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.

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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.

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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.


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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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A Puzzle Design Competition Hosted by a Secretive Puzzly Society?

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[Image courtesy of Activist Post.]

What if I told you that there’s a secret cabal of puzzle enthusiasts lurking in the shadows of the global puzzle community? A group that meets once a year in different locations, rotating between the United States, Europe, and Japan. An invite-only assortment of puzzle collectors and innovators who bring mechanical puzzles to challenge and delight their fellow attendees.

Yes, we’re talking about a clandestine event where puzzle collectors discuss, show off, and trade mechanical puzzles and brain teasers they’ve designed or crafted themselves.

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[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

No commercially available puzzles can be brought as gifts, since you might duplicate a puzzle that’s already in someone’s collection.

But swapping and selling puzzles isn’t all that happens at one of these International Puzzle Party events. No, they’re also home to the Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition, an annual award centered around mechanical puzzles. More specifically, the winners of the competition are announced at the IPP.

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[One of Yoshigahara’s most famous puzzles. Image courtesy of Mr. Puzzle.]

Named after the prolific and innovative puzzle designer Nob Yoshigahara, the competition was founded in 2001, and named after Yoshigahara in 2005.

The entries for this year’s competition have until June 15th, 2020, to submit their puzzle for consideration. (This year’s competition was announced back in November of last year.)

Usually, only 5-7 puzzles out of all those submitted will be selected by one of that year’s judges for consideration. Each puzzle is graded on how innovative the concept is, how well the puzzle is physically designed (both aesthetically and mechanically), and how enjoyable the solving experience is.

[The 2017 competition winner, Kakoi.]

Anyone may submit his or her own mechanical puzzle design, independent of Puzzle Party affiliation.

There is a Puzzlers’ Award for the top design as well as Jury Prizes for other submissions (a grand prize, 1st prize, and honorable mention).

You can check out a listing of the 2018 competition submissions here to see the incredible variety and creativity represented in a single year’s pool of submissions. (Including links for purchase if any of them catch your eye!)

Personally, I’m a sucker for secret societies, invite-only activities, and so on, so I love the concept of a puzzle competition created for and judged by fellow puzzlers.

Oh, wait. Before I go. You may be asking yourself why all the secrecy? Well, apparently, there were several attempts by companies to infiltrate the event and bootleg puzzle ideas for market. It’s simultaneously insane and totally believable for spycraft like this to be taking place at a puzzle event.

In any case, I wish the best of luck to everyone submitting their puzzles to this year’s competition!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Pocket Brainteasers

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

Whether it’s composed of two simple pieces of twisted metal or a elaborate arrangement of parts, a mechanical brain teaser are great fun. It’s a plaything, a curiosity to be fiddled with, tinkered with, and explored, twisted and turned every which way until you feel like you’ve got a handle on all the different ways you can manipulate it.

And then, suddenly, BAM. Inspiration strikes! The a-ha moment happens, and you unravel its secrets.

ThinkFun, purveyors of deduction and logic puzzle games galore, have returned to the field recently, and in today’s product review, we look at a collection of brain teasers that each offer their own unique a-ha moment, if you’re willing to work at it.

ThinkFun’s Pocket Brainteasers range in difficulty from one to four (one being the easiest/least challenging), and you’ll find your puzzle skills tested in several ways as you tackle each. Although intended for solvers 8 and up, older solvers will still enjoy the puzzly tricks awaiting them in ThinkFun’s latest line of puzzle products.


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4-Piece Jigsaw

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? A four-piece jigsaw puzzle. Better yet, it’s already assembled for you! All you have to do is take it apart.

This level 1 brainteaser is obviously more than meets the eye, as the puzzle pieces shift back and forth but never quite seem to separate the way you’d expect.

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The large plastic pieces are perfect for younger solvers to play around with, solid and resistant to the sometimes harsh manipulations of younger hands.

It’s not much of a challenge for an experienced solver, but it was genuine fun to suss out how the pieces worked together and how to finally separate them.

