'The New Luciano', Bear Graves Interviews Luca di Piazza
by Bear Graves
Bear Graves: I’m here with Luca di Piazza, the promoter extraordinaire of Neatpipes/Italianpipemakers, the owner of Luciano Pipes, as well as the representative for Cavicchi, Radice, Don Carlos, Le Nuvole, Posella, Davide Lafisco, and Tonino Jacono, as well as one of the coolest guys I have had the pleasure of meeting. It’s been a while, Luca, how are you?
Luca di Piazza: I have been busy. Allow me a slight correction; during normal times I am busy. With a total restatement of Luciano pipes underway, I am now crazy-busy; I wish I could put in a request for 26 hour days. By the way, while I appreciate you saying so, if I’m one of the coolest guys you have had the pleasure of meeting, you might consider getting out more often.
Bear Graves: (laughing) Well, I’m always up for an all-expenses paid trip to Milan, in order to hang out with cool people. Maybe you could sponsor me as a guest worker, how do you say “panhandler” in Italian?
Luca: In the strictest sense of the word “accattone”, but I can also think of several Italian bureaucratic titles which come pretty close, in my estimation.
Bear Graves: I’m definitely going to want to return to that subject later. There isn't much information about your background and history on English sites. Towards filling that glaring gap, would you mind if we started with some biographical questions?
Luca: Fire, when ready!
Bear Graves: When and where were you born?
Luca: I was born in the city I love, Milan, on New Year’s Day in 1982. Though I have traveled around the world, visiting places throughout Europe, plus the USA, China, Japan, and Russia, and lived for a couple of years in Valencia, Spain, as well as a few months in Shanghai, my heart, my family, indeed, my very soul is in Milan. And, with every passing year, I love my city even more.
Bear Graves: Wow. After a passionate response like that, the only thing preventing me from hightailing it to Milan, is the possibility of being mistaken for a country hopping ISIS wannabe. What did you parents do for a living?
Luca: Though retiring 4 years ago, my father spent his whole life working for the Municipal Transportation Company of Milan: ATM. Many folks in San Francisco probably knows this acronym as some of their oldest and most loved of their street trolleys hail from his company. Since he retired at a young age, he started helping me with Neatpipes. He is one of the souls of Luciano's workshop. My mother, who will also be retiring shortly, has spent the past 20 years working with microfusion to create high-tech components for engines — the Boeing Turbine being an example. I promise you that she will start enjoying a very different kind of life in a few months.
Bear Graves: What fond memories of your childhood and early adulthood will always be with you?
Luca: Perhaps some might regard this as odd, but I’m not the best with long term visual recall. I can tell you that I had a very happy childhood, as well as many fond feelings of spending time with my grandmother, who took care of me from shortly after birth to secondary school at the age of 14. She taught me how beautiful is life, how family links are important and how people can receive a lot of love with just a smile. She's still part of my life and she is a great power for me. If the answer you were hoping for was something like “running barefoot through sun drenched fields of grass”, I have always asserted that when I am very old, I will have nothing to share in the way of concrete memories because of the way I am wired. My memories from 25 years ago are no different.
Bear Graves: Personally, if you had said something like “running barefoot through sun drenched fields of grass”, I would have found that much odder. It’s been my observation that vivid, dream-like recollections are more the stuff of the Cinema than real life. In at least that matter, we are wired in a similar manner.
Luca: I share some wiring with Bear? Now, that’s just plain scary. Just kidding.
Bear Graves: Hey, be nice, I was the one who said you were “cool” (laughs). Prior to becoming involved in the pipe industry, what types of jobs did you do?
Luca: There are jobs outside of the pipe industry?! Seriously?! NOW you tell me! (laughs) My very first job was related to pipes. I was studying architecture at that time, at the Politecnico in Milan, and I needed a job to get some money. In 1999, I put together and ran a website for Franco Bolognesi, an ecommerce site dedicated to retailing his personal collection of Dunhill and Castello pipes online. The Bolognesi website aside, my first briar job was for a retail store in Milan. I created and managed their online store for a couple of years. While enterprise was extremely popular and had enjoyed over seventy years in business, there just, understandably, came a time for the owners to retire, that would now place us in 2002.
