direction from furniture makers of Art Nouveau style from 100 years ago. People like Majorelle and Galle. It is sad that these artists never made any Art Nouveau pipes the way they worked on furniture and glass and bronze, so we have no reference to that but this is my new direction which I will explore and I will show my new reorganized style early next year. It is already being planned and worked on and I am very excited to show it to the pipe world. Will the people like or not? That is still to be determined.
David M: What bothers you the most about the pipe industry?
Maigurs Knets: My biggest disappointment in pipes was when I finally realized that pipes are more about grains and how the grain looks than the shape. Grain is the major focus in the industry, it’s not about the shape at all. I understand why people like grains and I myself make my pipes with beautiful grain as well as new forms of grain expression, but ultimately, my main interest is in shapes. This next part I say jokingly but it is true, when people show me their pipes and they start the discussion by highlighting the beautiful grain on their pipe, I can’t help but giggle and think to myself these several questions. I think…You never planted the tree, you never watered it, you never risked your life to collect it and you never risked your fingers to cut it. So why is the grain so important to you if it had nothing to do with you? [laughs] That is just my philosophical comedian mind talking. Obviously a lot of my pipes focus on accentuating and emphasizing a good grain but I simply understand that the grain has nothing to do with me. I am more of a wood worker so for me, it’s personally all about shape. If I cannot make something look different, I do not want to do it all.
David M: What is behind the thin wafer like waves and ribbons that you enjoy to make? What is the concept or are you just looking for the most challenging thing to make?
Maigurs Knets: One has to be careful here, it can’t become too thin that there is no material feel to it anymore. The most challenging thing is to make lines which do not have a point of reference, they can’t be measured. The most difficult thing is to convert general vision in my mind into a three dimensional model. I have always been thinking about why it’s so difficult to convert vision I have inside. Mainly it’s because of the less dimensions surrounding the vision, there are many more than just 3 dimensions. Now I know that in macro scale man may as well be finite but in micro scale he is infinite. So images which do come through are more than 3 dimensional and to convert that in lesser form is very, very difficult indeed.
David M: Your use of Ambonya Burl is gaining in popularity among other carvers. What can you tell us about it?
Maigurs Knets: Amboyna burl comes from my passion for woodworking. It is the rarest and most expensive burl. I generally don’t like the burl on it’s own, I do like it when I combine it with sap wood, creating a layer of it which seems to grow around the burl itself. I truly enjoy working with these accent woods because it allows my fine craft side to come out more.
David M: How does someone order a pipe from you?
Maigurs Knets: I’m not a phone man, an e-mail is the best way to contact me. Just let me know what you want and we will go from there.
If you would like to order a Maigurs Knets pipe, you can contact him with the information below:
Unsmoked Maigurs Knets pipes are also available for purchase at these pipe retailers:
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