Boxed In

Kagen Schaefer crafts complex wooden puzzles. But when he started working on his magnum opus, he almost got lost in his own creation.

July 2011

Kagen Schaefer was holed up in his Denver apartment late one night in 2007 when the email popped into his inbox. It was from a famous filmmaker, a man known for making dark, psychological thrillers. He wanted Schaefer to create a masterpiece for him.

Schaefer, a 33-year-old Denver native who specializes in making puzzle boxes, was honored, if a little bit baffled. The craftsman wasn’t used to taking commissioned jobs; usually, when Schaefer designed a puzzle box—imagine a Rubik’s Cube that pops open on completion, revealing a secret compartment—he let careful calculation and the joy of creating riddles take the lead. His process had served him well: Over the past four years, he had won the grand prize, twice, at the prestigious Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition, besting woodworkers who had been in the trade for decades. Despite being a relative novice in the field, he also took the revolutionary step of expanding the centuries-old craft into furniture. Collectors from Aspen to Russia were adding his pieces—which often cost thousands of dollars—to their art, furniture, and design collections.

The filmmaker, who insisted on anonymity for this article, told Schaefer that time wasn’t an issue. Neither was money. All he wanted was for Schaefer to design something that he was truly inspired by—a piece that captured his creative spirit. After a lengthy correspondence, the two settled on the project’s focus: It would be a desk that contained challenging puzzles that opened up secret drawers and compartments. It would also make music. It was a project that at first excited Schaefer but eventually became so complicated that it would consume him, sending him down the rabbit hole of despair. “I had no idea whatsoever,” says Schaefer, “what I was getting myself into.”