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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Overwhelmed by Optical Illusions Underfoot

A good optical illusion is a puzzle for the eyes, a visual treat that tricks you into seeing things that aren’t there. The most convincing optical illusions can even affect your sense of balance and make you question every footstep you take.

For instance, imagine walking into a room and seeing this:

opticalillusionrug

This is a rug called “Black Hole,” designed by Daniel Malik, and it’ll make you doubt the ground beneath your feet.

Don’t believe me? Check this out:

opticalillusionrug2

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to optical illusions that can leave you dizzy and spinning.

Austrian artist Peter Kogler specializes in making empty spaces look larger, more twisted, and vertigo-inducingly unsettled.

kogler-6

Employing the walls, the floor, and the ceiling (along with any structural beams or other objects in the area), Kogler challenges your spacial awareness with lines and imagery that offset your natural depth perception.

kogler-2

Astonishingly, the few recognizable items in this works — like a hanging lightbulb or even a fellow spectator — enhance the effect, making everything around those steady, relatable objects into an eye in the storm of chaotic imagery.

You no longer trust your ability to gauge height, distance, or even the angle of the room itself, even though you know in your heart that you’re walking on a flat surface.

kogler-1

We’ve featured some clever floor designs in the past — including one in a school that was designed to keep kids from running in the halls — but nothing on the scale of Kogler’s work.

kogler-0

It almost makes you nostalgic for the simple trickery of a circular area rug that looks like a tunnel to the center of the Earth, doesn’t it?


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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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The Fine Art of Puzzle Cabinetry

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about puzzle furniture, a small but growing niche of the puzzle world. We explored modular sofa, chair, and desk designs, as well as impressive tables designed by the puzzle wizards at Praktrik.

But what happens when you combine a designer of fiendishly clever puzzle boxes and a furniture designer with an impeccable knack for melding mechanical puzzles and beautiful woodworking?

You get the Wisteria Puzzle Cabinet, an absolute masterpiece that serves as both a stylish cabinet and an incredibly complex puzzle box.

It’s the most beautiful and complicated safe you could ever want, and it would hide in plain sight in your home.

Check out this video detailing some — but I suspect not all — of its secrets, including hidden compartments, an internal elevator, and multi-piece keys that must be uncovered, assembled, and reused:

The puzzly aspects were designed by Robert Yarger (also known as Stickman in the puzzle box world) and the actual cabinet built by Craig Thibodeau, and together, they’ve brought this mind-blowing piece of puzzle art to life.

Granted, the price of an piece like this is pretty steep.

On his website, Thibodeau states that his “latest work exploring mechanical furniture, puzzles and hidden compartments is the most expensive furniture I build due to the highly complex design and fabrication process. These pieces typically start at around $30,000 and go up from there due to the complexity of the internal mechanisms and the variety of hidden details incorporated into the design of these highly unique pieces.”

Although that’s out of my price range, it’s a testament to how much preparation, design, and labor goes into a puzzle as gorgeous and labyrinthine as this cabinet. Even at five figures, it seems well worth the price.

Oh, and if you’re looking for more puzzly furniture, you can also check out the table designs of David Lundell on YouTube, like this magic-themed coffee table:

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go check every piece of furniture in my house for secret compartments. You know, just in case.


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The World of Puzzly Furniture!

It’s fair to say that the flat-pack furniture model made famous by IKEA, that marvelous house of Swedish innovation, has turned practically every one of their customers into impromptu puzzle solvers.

But did you know that there’s a whole world of puzzle furniture out there for you to explore and assemble?

Some of it is inspired by puzzles, while other pieces are puzzles themselves! In today’s post, I thought I’d take my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers on a brief tour of the world of puzzly furniture.

Most puzzle-inspired furniture is designed around the idea of personalization and variation. You often have several pieces to work with, allowing you to construct different pieces of furniture based on your needs or aesthetics.

For instance, the piece pictured above is called “To Gather,” and it can be assembled into a sofa or converted into separate seats. Offered by Studio Lawrence, To Gather is pretty eye-catching, though it might be a little blocky for some tastes.

For something a bit more traditional, there’s the Slot Sofa by Matthew Pauk. This piece combines a sofa, coffee table, and ottoman, but can be combined so that the coffee table rests between the two corner seats and the ottoman cushions tuck away underneath the sofa.

It’s a super-clever space saver and probably one of my favorite puzzly pieces that I’ve ever seen.

Being able to tuck away multiple pieces of furniture in one is also the goal for this mobile office piece, which contains two chairs, a desk, and more within its foam-core modular form.

Although it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing design, it’s lightweight, easy to move around, and doesn’t take up a lot of space when recombined. I could see some start-ups making use of this sort of thing, both to catch the eye and to save on space and materials.

A lot of puzzly furniture is based around Tetris-style pieces (or Tetrominoes) that can be moved around and placed in various configurations. The TAT-tris piece is one of the most adaptable, forming a solid cushion mat at the start, and then allowing for infinite variation when it comes to assembling tables, chairs, and more.

Intended for teens and children to use as a puzzly exercise, TAT-tris looks both comfy and like it would be a huge amount of fun to play with.

Tetris also inspired this sideboard designed by Pedro Machado. “T@tris” is a beautifully lacquered piece that consists of 26 tetronomoes slotted together.

One configuration allows for two benches and a slide-out table, while other pieces form drawers, allowing for all sorts of storage in a fairly compact area.

Very modern and a little bit glam, this piece makes excellent use of space and isn’t as visually distracting as many other pieces of puzzly furniture.

Speaking of visually distracting, this furniture set by Schamburg + Alvisse arrives assembled in a star shape, but can be disassembled into all sorts of forms. Chairs, sofa, bed, or table are all possible with this Star sculpture. It’s certainly unique, but not as space-efficient as some of the other pieces we’ve looked at today.

In terms of space efficiency, it’s hard to beat furniture that arrives as flat cardboard. But that’s the entire business model behind Chairigami, makers of desks, tables, chairs, and sofas, all from heavy-duty cardboard.

I doubt these pieces would challenge any puzzle solver for long, but simply relying on origami to design functional furniture is a really cool and clever puzzly concept.

The armchair especially is very striking.

But when you’re talking puzzle furniture, the uncrowned kings of the field are undoubtedly the team at Praktrik: Puzzle furniture is the only kind of furniture they sell!

Purveyors of beautiful chairs, shelves, tables, and more, Praktrik offers a truly unique puzzling experience, offering you the disassembled piece and challenging you to complete it.

In fact, they’re proud to celebrate and spread the word when customers end up creating unexpected masterpieces from Praktrik sets!

The chairs and shelves don’t seem too daunting, but the tables have a wide arrange of difficulties, and their increasingly elaborate arrangements of wooden supports and pieces evoke memories of classic brain teasers and puzzle boxes.

You can peruse their website to explore the full range of Praktrik puzzle furniture; it’s both extensive and very impressive! In fact, it was crossing paths with them that inspired this entire blog post.

So if you’re looking to add a little puzzly pizazz to your living room, maybe a piece of puzzle furniture is the way to go. What do you think, fellow puzzlers? Do any of these pieces pique your interest? Let us know in the comments section below!


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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!