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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PuzzleNation Product Review: Waiter’s Tray, The Curated Collection, and Ghost Cube

Whether it’s a puzzle box, two joined pieces of twisted metal, or an elaborate wooden network of interconnected pieces, a mechanical brain teaser offers a physical dimension to puzzling that is often lacking in pen-and-paper puzzles and other traditional puzzle forms.

And in today’s product review, we’ve got three different varieties of brain teaser to test out, all courtesy of the creative minds at Project Genius.

So without further ado, let’s get solving!


waitersmall

The goal in Waiter’s Tray is simple: maneuver the tray out from under the wine bottles. You can only lift one wine bottle at a time, though. Oh, and some of the bottles are locked in by marbles, so those have to be moved before the wine bottles can be lifted.

Okay, so maybe it’s not so simple.

Waiter’s Tray is a devious mechanical brain teaser that requires patience and a knack for planning in order to shift the wine bottles enough to free the tray.

wt1

The peculiar shape of the tray both helps and hinders you, since you can lower one wine bottle with the dip in the tray, but the higher lip of the left-hand side of the tray often prevents you from moving forward and manipulating the other wine bottles.

But once you get into the rhythm of the solve, it’s a pretty satisfying feeling to see the tray slide closer and closer to escape.

wt2

Yeah, I’m posting this one to prove I solved it. =)


curatedsmall

The five traditional brain teasers that compose The Curated Collection each represent a different culture and time period, adding a touch of historical context and beauty to some tricky and portable puzzles.

Each is ranked in difficulty from one to five stars — the Roman Keys are considered the easiest (2 stars) while Chinese Tea and Aztec Passion Flower top out at 5 stars — but the goal of each is the same: separate the pieces of each puzzle.

curated

Some of these brain teasers will look familiar, since puzzles like Chinese Tea and Egyptian Pi have been around forever, but there’s a good chance at least one of these puzzlers will be unfamiliar to solvers, offering multiple chances to keep you from cracking all five mysteries too quickly.

Personally, I found the star-rating system misleading, but your mileage may vary. (Also, some of the wooden puzzle pieces stuck together a bit, so more than once, I almost felt like I was breaking the puzzle, not solving it.)

That being said, getting to test my puzzly abilities in five curious ways at once was a real treat.


ghostcubesmall

With enough practice, the secrets of the Rubik’s Cube can be revealed. Those six colors, 3 rows, and 3 columns can be conquered. But what if the colors were gone and the rows and columns replaced with angles and unexpected twists?

Ghost Cube offers an engaging variation on the classic twisty puzzle by making all the pieces spin and shift on an angle. Whereas the usual Rubik’s Cube is a riot of colors, the Ghost Cube is a maddening pointy shape instead.

gcube

Yet I find solving the Ghost Cube much more fun and satisfying than solving a Rubik’s Cube. (And trust me, I am not exactly a proficient Rubik solver.)

There’s just something about a tactile solve — rather than a color-based one — that makes manipulating the cube more engaging. I found myself prolonging the solving experience simply because I enjoyed working the Ghost Cube back and forth. It’s immersive in a way I didn’t expect.


Waiter’s Tray, The Curated Collection, and Ghost Cube are all available through Project Genius as well as certain online retailers.

Whether you’re looking for a deduction puzzle, a disassembly puzzle, or a twisty puzzle, one of these impressive brain teasers from Project Genius is sure to hit the spot. And all three are part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, so check it out!

[Note: I received a free copy of each brain teaser in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: NCIS: New Orleans

Last week, a murder investigation turned into a puzzly treasure hunt for a group of NCIS investigators, a team who investigates criminal cases involving members of the military. So join us as we rundown the events of “Treasure Hunt,” episode 17 of season 4 of NCIS: New Orleans.

The episode opens during a pirate-themed festival, as two women search for the secret entrance to an exclusive costume party. Unfortunately, instead of drunken revelry, they stumble upon a dead body, strung up inside a warehouse on the waterfront.