Already in love with the pipe world., my main relationship with pipemakers at that time was with Franco Coppo 'Kino' of Castello and he gave me tremendous support to start my own business. In 2002, July 18th, Neatpipes.com opened, and my total inventory was a couple of dozen of nice Estate pipes. While Neatpipes.com took me in many different, interesting directions during the initial years, the tale is too long to be fully recounted here. What is important to note is that I started to represent Italian pipemakers throughout the world in 2008, Radice was my first client. That also represented my first step into the world of business-to-business, rather than retailing only. When Luciano was born in 2007, that became the third face of my enterprises.
Bear Graves: Moving not only in to representing, but creation of the actual briars with Luciano, kind of begs an obvious question: do you find yourself happiest when involved in the actual day-to-day creation of briars, or do you derive greater joy in getting out and talking about your pipes with retailers and collectors?
Luca: I really love ALL parts of my job! There are a lot of background steps, before getting to public: Sketching pipes and ideas, managing the Luciano workshop, visiting and discussing with the Italian carvers about new ideas. I love to travel and tremendously enjoy my relations with smokers and collectors, whether personally, online and emails. The only thing I really dislike, and I have no way of avoiding it, is paper-work in the office. With respect, US wholesalers and retailers have some bureaucracy to deal with, but most of you have little notion of what I insane hoops I have to jump through in order to appease the Italian “Bureacrazy!” I could tell you, but you wouldn’t believe it.
Bear Graves: I understand that some very major, some might even say "revolutionary," changes are taking place at Luciano, could you help fill us in?
Luca: “Revolution” is an apt word for what is presently underway, and that revolution began about a year ago with the Smokingpipes.com debut of our new Bamboo series. We have begun to refer to the Bamboo series, and the subsequent advancements, as “The New Luciano,” and today, one year later, all aspects of the New Luciano are up and running. If you look at the Bamboo series of a year ago, a line that is incredibly popular with customers, you could see some hints of what would be soon taking place. Only plateau briar is used in the the creation of the Bamboo series pipes. The bamboo tenons were reinforced with surgical steel at the briar portion of the shank and mouthpiece. Even the shaping and the very presence of slender bamboo were a big step outside of what most have come to think of as “the Italian Pipe,” and we were just getting started.
Bear Graves: I do believe you have our attention.
Luca: It has taken a few months of re-equipping, retooling, and the addition of a very talented younger carver, Davide Lafisco — who has had experience working with Cavicchi, Radice, and attended Teddy’s workshop — but all of Luciano pipes are now 100% hand made.
Bear Graves: Hold a sec. Historically, if a pipe company decided a change of direction was in order, the movement was away from the labor-intensive, hand crafted operation and more towards a greater amount of mechanization. Not that I mind, quite the contrary, I am thrilled, but what prompted you to swim against that current?
Luca: The answer lies within the Motto of the New Luciano Pipes: “Ne Change rien pour que tout soit different”.
Bear Graves: The Godard quote? I have always taken that to mean, "Change nothing, so everything stays the same," in other words, “don't mess with it.”
Luca: It’s something of a free translation, another way of saying “Don't change just for the purpose of changing. Just stay the same and do it better.” To elaborate, one doesn’t need to change everything (in our specific field, techniques, making crazy shapes or using crazy material) to get something new. If change is to happen for the better, it’s smarter to address a couple of crucial aspects to achieve that change, rather than toss everything out in pursuit of advancement.
