Mechanical Tables: Puzzle Furniture for the Ages

We previously did a post discussing puzzly furniture where we explored origami cardboard chairs, furniture that can be arranged in different ways like puzzle pieces, sofas with hidden footrests and tables, storage and couches made of soft Tetris pieces, and the buildable puzzly furniture of Praktrik.

And yet, we only scratched the surface of what clever designers and skilled craftspeople can do when they combine puzzly elements and beautiful furnishings.

Today, we return to the topic and up the stakes, as we delve into mechanical tables and other furnishings with delightfully challenging puzzle-inspired secrets.

desk

Let us begin with the works of Jean-François Oeben.

You simply cannot discuss the topic of puzzle furniture or mechanical tables without mentioning this 18-century woodworker, furniture builder, and artisan. Oeben’s work is on display in museums all over the world: the Louvre, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Museu Calouste Gulbekian, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and many more.

And the mechanisms that make his creations so unique are still working flawlessly more than 200 years later.

A maker of cabinets, commodes, desks, and more, Oeben was as celebrated for his ingenious mechanical devices as he was for his dazzling work in marquetry. Marquetry is the art of cutting thin sheets of wood, metal, mother-of-pearl, and other materials into intricate patterns and affixing them to the flat surfaces of furniture.

For example, he designed and built this table for Madame de Pompadour:

It’s not only gorgeous — featuring inventive elaborate legwork and numerous surfaces adorned with favorite designs of his patron — but it contains one of Oeben’s most impressive mechanical devices. The mechanism allows the top to slide back at the same time as the larger drawer moves forward, doubling the surface area in an instant. This also reveals a writing slope which revolves to offer two different surfaces, as well as hidden storage compartments. All of this is unlocked with a single turn of a key.

It simultaneously celebrates a desire for privacy and a need for ostentatious flourish. It is brilliantly space-efficient, yet thoroughly eye-catching. It is extravagant and reserved all at once, perfectly encapsulating the spirit of French consumerism at the time, combining luxury, efficiency, elegance, and functionality.

Oeben worked extensively for Madame de Pompadour; in the inventory drawn up after his death there were ten items awaiting delivery to her.

commode

That single-lock design was also present in one of his famous commode designs, as one lock controlled the entire piece. Unless the center drawer was pulled out (ever-so-slightly), the side drawers could not be opened. There was a metal rod in the back of the drawer preventing them from opening unless the center drawer was in the correct position.

As you can see, the handles for each drawer are cleverly concealed, using circular pulls that look more like ornamental flourishes than utilitarian parts of the furniture. Again, privacy is combined with style, adding an individualistic touch to a beautiful piece.

(Although the mechanism sounds simple, you can explore how difficult Oeben mechanisms are to recreate by visiting this blog.)

His masterpiece is widely considered to be the bureau de roi, a desk he was building for the French king Louis XV at the time of his death. (The piece was finished by a younger associate, Jean-Henri Riesener, who also married Oeben’s widow. Talk about picking up where Oeben left off…)

However, I find this mechanical desk to be a much more impressive piece of cabinetry.

Now part of the Louvre’s expansive catalog of museum pieces, this Table a la Bourgogne is a transforming marvel. It conceals not only a removable laptop desk, but a prie-dieu (or kneeling surface) for private prayer. It also conceals a writing slope and a secret bookcase that rises from within the desk.

It is a mind-boggling piece that contains numerous important home elements all in one, and positively exudes luxury and elegance.


molitor desk

There is another name that deserves recognition, one that often exists in Oeben’s shadow: Bernard Molitor.

Molitor first rose to prominence after creating mahogany wood floor paneling for Marie Antoinette’s boudoir in Fontainebleau. This order led to other requests from the queen and members of the aristocracy.

His business was briefly shuttered during the French Revolution — many of his clients were killed or had fled — but he was later able to reopen his business and resume his lucrative practice. Dressers, tables, desks, cupboards, cabinets, and writing and dining tables flowed from his workshop, thanks to Molitor and a large array of artisans he employed.

Behold a staggeringly impressive work of Molitor’s: King Louis Bonaparte’s desk, commissioned by Emperor Napoleon as a gift for his brother, the appointed King of Holland.

Now residing at the Lightner Museum, this desk is adorned with false drawers at the front to mislead potential tampering. Instead, the desk not only contains its own chair, but more than 200 drawers, all organized with labels and concealed within, away from prying eyes.

As the roll-top desk’s cover slides back, the desk itself slides out for use, revealing several drawers. These drawers contain hidden locking mechanisms that reveal additional storage, workspaces, and further secrets.

It’s a gorgeous piece of furniture and a diabolical multilayered puzzle all in one.


What about furniture makers in the 21st century, you may ask? Who is carrying on this grand tradition of puzzly craftsmanship?

Well, if you’re looking for master puzzle furniture design these days, Craig Thibodeau should be on your radar.

We featured his magnificent Wisteria Puzzle Cabinet in a previous blog post, but it’s far from his only complex, stunning, and immensely intricate piece of puzzly furnishings.

The Automaton Table, featured above, is a wonderful simple-looking piece that contains multitudes. It has a rising spring-release center column, magnetic secret drawers, and additional hidden compartments that use a variety of concealed mechanisms.

And for a piece of puzzly mechanical furniture that will leave you reeling, check out this Spinning Puzzle Cabinet. Rotating it opens certain drawers, while others can only be opened through multi-step actions and a specific chain of button-pushes and actions.

It’s like a 4-dimensional game of Simon where everything must happen in order as you move around the piece constantly. It’s wonderful and maddening all at once.

It may lack the over-the-top ornamentation of Oeben and Molitor’s works, but it’s just as complex, just as engaging, and equally beautiful. Across centuries and different design styles, these pieces are amazing, sending puzzly minds whirling with sheer possibility.

Would you like to see more examples (both modern and historical) of puzzly furniture and mechanical tables, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!


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