The NCIS team soon arrives, and the coroner identifies the victim as an oceanographer, Lt. Commander Elaine Dodd. Dodd was beaten before her death, and her arm was partially skinned, perhaps as part of an interrogation.

Dodd’s oceanographic work centered around Grande Isle, the former stomping grounds of the infamous pirate Jean LaFitte. The team makes contact with Dodd’s father, Tom, a former Green Beret. He expected her to show up at his house in Florida after an excited phone call, but she never arrived. This leads the team to believe that Dodd’s death had something to do with a treasure hunt, one of the things she and her father bonded over.

Forensic analysis reveals that her arm was skinned to remove a tattoo, but they’re able to reconstruct the image: a simple compass and some coordinates. These confirm the treasure hunt theory: Dodd had apparently made some progress in locating the lost Napoleon Fleur de Lis, a jewel-encrusted emblem stolen by Jean LaFitte and hidden away.

Following the coordinates to a church, Special Agent Pride and lab tech Sebastian search the area, finding their way upstairs to a lofted storage area. But someone has beaten them to the punch, opening fire and sending the agents scurrying for cover.

Pride chases the two suspects, but they get away, and when he doubles back to the loft, he finds Sebastian examining a statue stored in the church attic. Once the statue is removed from its pedestal, a secret compartment opens, revealing a wooden puzzle book wrapped in cloth.

The puzzle book is marked with a fleur de lis and bears an inscription of Jean LaFitte’s signature. The investigation of Dodd’s murder has officially become a treasure hunt.

Back at the field office, Agent Gregorio would prefer to use a knife to crack open the book, but Sebastian insists on solving the cipher to open the book, as some puzzle books include a vial of acid inside that would destroy the book if tampered with.

While he works on the puzzle book, cameras outside the church help the agents ID one of the suspects, a mercenary for hire. Dodd’s father Tom enters the office, hoping for progress, and recognizes the suspect. He points the agents toward the mercenary’s usual employer, a specialist in deep-sea diving and sunken galleons. Dodd’s father offers to arrange a meeting, and the team is wary, but takes him up on his offer.

Meanwhile, Sebastian and Gregorio check Dodd’s phone records and find several calls to a local professor, Michelle Faucheux, an expert in LaFitte and pirate history, who they believe helped Elaine find the coordinates. But when they arrive at her home, it has been ransacked, the professor locked in a closet. After they release her and calm her down, she confirms she’d been talking to Elaine.

Tom makes good on his word and lures his contact to a bar with the agents in tow. But the man, Walton, claims he hasn’t worked with either of the suspects in months. He warns Tom and the team away from the treasure hunt, clearly spooked by the ruthlessness he’s observed.

Sebastian and Gregorio bring Michelle back to the office, and she’s stoked to see the puzzle book. The cover of the puzzle book is encrypted, and they have to turn a dial in order to unlock it. But they need a key word to help solve the cipher. After trying out various words, they focus on LaFitte’s brother, Pierre — the most likely person to be hunting for LaFitte’s treasure. This leads them to try the word “Cabildo,” the jail in which Pierre had been incarcerated.

Using that as the key word — and a Vigenere cipher to crack the code — leads them to the answer “fleur de lis”, and they unlock the puzzle book’s cover. The iris in the center opens, revealing a latch, and they open the puzzle book.

On the left page is a clock puzzle, and on the right is a map with smaller code dials beneath it, along with a plate reading BLF6.

Agent Pride calls them, informing Gregorio that the two suspects are camped out right down the street from the office. He and the team are en route, but they expect trouble soon.

Oddly enough, the suspects simply hang back and wait as the team reunites. The agents suspect the mercenaries are waiting for the team to lead them to the fleur. So the team focuses on the riddle, hoping for a chance to gather more info on whomever is bankrolling the gun-toting baddies.

The riddle “Move as the clock” offers a hint for how to find which code letters to enter, but they’re not sure where to start. Pride theorizes that BLF6 could point toward Barthelemy Lafon, an architect and city planner from the 1700s who also palled around with the LaFitte brothers. He is buried in a local cemetery, in a crypt located at F6 on the map.

