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The New Guard of Non-Fusty Puzzles

Photo: Courtesy of Piecework Puzzles

The humble jigsaw puzzle has gotten a rebrand. Last year, Rachel Hochhauser and Jena Wolfe launched Piecework Puzzles, which would look at home on a HAY coffee table (designs include a manicured hand smashing a coconut cake and a supersaturated still life of halved fruits) and which sell through a website made by Winsome Brave, the firm behind the Primary Essentials and Apiece Apart. The brand strategists are not the only ones creating decidedly non-folksy jigsaws. There’s Jiggy, which arrived in November, and whose “framable” puzzles are based off of female art pieces (like a watercolor of breasts by Julia Quinn Heffernan). And last year, Areaware, after the success of its breakout Gradient Puzzle, launched a series of puzzles in the shape of foodstuffs (a bowl of ramen, a cheese puff); they proved so popular that the company went on to create collaboration puzzles with womenswear line Dusen Dusen and accessories label Poketo. And puzzles have been gaining popularity in general across the country: The U.S. market, still dominated by Ravensburger and Springbok, was valued at $631 million in 2019 (up from $404 million in 2012), according to Statista. This makes sense, says Hochhauser, who decided to start Piecework after finding herself rained in with no cell service and a closet full of dusty puzzles in a rental house in Yosemite. “We’re in this moment where people are experiencing digital overload. They’re not a digital activity; they’re good for your brain. Plus everything else in our lives is so curated, from our toothpastes to our luggage. Puzzles sit out on your coffee table for weeks: They should look good, too.” Below, we pieced together (ha) a comprehensive guide to the various new puzzles on the scene — and asked puzzle obsessives to share their personal favorites, from a 1,000-piece Jan Frans van Dael to a candy-themed Springbok.

Photo: Courtesy of Vendor

According to Books Are Magic bookseller (and puzzle obsessive) Margaret Myers, Piecework continues to reign as the “coolest puzzles” out there. Jewelry designer Jennifer J. Matchett names the brand as one of her favorites as well. “My favorite puzzles right now are ones with still lifes with florals and fruits, with images similar to what you see in contemporary photography and styling right now,” she says. “My super-favorite, very satisfying one is ‘The Forbidden Fruit.’” The 1,000-piece puzzle features fruits and cocktails with drink parasols, and Matchett calls the design “adorable, supersaturated, and colorful.”

In addition to “Forbidden Fruit,” Piecework sells three other puzzles, each 1,000 pieces: the “Meta Puzzle,” a hand assembling a puzzle; “Feeling Flushed,” a poker table; and the “Life of the Party,” a smashed cake, which Myers told us is her favorite of the brand’s offerings. “All of Piecework’s puzzles have amazing hyperdesign-y styles,” she tells us. “I love the cake one the most.”

Myers wasn’t the only puzzle expert who likes a dessert theme: Jewelry designer Jennifer Rush prefers her puzzles on the sweet side, too: “We’ll do anything with dessert,” she says of herself and her 9-year-old son. “Cakes and candy and ice creams and desserts are immediately go-tos for us.” Rush told us that she and her son love Springbok’s puzzles, which come in 36-piece to 2,000-piece options, and that they’ll typically divide and conquer a 1,000-piece puzzle. “We tag team and work on different things, and we find that their puzzles are challenging but really fun,” she says. [Editor’s note: This puzzle is currently out of stock, but will be available March 29.]

If you prefer a puzzle wish a dash of art history, Matchett suggests this “Bowl of Flowers” puzzle — based on the painting by 18th-century painter Jan Frans van Dael — which she says has been perfect for doing with her whole family. “We have younger kids, and with this puzzle we can get them to do the border and then groups of colors.” Once the kids have put together the borders and rounded up the color groups, Matchett said they’ll usually wander off — leaving the rest to her and her husband. “Then we can sit there and actually enjoy the puzzle,” she says.

For a smaller, more intricate puzzle, Matchett loves this one from Nautilus, which has 172 wood-cut pieces. “It’s gorgeous and really satisfying because all of the pieces are perfectly, carefully carved,” she says. Matchett notes that working with such intricate pieces on a larger scale might get exhausting, but that for a puzzle this size, it’s perfect.

And for an even smaller puzzle, Matchett recommends this “Hoefnagel Pear” jigsaw from Artifact Puzzles. Like the Nautilus puzzle, it has wood pieces (these are all cut in the shapes of fruits and animals), and only has 106 pieces, making it ideal for “zoning out for 30 minutes or less and putting together,” says Matchett.

Several of the puzzle experts we talked to said they loved puzzles featuring the work of modern artist Charley Harper. “I am a huge fan of poster art and adore Charley Harper’s work,” says Vanessa Barboni Hallik, founder and CEO of clothing line Another Tomorrow. “Particularly his use of geometric form.” One of Hallik’s favorite Harper puzzles is this “California Desert Mountains” design, which features stylized birds, turtles, leaves, and mountains. “It’s a puzzle you will want to keep around once built,” Hallik says.

“This is another favorite, one of ten posters Harper created on commission for the U.S. National Park Service,” says Hallik. “The colors and composition are incredible, and if you look closely, he manages to represent an entire ecosystem in balance.”

Matchett is a Harper fan as well, and says that the 500-piece puzzles that feature his work are ideal for doing with children. The “Tree of Life” design, especially: “All of the animals in ‘Tree of Life’ are separate, so the kids get really into it and will say ‘I’m going to do the ladybug!,’ or ‘I’m going to do the snakes and the birds,’ or do all of the red animals,” says Matchett. Each animal is made up of just three or four pieces, so younger children can stay engaged by finishing one animal and moving on to the next.

T magazine features director (and noted marzipan fan) Thessaly la Force told us that on a recent trip upstate, she did a 1,000-piece puzzle of a New Yorker cover from the 1940s. “Ever since, I am a huge fan,” she says. “They are maddening, difficult but not too difficult, and generate good conversation.” La Force recommends this classic Saul Steinberg cover (which has a light social-distancing theme). Myers is a fan of New Yorker–cover puzzles as well. “I think they’re sort of fancy and fun and elegant,” she says.

If you fancy yourself a pro puzzler, Myers suggests Areaware’s gradient puzzles, likely one of the most difficult options on this list. “They’re very hard and fun, but might lead someone to some ‘Jack from The Shining’ moments, just due to the sheer repetition of it all,” she says.

And some (relatively) new-to-the-scene puzzles

The latest from Areaware, a pioneer in the cool-puzzle scene.