Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Turing Chest

Art Deco meets Japanese tradition in this masterpiece by Nicholas Phillips.  Nicholas is an American furniture maker and woodworker, who holds a PhD in theoretical physics and worked as a mathematician with NASA for much of his life.  He studied the Japanese marquetry technique known as yosegizaiku with seventh generation master Ichiro Ishikawa (the direct descendent of Nihei Ishikawa (1790-1850) who invented the technique) in Hakone Japan and uses traditional Japanese tools to create his yosegi.  He crafts beautiful wooden boxes and chests adorned with his stunning yosegi, and his background lends itself to the creation of ciphers and mathematical puzzles, which he occasionally builds into his creations.

The Turing Chest by Nicholas Phillips

The Turing Chest features six Cherry drawers covered with colorful patterned yosegi including tri-color kikkou (tri-weave), single color kikkou (Redheart, Yellowheart and Holly), and a special Redheart and Holly asanoha (hemp leaf pattern) from a block he made with Mr. Ishikawa.  There is also Yellowheart asanoha yosegi hidden on the sides of one of the drawers.  Line accents on the yosegi are of Ebony and Holly.   Drawer pulls are of Chechen (Brazilian Rosewood).  The chest case, made from Bloodwood, features Art Deco inspired radius corners with outlined double dovetailed joints of Curly Maple and African Kiaat.

Stunning Bloodwood case with Art Deco inspired double dovetail radius corners 

Each beautiful drawer is locked in place.  There are many keys secretly hidden away inside the chest, each one unique and required to open a specific drawer.  One of the drawers is actually a stand-alone puzzle box, discovered once it is removed, which of course contains another key required to proceed hidden inside.  The puzzle box, crafted from Cherry, White Oak, Big Leaf Maple, and covered in the red and yellow asanoha yosegi, is in the style of a traditional Japanese himitsu-bako but features a unique secret mechanism.  It employs a very clever trick of Phillip’s invention not seen on any prior known puzzle box, which he developed specially for this chest.  Once the puzzle box has been solved, and the key inside obtained, the final drawer can be unlocked – but is it truly the final compartment?  Perhaps all the secrets of the Turing Chest have not yet been revealed, and there is more here than meets the eye.

The puzzlebox drawer - featuring a fantastic novel mechanism

Phillips wanted to name the chest after a mathematician involved in the theory work behind cryptology, as its mechanisms depend on keys and locks.  From Phillips: The chest is “named for Alan Turing, whose work at Bletchley Park during World War Two formed the groundwork of modern cyphers."  The Turing Chest is also a play on words referring to one of the ideas in Computer Science for which Alan Turing is most famous.  The “Turing Test” is often used to determine if a computer can be considered to have true artificial intelligence.  The test is conducted by a human typing questions into two different computer terminals.  Each terminal is “connected” to either another remote human, or the computer which is being tested for AI.  The tester is aware of this, and is attempting to determine which computer is which.  If the tester is fooled, the computer can be considered to have true AI.  The Turing Test, conceived of by Turing in 1950, was successfully passed in 2012 by a computer named “Eugene” which had been given the personality of a twelve year old boy.  Eugene was last seen impersonating an adult home bartending puzzle box collector.
The fine woodworking on the chest and drawers, the hand-made internal lock and key mechanisms, and the gorgeous Japanese yosegi work reflect the pinnacle of the maker’s art.  Phillips used the Turing Chest in 2017 as his show piece to attain Master Artisan in Wood status in the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen.  Congratulations, Nicholas, and well deserved.

Flavors of Japan

It seemed appropriate to continue the theme of Japanese yosegi for a toast to Dr. Phillips’ fine creation.  I wove together a classic sour using elements which are all from Japan.  Starting with a fine Japanese whisky, I chose the Yamazaki, from Japan’s first and oldest distillery.  I only break out my prized bottle of Distiller’s Reserve for special occasions.  For the citrus, I used Japanese yuzu, the super tart, seed packed cousin of the lemon.  Finally for sweetness I used a decadent Umeshu plum wine syrup.  Ratios for a typical whiskey sour need to be adjusted to account for the tartness of the yuzu and sweetness of the plum wine syrup.  For diehard sour fans an egg white can also be added for texture and foam.  A simple lemon twist will do for garnish, but I was inspired to create a little yosegi of my own to toast this fine creation.  I enjoy making intricate citrus peel garnishes for my cocktails, and while this is not technically yosegi in the manner of its creation, I think it retains the spirit and the kikkou pattern came out quite nicely.  Here’s to a fine masterpiece, by America’s own Japanese master.  Kampei!

The Yosegi cocktail

The Yosegi

2 oz Japanese whisky
¾ oz yuzu
1 oz Umeshu plum syrup
½ oz fresh egg white (optional)

Shake together with ice.  If using egg white shake without ice and finish shaking with ice briefly.  Strain into a favorite glass.  Yosegi garnish.

A taste of Japan

For more about Nicholas Phillips see:


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