Gregorio, Sebastian, and Michelle head to the crypt while Agents Percy and LaSalle keep their eyes on the suspects, getting close enough to clone their phones and gain access to their calls and text messages. Pride and Dodd’s father are back at the field office, trying to figure out who would literally kill to have the artifact.

The puzzle book trio spot an engraved fleur de lis over the letter L in “Lafon”. They try “moving as the clock” by moving clockwise to the next crypt. Another fleur de lis over another crypt engraving gives them the final letter they need, unlocking a compartment in the book and revealing both the suspected acid vial and a piece of paper. It’s a partial map with another riddle written in French. Michelle quickly translates it as “enter this last crypt to find the fleur de lis” and runs off.

At this point, all of the viewers become very suspicious of Michelle. I mean, come on, the riddle was four lines long, and given how tough the puzzle book had been to crack thus far, this seemed too easy.

Meanwhile, the suspects leave after receiving a text that the fleur is NOT in the cemetery. As you might have suspected, Michelle texted the suspects and has been behind everything the whole time. But the viewers are clearly one-up on the agents, who blindly follow Michelle to another crypt, where Michelle traps them inside and runs off.

We get some unnecessary backstory on Michelle involving a dead brother and being scammed out of treasure by the Spanish government, but who cares, what about the treasure hunt?

Pride and Tom go after Michelle while Percy and LaSalle hunts for the easily bamboozled agents, who are trapped in the crypt and running out of air. Pride and Tom head out to Fort Macomb, a repurposed, then abandoned, base which was formerly known as Chef Menteur. (It’s unclear whether they solved the map clue that Sebastian photographed and sent them before being trapped or if they just followed the hired goons.)

But nonetheless, they’re en route to the treasure while Gregorio and Sebastian set a fire inside the crypt, hoping the smoke will escape and lead their fellow agents to them before they suffocate. Their plan works, and they’re rescued.

At Fort Macomb, Pride orders Tom to stay with the car, and heads into the fort, getting the drop on Michelle. Unfortunately, her goons capture Tom, and Pride loses the standoff. In classic villain fashion, Michelle has Pride dig up the treasure for her.

At her moment of triumph, Tom puts his Green Beret training to work, taking out one of the hired thugs as Pride dispatches the other. Since we’re running on full cliche at this point, Tom has a chance to kill the woman who killed his daughter, but spares her after a speech from Pride. The better man and all that.

The episode closes with the team admiring the bejeweled source of everyone’s consternation. Tom decides to donate the fleur to the city, because that’s what his daughter would have done. Nice closer.

All in all, I was a little underwhelmed by the episode, because the plotline twists failed to keep up the same interest level that the treasure hunt did. Once they were done with the puzzle book, the cliches rapidly took over.

Who stops in the middle of a treasure hunt to tattoo a clue on themselves? Why wasn’t the tattoo artist a suspect? That would have been a nice touch. Also, Michelle’s transparent villainy wasn’t nearly as fun as her geeky schoolgirl excitement at cracking puzzles alongside Sebastian. That was easily the show’s highlight.

I do want to give a special shout-out to the Codex Silenda team, who created the specially weathered-looking puzzle book for the episode. I wrote about them back in August of 2016 when their wildly-successful Kickstarter campaign originally closed. They’ve been busy fulfilling orders for Kickstarter backers ever since, and they were clearly excited to see one of their puzzle books on a national stage like this.

What’s more amazing is that the puzzle book cracked by the NCIS team in this episode was only a few pages deep. The full Codex Silenda is much larger and more intricate! No doubt the real Jean LaFitte would’ve splashed out for the complete Codex in order to bamboozle potential treasure hunters.

Still, it’s always nice to see crime shows explore the possibilities that puzzles offer. Splicing up the occasional murder with a puzzle (or better yet, a treasure hunt) is a pleasant change of pace for the procedural genre. Nicely done, NCIS: NO.


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