Saturday, December 5, 2015

Monkey Business

It’s hard to imagine how a simple wooden box can surprise you.  Most of the time, it's just a box, with a lid that comes off, just like you would expect.  But you still want to open it.  The fact that it is a box implies its opening function, and something inside you is compelled by that function.  So you try to open it, lift the lid, turn the latch, swing the hinges.  If it won't open, you look around, you wonder why, still trying to find the way.  What happens if it starts to become clear that there is not an obvious way to open it?  Do you give up?  Or do you keep looking, still driven by the knowledge that it does open, after all.  A box should be opened ... and that is exactly what is so enjoyable about a great puzzle box.  Like a perfect game of hide and seek, you don’t actually want to discover the people you are looking for right away, and you don’t want to find them in the most obvious hiding places.  It’s much more satisfying if it takes a little while, if your opponents are clever, and well hidden.  The best opponents love it when you walk right past them, over and over again, without noticing or realizing.  The game gets harder each time you play, since you have already been all over the house and think you know all of its nooks and crannies.  This is where a really clever designer can surprise you with a puzzle box as well.  There shouldn't be too many places to hide in a little wooden box, should there?

The Monkey's Palanquin by Shiro Tajima

The origins of the Japanese puzzle box date back to around 1894, when two defining movements were created to trick the opener of what appeared to be a normal wooden keepsake box.  These “personal secret” boxes (himitsu-bako) had a side panel which either moved down or to the side, which then allowed the top panel to slide off.  For a century all subsequent Japanese puzzle boxes utilized these two types of movements in different ways and combinations to add difficulty to the secret opening, from two to over one hundred movements required.  As the number of moves needed increased, the challenge increased, but there were still only a few movement types needed to experiment with in order to open the box, eventually.  Like looking for someone in a bigger house, but one with the same layout.  Check the closet, look under the bed.  And don’t get me wrong – hide and seek in a mansion is incredibly fun.

It seems like such a traditional puzzle box ...

But setting expectations about how something should work is also a great way to fool someone, by changing the formula completely.  The Monkey’s Palanquin by Shiro Tajima of the Karakuri Creation Group, which is named after characters from a Japanese nursery rhyme, is a great example of this idea.  Tajima created this box in 2004 and applied his work in pure yosegi, the traditional marquetry inlay technique of the region.  There is a zig zag inlay design along the top of the box, which gives it the appearance of a traditional type of Japanese puzzle box.  I suspect this is all part of his plan to set your expectations, in order to fool you all the better.  He brings a fresh perspective to the puzzle box group and all of his designs have something unorthodox and unique.  The palanquin is an incredibly fun design, especially if you are familiar with traditional Japanese puzzle boxes, since that may confuse you.  I thought there must be something wrong with the box for a long time, as nothing seemed to happen no matter what I did or where I pushed and prodded.  Once the mechanism of opening is deduced, you can appreciate how clever the design is, how unique, and how Tajima plays with your expectations.  Don’t take my word for it – this box won First Prize in the Nob Yoshigahara Design Competition in 2004.

The Monkey Gland cocktail by Harry McElhone, c 1927

To prepare for this advanced level game of hide and seek, we need to invigorate ourselves with some adrenaline.  Perhaps with a “Monkey Gland” cocktail?  This prohibition era cocktail was created at the famous “Harry’s New York Bar” in the Ritz hotel in 1920’s Paris, and originally published in “Barflies and Cocktails” by Harry McElhone in 1927.  At the time, “male enhancements” were the rage (can you imagine? How ridiculous …) and the particularly odd practice of implanting tissue from monkey testicles into people, for longevity, had been created by a surgeon named Serge Voronoff.  The Monkey Gland was surely named as a marketing ploy based on this, and was probably akin to more modern cocktails you can think of with silly and racy names.  It consists of the simple combination of gin and orange juice, with some sweet raspberry syrup or grenadine and a splash or rinse of absinthe or other anise flavored liqueur.  It’s a variation of other gin cocktails such as the classic Clover Club, the Pink Lady, or my own creation, the “Pandora”.  The key here is fresh squeezed juices and natural or homemade syrups, for a subtle and tasty gin cocktail treat.  You can “monkey around” with the proportions and ingredients depending on your tastes, if you like it sweeter, or want the gin to shine through more, as examples.  Here’s to changing the formula, playing with expectations, hidden surprises and a little hide-and-seek.  Cheers.

Looks like a good time for some monkeying around

For more about Shiro Tajima:

For the Monkey Gland recipe:

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