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

One of the Nation’s Best Puzzle Box Makers Lives in Denver

For more than 20 years, Kagen Sound has been perfecting the nuances of some of the most perplexing objects in the world.

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

Unlike jigsaw puzzles, Sound’s mechanical puzzles comprise one or more moving parts that require logic and reasoning in order to open—something he likens to modular origami. He compares solving one of his creations to how one domino must tumble in a line, hitting the following one in order to reach the end. Each piece of his 3D objects must move along a certain path in a certain sequence to reveal the inside. To date, he’s made more than 100 original concepts that’ve been produced in the thousands, each that go for hundreds of dollars on various sites including his own, some selling out very quickly, and winning international awards. (His furniture with discoverable hidden compartments sells for upwards of $50,000.)

“There’s various reasons why a puzzle is cool. But for me, a hollow, useful implication of a container box is really fun,” he says. “I’ve latched onto that concept. There’s a history of various puzzle containers throughout history, including safes, which is more of a security device. But what I do is something more fun and logical—something you could figure out.”

Depending on the difficulty, these wooden pieces of art demand a hefty amount of isolation to figure out. So, it’s no wonder puzzle sales exploded during the first year of the pandemic. German game publisher Ravensburger experienced a 370 percent year-over-year increase in U.S. puzzle sales in 2020. Meanwhile, Canada-based YouTube influencer and renown puzzle collector Chris Ramsay saw his list of subscribers 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, metallic labyrinth on the box’s lid.

Hung on metal clamps above his workbench are some sample drawings—alien sketches of patterns of squares, dots, arrows, numbers. Looking at it, you see it’s a language of its own. These puzzle concepts may manifest one day or combine into one puzzle or be tossed out altogether. “I have to build these ideas,” he says. “There’s no words. … I have to get them out of my head, and wood is, somehow, appealing. It’s tactilely nice.”

Take, for instance, his newest creation, the geometric prototype sitting on his workbench. The new box is a rhombic triacontahedron, aka a convex, 30-sided polyhedron shape. It is a super complex object that will make your inner, math-hating child cry. “A lot of people don’t see this every day,” says Sound. (Um, yes, that is correct.) It’s a structure with no right angles and it serves as the base for his new sliding puzzle where each of the 30 panels have a sliding wooden piece on top of it. Each one must be slid out in a certain sequence and direction for the box to open.

The triacontahedron is something for players to get lost in, a sort of mental labyrinth that largely attracted Sound to puzzles in the first place. “It was a cathartic thing, and I would hide in that experience,” he says about his childhood. “I think I was soothing myself. It was a safe place I’d figured out. A dwelling spot.”

Sound grew up in Denver in the 1980s when there was what he calls a “maze craze,” with puzzle compendiums being published regularly. Starting around the first grade, he began making his own mazes. Over time, the designs became more elaborate. The repetition of the craft was appealing. He did a lot of these projects at his family’s dining room table, where he says his family never really sat down together. Given the household energy, mazes were a form of escape. “It was a refuge from the other chaotic elements that you find in a lot of different households.”

This quiet cave stayed with him throughout childhood. “I took that with me,” he says. “The flipside of that is it could be isolating. There’s the balancing of safety and craft and the catharsis—and the healing of ‘craft’—but you can also isolate. So, I have to be proactive about snapping out of it. You know, showing up for my [two-year-old] daughter,” he says, laughing. “Getting out there and having a beer with someone.”

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

Finding others who relate to the craft is difficult. But bonds in these extremely small circles can be strong. A major highlight of his career has been designing the “Tornado Box,” a collaborative effort with Japanese master craftsman Akio Kamei, part of the renowned (albeit niche) secretive entity known as the Karakuri Creation Group. Kamei’s puzzle boxes range from elegant to playful. (One such “box” resembles a bowl of miso soup.) The “very gratifying” collaborative effort exemplifies the overseas relationship: Two halves of a box joining to create one puzzle. Each component has their artist insignias burned into the wood. In the end, only 31 boxes were made available to a private group.

“There’s a fine line between magic and puzzles. ​​And what this is doing, ” Sound says, holding up the triacontahedron, “is performing a magic. It pushes limits on the material, the shape, what it can do.” The gorgeous and curious parts are neatly organized all over his workshop. The woods vary in dark, deep hues to intricate patterns found in nature, like the betel nut. The fruit of the areca palm is a narcotic that is commonly found in parts of Asia, but when dried and smoothed, black lines vine around the oval bead. Sound chose to use betel nuts as legs for a wooden box.

“A lot of the time, what I’m trying to present is just something very unusual,” he says. “It’s contained. It doesn’t fall apart, but it moves in this amazing way and then opens up. For me, it’s a magic trick that I’m creating.”

Packing in move sequences, the way computer engineers explore ways to store more info on chips, is part of that magic. Sound’s Rune Cube is a strong example of this. The cube has rune shapes on each side, and a pin lies at the center of each rune. Players slide each panel along the path of the rune. Ultimately, the cube opens in six moves. However, a key lies at the center, allowing players to “reprogram” the puzzle by rearranging the panels. Aligned differently, the puzzle sequence can take up to 115 moves in order to open.

All of it results in a complex maze in 3D space that could gather dust until the solution one day percolates in a player’s subconscious resulting in that “a-ha” moment. “It’s like creating a good riddle or a joke, in some way,” Sound says. “It’s the punchline. You craft this moment in the work, and you want people to find it.”

Puzzle boxes can be as artistic of an expression as, say, a painting by Mark Rothko or poem by Maya Angelou. All of it is crafted in seclusion to help others find inspiration. “When you find just a few things that all work together to create a bunch of chaos, and there’s only a few moving parts, that’s awesome,” Sound says. “I don’t know why I love that. It doesn’t look hard, but when you start to move things around, there’s a lot going on there.”

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

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