One of the nation’s top puzzle box makers lives in Denver

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Kagen Sound sits in his Denver studio, piecing together his latest puzzle box. Photo by David MacNeal

Art

For over 20 years, Kagen Sound has been perfecting the nuances of some of the world’s most confusing objects.


Kagen Sound’s 600-square-foot cabin sits in the backyard of his quiet townhouse in City Park West. A powerful aroma of various woods – Bastogne walnut and Canadian maple – persists in the humidity controlled environment. The space is Sound’s sacred church of revelry, his workshop. And for over a decade, this is where the Denver native has been crafting nuanced puzzle boxes.

Unlike puzzles, Sound’s mechanical puzzles feature one or more moving parts that require logic and reasoning to open, which he likens to modular origami. He likens the resolve of one of his creations to how one domino has to tumble down a line, hitting the next one to reach the end. Each piece of its 3D objects must move along a certain path in a certain sequence to reveal the interior. To date, he has created over 100 original concepts that have been produced by the thousands, each worth hundreds of dollars at various sites including his own, some selling very quickly and winning international awards. (His furniture with discoverable hidden compartments sells for over $ 50,000.)

“There are many reasons why a puzzle is cool. But for me, a hollow and useful implication of a container box is really fun, ”he says. “I clung to this concept. There is a story of various puzzle containers throughout history, including safes, which are more of a safety device. But what I’m doing is something more fun and logical, something you could understand.

Depending on the difficulty, these wooden works of art require a great amount of isolation to understand. It’s no wonder then that sales of puzzles exploded in the first year of the pandemic. German game publisher Ravensburger saw a 370% year-over-year increase in US puzzle sales in 2020. Meanwhile, YouTube influencer and famous Canada-based puzzle collector, Chris Ramsay has seen his subscriber list nearly double to five million in the past 18 months. He solved Sound’s aptly named “Maze Box”, where players guide a hidden pin through a circular metal maze on the box cover.

Sample designs hang on metal clips above his workbench – alien sketches of patterns of squares, dots, arrows, numbers. Looking at it, you see that it is a language in its own right. These puzzle concepts may one day manifest or combine into a single puzzle or be discarded altogether. “I have to build these ideas,” he says. ” There are no words. … I have to get them out of my head, and the wood is, in a way, attractive. It is pleasant to the touch.

Take, for example, his latest creation, the geometric prototype sitting on his workbench. The new box is a rhombic triacontahedron, that is, a 30-sided convex polyhedron shape. It is a super complex object that will make your inner child who hates maths cry. “A lot of people don’t see this every day,” says Sound. (Um, yeah, that’s correct.) It’s a structure with no right angles and it serves as the basis for its new sliding puzzle where each of the 30 panels is covered with a sliding piece of wood. Each must be slid in a certain order and in a certain direction for the box to open.

The triacontahedron is something players get lost in, a sort of mental maze that has largely drawn Sound to puzzles in the first place. “It was a cathartic thing, and I was hiding in that experience,” he says of his childhood. “I think I was calming down. It was a safe place that I had discovered. A place to live.

The sound grew in Denver in the 1980s, when there was what he calls a “maze craze,” with puzzle books published regularly. From the first year, he started to create his own mazes. Over time, the designs became more elaborate. The repetition of the trade was attractive. He’s done a lot of these projects at his family’s dining room table, where he says his family never really sat together. Considering the household energy, labyrinths were a form of escape. “It was a refuge from the other chaotic elements that can be found in many different households.”

This quiet cave stayed with him throughout his childhood. “I took it with me,” he says. “The flip side is that it could be isolating. There’s the balance between safety and crafting and catharsis – and healing from “crafting” – but you can also isolate yourself. So I have to be proactive to get out of it. You know, show up for my [two-year-old] girl, ”he laughs. “Go out and have a beer with someone.”

Tornado Box
“Tornado Box” is an overseas collaboration between Kagen Sound and Akio Kamei. Photo by David MacNeal

Finding other people who relate to crafts is difficult. But the bonds in these extremely small circles can be strong. A highlight of his career was the design of the “Tornado Box”, a collaborative effort with Japanese master craftsman Akio Kamei, who is part of the famous secret (albeit niche) entity known as the Karakuri Creation Group. . Kamei puzzle boxes range from stylish to playful. (One of those “boxes” looks like a bowl of miso soup.) The “very rewarding” collaborative effort illustrates the relationship abroad: two halves of a box come together to create a puzzle. Each component has its artist badges etched into the wood. In the end, only 31 boxes were made available to a private group.

“There is a fine line between magic and puzzles. And what it does, “Sound said, holding the triacontahedron,” performs magic. He pushes the limits of the material, of the form, of what he can do. The magnificent and curious pieces are carefully organized throughout his workshop. The woods vary from dark and deep hues to the intricate patterns found in nature, such as betel nut. The fruit of the areca palm is a narcotic commonly found in parts of Asia, but when dried and smoothed, black lines stretch around the oval bead. Sound chose to use betel nuts as the legs for a wooden box.

“Most of the time, what I’m trying to present is just something very unusual,” he says. “It’s content. It doesn’t collapse, but it moves in this amazing way and then opens. For me, it is a magic trick that I create.

Wrapping into motion sequences, the way computer engineers explore ways to store more information on chips, is part of that magic. Sound’s Rune Cube is a good example. The cube has rune shapes on each side and there is a pin in the center of each rune. Players slide each panel along the path of the rune. In the end, the cube opens in six strokes. However, there is a key in the center, allowing players to “reprogram” the puzzle by rearranging the panels. Aligned differently, the puzzle sequence can take up to 115 shots in order to open.

All of this translates into an intricate maze in 3D space that could gather dust until the solution one day seeps into a player’s subconscious, resulting in that ‘a-ha’ moment. “It’s like creating a good riddle or a joke, in a way,” Sound explains. “It’s the punchline. You create that moment in work and you want people to find it.

Puzzle boxes can be as artistic an expression as, say, a painting by Mark Rothko or a poem by Maya Angelou. Everything is designed in isolation to help others find inspiration. “When you only find a few things that all work together to create a whole lot of chaos, and there are only a few moving parts, that’s great,” Sound says. “I don’t know why I like it. It doesn’t sound difficult, but when you start to shake things up there’s a lot going on there. “

(Read more: Chris Wirth Isn’t Your Average Puzzle Box Maker)

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