What do a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and fine art have in common? The intersection of form, function and finesse. Picture this: a beautiful, intricately designed and hand crafted wooden box, with a puzzle on the lid. To open the box, solve the puzzle. But don’t just picture it. Try out the artistic challenge yourself thanks to local artist Kagen Sound.
Sound graduated from Colorado College in 2000 with a degree in mathematics. Designing these puzzle boxes, he says, was his way of combining his desire to be creative with his love of math. “Puzzle boxes fit what I love,” Sound says. “They’re a nice balance of being mathematical and artistic, so it came naturally.”
He picked up woodworking specifically for the purpose of designing his boxes. However, Sound’s interest in puzzle boxes reaches back much further. On a trip to San Francisco with his parents at the age of 8, Sound first saw a puzzle box while walking through Chinatown and was fascinated.
We asked Kagen to walk us through his process, and designing a puzzle box is, to say the least, a bit of a puzzle. Initially, Sound says, it is a constant, ongoing process, and the idea for a box solidifies over a couple of years. The prototyping process involves Sound testing certain mechanisms or patterns. Over time, that solidifies into a final production. When the design is ready to be produced, “building them is sort of like printmaking,” Sound says. It’s done in steps and layers, and Sound makes all of the same parts for the entire batch of boxes at once before assembling. “It takes about 13 weeks, depending on the size of the batch I’m making,” he says. There are between 20 and 100 boxes in a batch during this production phase.
Some boxes are more complicated than others, and Sound sometimes even puzzles himself. “Recently I made a box that even now I can’t solve. I don’t have it memorized yet. I can do it with my written instructions, but without them, I can’t do it yet,” he says of this box that’s “like a flattened-out Rubik’s cube,” but with rotating parts.
But Sound’s work has proven time and again to be worth the focus he puts into it. He has taken home three Puzzler’s Awards (people’s choice), one honorable mention, one first place, two grand prizes and a Puzzle of the Year award at the Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition. And all of those were within a four year span, from 2002-2006. He is recognized as a master craftsperson by the Japanese Karakuri Creation Group, the world’s only guild of secret box makers.
And his work doesn’t stop at just boxes. He has also designed desks and tables with the same premise: solve a puzzle and the drawer opens. Only one thing is for sure: Sound is not about to be boxed in by his art form.