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4-T Puzzle

This level 2 brainteaser followed the same basic formula as 4-Piece Jigsaw — four pieces to assemble — but in this case, their interactions were constrained by the small tray included with the puzzle.

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As you can see, the solution offered on one side simply won’t work on the other because the tray is smaller, so solvers will have to be extra crafty to place all four T-blocks into the available space.

The T-shaped pieces made for curious solving — since they don’t fit flush with the corners the way traditional tangrams or Tetrominoes would — but patience and cleverness will be rewarded. It’s amazing how a relatively simple set-up — shapes and a tray — can result in a satisfying puzzly experience.

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The Fifth Chair

This time around, there’s no tray or framework to negotiate. Instead, you’ve got four L-pieces (or “chairs”) and your goal is to make a larger L-shaped chair by combining the four you already have.

Like a three-dimensional version of tangrams, The Fifth Chair is an enjoyable solve, requiring you to maneuver the chairs in all sorts of combinations, seeing different relationships between them all as you try to figure out how to bring the fifth chair to life.

Despite being the level 3 puzzle in the set, I actually found this to be the most challenging of the quartet, as I was briefly overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available to me.

Of course, as soon as I figured out the solution, it felt obvious, and I breathed a sigh of puzzly relief as I conquered the third of four brainteasers for the evening.

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Rec-Tangle

Designed to resemble the service bars of a cellphone or an internet connection, the “bars” are cut diagonally into halves, leaving the solver with 8 pieces to arrange.

This level 4 puzzle solves quite similarly to 4-T Puzzle. You have an array of pieces to place into a smaller space on the backside of the puzzle tray.

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The unusual pieces — long and thin, with an angled edge on one side and a flat end on the other — offered all sorts of possibilities when it comes to placement in the tray, so I found myself discarding quite a few theories and ideas before alighting on the correct solution.

Nonetheless, I would still consider this puzzle easier than The Fifth Chair, though still harder than 4-T Puzzle or 4-Piece Jigsaw.


Tackling this tetrad of brainteasers was a treat, especially as it felt like I was exercising plenty of puzzly skills that aren’t used nearly as often as pen-and-paper puzzles usually demand.

The combination of spacial awareness, physical manipulation of puzzle pieces, and the strategy involved in cracking each made for a feast of puzzly experiences. Any one of the four would be fun, so getting to try all four was a delight.

Whether intended as stocking stuffers or affordable little puzzly surprises for the solver in your life, I suspect these pocket-sized puzzles will have the younger solvers you know puzzling away for a while to come.

Pocket Brainteasers are available from ThinkFun and select online retailers, only $6.99 each for 4-Piece Jigsaw, 4-T Puzzle, The Fifth Chair, and Rec-Tangle!


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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!


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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.

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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.

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


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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.]


Thank you for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Puzzle Furniture Meets Musical Innovation!

[Image courtesy of Praktrik.]

Puzzle furniture is an intriguing, complex subset of the puzzling world that requires skill, craftsmanship, dedication, and ingenuity working in tandem in order to create a single piece.

Now, those qualities are staggeringly common amongst puzzlers. After all, those words apply to many of the constructors and puzzle designers I know, because they all take great pride in their creations, whether we’re talking mechanical puzzles, puzzle grids, or interactive solving events like puzzle hunts or escape rooms.

But there’s something about puzzle furniture that adds an additional wow factor to the endeavor. Sometimes you’re the one assembling the puzzle, as you do with tables from our friends at Praktrik. Other times, you’re unraveling the hidden secrets of what appears, at first, to be a deceptively ordinary (yet still exquisite) piece of furniture, like the ones created by Craig Thibodeau.

Whether you’re finding hidden buttons, using magnets to reveal concealed storage areas, or sliding aside wooden pieces to reveal keyholes or additional hints, pieces of puzzle furniture like the one featured above are challenging and unforgettable solving experiences.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one as unique or as mind-boggling as this creation by Kagen Sound…

A musical puzzle table.

