Saturday, September 12, 2020

Turing the Wood

“The difference between a cow and a bean is a bean can begin an adventure!” - Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

The Turing Box by Nicholas Phillips

The Turing Box has a wonderful tale to tell, one that may lead us astray from the forest path, but never fear, I am certain we will find our way back. The story starts with one that I have told before, the tale of the Turing Chest, by American master woodworker Nicholas Phillips. We are now in the play’s second act, so allow me to provide the Playbill synopsis of the first to catch everyone up.

“The harder to get, the better to have.” - Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

Phillips, a PhD physicist and mathematician who spent much of his life working for NASA, is also a traditionally trained Japanese yosegi marquetry expert. He studied the technique with seventh generation master Ichiro Ishikawa in Japan, and now applies those lessons to his beautiful wooden chests and boxes. He has a puzzling mind, and has created a number of different puzzle chests over the years. The Turing Chest, a gorgeous Art Deco chest of six locked drawers, was so named for how it incorporates secret keys and locks that are hidden from view. One of the locked drawers in the chest is actually a stand alone puzzle box, which must be removed entirely and then solved to find the next key. For this puzzle box drawer, Phillips designed a truly novel mechanism to complement the traditional Japanese "secret box" style in a modern homage to the tradition. The original Turing Chest garnered much interest and eventually, Nicholas revisited the design for a second act, and made a new set of six chests. Little tweaks and improvements on the original were added, at the encouragement of the original’s owner, including a new and much more complex puzzle box drawer design.

“Sometimes the things you most wish for are not to be touched.” - Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

Highly figured walnut shimmers like magic

From Phillips: “The puzzle box is an interpretation of the classic Japanese style "secret box". The box's top and bottom are Walnut, finished with Shellac and Lacquer. The sides […] are made of Quarter-sawn Paulownia and Jatoba. The Paulownia is one the classic woods used by Japanese woodworkers because of its workability and stability. The outside of the sides are then decorated with my own shop-made Yosegi. Two patterns were used: checkerboard diamond and the classic Seigaiha "waves" pattern. The Seigaiha pattern is made with Redheart, Cherry, and thermal-treated Poplar. The checkerboard uses the six woods Yellowheart, Redheart, Holly, Campher, and two types of Bubinga.”

“The prettier the flower, the farther from the path.” - Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

Nicholas made one additional puzzle box drawer from the new edition, to sit beside the original chest. The “Turing Box”, in addition to being absolutely stunning to look at, is a delightful puzzle. It takes the novel concept from the first edition and multiplies the complexity by a factor of three. I have not seen any other puzzle box use this same principle. While the original was surprising, clever and amusing, the new version is also downright tricky and confusing! The box manages to retain the classic Japanese style while introducing something wonderfully unique.

“Every knot was once straight rope.” - Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

Into the Woods by Rafa Garcia Febles

The toast for the Turing Box requires one final detour off the path by way of explanation. The second edition of six Turing Chests were all sold to private collectors. The last to go was purchased by none other than Stephen Sondheim, the American composer and lyricist. His musicals have garnered the highest acclaim, including an Academy Award, eight Tony’s, eight Grammy’s, a Pulitzer Prize and more. Phillip’s incredible work is certainly getting the recognition it well deserves.

“Nice is different than good.” - Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

Stir with fir

One of my personal favorite Sondheim musicals is Into the Woods, if you haven’t deduced that by now. This cocktail was created by New York bartender Rafa Garcia Febles, who got his start at Nomad and Death and Company, and now helms the bar at The Rookery in Brooklyn. With the coming of cool weather around the corner, it’s a perfect drink to add to your list of things to try. Fir tree eau de vie is like liquid forest, and adding it to anything will instantly transport a drink (and its drinker) into the woods. You can make your own serviceable version, as I did, by infusing a botanical heavy gin with fir fronds for a few hours. Chartreuse multiplies the herbal flavors, Campari layers in a little bitterness, which is a must for any Sondheim reference, and vermouth provides just the right balance to the proceedings. It’s a good drink, not a nice drink. It will make you feel things that you hadn’t before. Here’s to the woods, may we all stray from the path for a while, and find our way back. Cheers!

“Slotted spoons don’t hold much soup.” – Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

Excited and scared but perfectly paired

Into the Woods by Rafa García Febles

¾ oz Eau de vie of Douglas Fir (or gin)
¾ oz Campari
¾ oz Green Chartreuse
¾ oz Dry vermouth

Stir ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Grapefruit peel garnish.
For more from Nicholas Phillips:
Fine Creations
The Turing Chest

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