So why “swim against the current,” as you put it? First, you have to understand that Luciano has never had an interest in becoming a mass-production pipe company, and that's why we don’t focus on the number of pipes we get out of the workshop on a monthly or annual basis. That’s not to suggest that we completely ignore the “business side of business,” but we deeply believe that doing better — not more — will build up the New Luciano name among pipe smokers and collectors. You have to remember that going against the current, running contrary to a perceived general trend, is a simply a point of view, only a matter of perspective. We've got our way, and we firmly believe that quality should have the pole postion of what we offer to the people who purchase our pipes.
Bear Graves: Bravo!
Luca: Thank you... Hey! You learned Italian just for me?
Bear Graves: Sadly, that’s the only Italian I know. Well, that and “ciao,” which I learned from Eddie Izzard. When you say that all Luciano pipes are now handmade, are you including your older shapes?
Luca: All means all. In fact, we are in the process of redesigning the entirety of our shape chart. You have no doubt already noticed that the older Luciano forms have been changing; showing more Italian flare, touches of youth, and a greater elegance of design, things which we felt were missing in our older shapes. Being handmade and crafted from plateau, you will never find (say) a Billiard #35 with the same exact shape and size of another one. Further, the improvements extend far beyond materials and shapes.
Bear Graves: In what manner?
Luca: Packaging is still evolving. We've introduced a handmade designer pouch made with recycled material for all pipes, including an organic cotton bag. Each pipe is accompanied by a warranty paper with technical information about it, which is wrapped in another small organic bag.
Bear Graves: That is pretty cool. While I can’t imagine a proud new owner throwing a Luciano bag away, I also didn’t know you were so environmentally conscious.
Luca: Well, Italy was one of the first signatories of the Kyoto protocols, and we ratified the same over a dozen years ago. Having said that, not many firms put this much thought into packaging. Further our stamping is changing. The Luciano name is smaller. We discontinued the "Hand Finished in Italy" stamp, introducing the new "ITA+year of production." Each pipe is stamped with the shape number (we have a strict shape chart we like to follow!), with the finish code (C for clear smooth, B for brown/contrast smooth, S for black sandblasted, S* for tan sandblasted, S** for virgin sandblasted, Sw for Strawberry wood). The group size has been introduced (Gr. 1 for smaller, Gr. 2 for medium sized pipes, Gr. 3 for larger pipes, XL for Giant and Magnums).
Bear Graves: Any thoughts of including a fine bottle of Trebbiano di Lugana with every Luciano purchase?
Luca: ...were you asleep when I mentioned the problems associated with Italian bureaucracy?! No wine, but a Luciano owner will have a fine piece of Italian art!
Bear Graves: I thought it was worth a shot.
Luca: It’s all good, I always take into account the person asking the question (laughs). In addition to the news we have already discussed, Luciano is now in cooperation with other pipemakers. In 2014 Maurizio Tombari of Le Nuvole designed one of our Top Selling Limited Editions: “The Moon,” and Tonino Jacono designed our 2014 POY. We also have many other very interesting names in the pipe carving world working with us on shapes, projects which will be released soon.
Bear Graves: Now that’s a tease. With all of these projects going on, you surely need good help to stay on top of things. Would you like to hire me?
Luca: (long pause) Sadly, there’s a competency requirement to work for Luciano, sorry Bear. Besides, I don’t just need good help, I need the best. I am the public face of Neatpipes/Italianpipemakers/Luciano and I am proud to represent the team of people that works with me, as great of a crew as one could hope for. For instance, Roberta, who attended a lot of pipe shows around the world with me, will manage her first pipeshow by herself. She will be at the West Coast Pipe Show in Las Vegas... I won't even be there!
Bear Graves: What if I throw in the duty of walking eight paces in front of you, yelling “Make way for the Maestro!!”?
Luca: No. Make that “Dear God, no!”
Bear Graves: Luca, thank you for your extreme patience. You have provided all of us with a tremendous insight into your past, your fast-paced, game-changing present, as well as some fun hints about the future.
Luca: You are quite welcome, this was surprisingly fun, and I am looking forward to the next debut of The new Luciano on Smokingpipes.com.