Kagen Sound, formerly known as Kagen Schaefer, has built an impressive reputation for unusual and visually striking puzzle furniture. One piece requires you to rotate different rings on a table surface in order to form patterns that unlock other features. Another is a puzzle box that demands nineteen specific moves in the correct order before you can open the lid.

And even these difficult puzzles pale in comparison to one where music is part of the solution.

Each drawer, when opened or closed, produces a different note. But there are additional drawers that must be unlocked before you can perform the entire piece of music concealed within the table.

It’s a remarkable design that rewards patience and experimentation as well as puzzly skill, and I could easily imagine losing hours upon hours exploring the table and trying different patterns and chains of movement in order to unlock other drawers or reveal additional secrets.

I think what makes this brand of puzzling so intriguing and so charming is how it employs old-world craftsmanship with hands-on solving. Although Kagen doesn’t employ 3-D printing or computer modeling, I know that many mechanical puzzle designers incorporate modern tools into classic puzzle styles.

The creativity of puzzle designers like Kagen Sound is truly boundless, and every time I think I’ve seen every trick, every puzzle, or every variation out there, I am gladly, gleefully surprised by twists, reinventions, and fresh ideas I could never have even imagined.

[You can check out more of Kagen’s designs on his website, as well as on this Pinterest board featuring previous works of his.]


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Solo Solving and Single-Player Board Game Fun!

Have you ever been in the mood to play a board game or do some non-paper-and-pencil puzzling, but you don’t have anyone around to play with?

Well, there’s no reason to fret, fellow puzzlers, as there are plenty of options out there for solo gamers and puzzlers.

Today, we’d like to suggest a few options for a terrific single-player solving experience!


The Abandons

I’ll start us off with one of our most recently reviewed games. The Abandons is a one-player maze game where you’re exploring a labyrinth that’s different every time you play. You’re at the mercy of the draw pile for the most part, but the more you play, the better you get at managing your meager resources and exploring the seemingly endless corridors. Can you find your way out?

[If you’re looking for a similar gaming experience, you can also try One Deck Dungeon or Brad Hough’s The Maze.]

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Puzzometry

For a more traditional solving experience, Puzzometry presents classic puzzle-solving with a modern twist. This next-level jigsaw-style solving will push your Tetris skills as you twist, turn, and maneuver the pieces into seemingly endless combinations, trying to find the one solution that completes the grid.

There are several different Puzzometry puzzles — the standard one, an easier junior one, and a squares-based one — but each offers its own challenges.

Knot Dice

Can you twist, turn, and spin these dice to complete beautiful, elaborate patterns inspired by Celtic knots? That’s the name of the game with Knot Dice, a dice game as challenging as it is gorgeous.

This is one of those games I find tremendously relaxing as I trace the various patterns and try to form different designs.

Chroma Cube

Deduction puzzles have never been so colorful! Each challenge card offers a different layout of set cubes, along with clues to unravel in order to place all twelve cubes. The clues grow trickier with every card, ensuring that you’ll constantly find new challenges as you solve.

Thinking Putty Puzzle

Our friends at ThinkFun are masters at putting together single-player puzzle-game experiences, and Thinking Putty Puzzle is just one example. It sounds simple at first: connect two colored dots with a length of stretchable putty. But when you have multiple colors on the board and you can’t overlap your paths, suddenly it’s a much more challenging deductive endeavor.

Lightbox

A puzzle box unlike anything you’ve ever seen, Lightbox creates different patterns of shadow and light as you shift and arrange the various plastic plates that make up the box. As you twist and reset them, different electrical connections are made, and different plates light up.

This is another puzzle game that I find quite soothing, even if I can be frustrated by the seemingly endless combinations available.

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Pandemic

Although co-op games are designed to bring together several players as they work to defeat the game itself, many co-op games also offer satisfying single-player campaigns. Pandemic allows you the chance to singlehandedly save the world from four deadly outbreaks, if you’re quick and clever enough!

[Forbidden Island, Castle Panic!, and other co-op games are also worth your time if you enjoy this kind of gameplay.]

Do you have any suggestions for good single-player puzzles and games, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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