UK jigsaw puzzle sales hit £100 million in 2020, according to the Guardian. Fuelled by pandemic-induced social restrictions and lockdowns, the newspaper also notes that more puzzles were bought for adults than children over the year – this is not the norm it says.
Inside the puzzle industry itself, another shift is occurring. More and more, “traditional” art puzzles are being traded for illustration-led offerings. This shift has allowed a growing number of companies to work with new and up-and-coming illustrators and artists.
A lifelong puzzle fan, Rami Metal says the development is down to puzzlers looking for something new. “I’ve always been on the hunt for a good fine art puzzle but found that my options were mainly limited to a few big-name artists who were, by and large, long dead,” Metal gives a reason why he founded his own contemporary art puzzle company Kinstler earlier this year.
“You don’t want to do a 1,000 piece puzzle, only for 250 to be sky”
Unlike traditional art puzzles, where famous artists’ work is usually just copied into the puzzle format, Metal says an emphasis on new talent means artists and puzzle companies alike can push new boundaries with the medium.
However, artist-led puzzles still need to hit the right points when it comes to the experience. As Metal explains, “big globs of colour” might be good for a challenge, but they don’t always make for the best puzzling experience. “You don’t want to do a 1,000 piece puzzle, only for 250 of those pieces to be sky,” he says.
The pieces that make the best puzzles, Metal says, are those with lots of detail. The artists that Kinstler is currently working with, Simone Johnson, Andrea Joyce Heimer and Rusudan Khizanishvili all offer intricate pieces which in turn make for good puzzles, he says.
Sandra Blaschke, founder of Prints in Pieces, elaborates further, saying: “There’s definitely a balance to make sure that an artwork has enough colours, depth and variety within it in order for it to be pieced together smoothly.”
“You’re living with this piece of art for hours and hours, or even weeks sometimes”
Blaschke and Metal both say it makes sense this new wave of puzzles concentrates mostly on new, emerging creatives. On starting Prints in Pieces, during the height of the pandemic last year, Blaschke says one of her driving forces giving emerging illustrators a different platform on which to be found.
“It just makes sense to me – why use boring stock imagery, when there are so many amazing illustration pieces being created every day?” she says. The nature of puzzles also lends itself well to discovering new styles. After all, doing a puzzle is a lengthy process which has participants staring and engaging with an illustration.
“You’re living with this piece of art for hours and hours, or even weeks sometimes,” Metal says. “You can see every single brush or pen stroke and can really get a sense of how much time has gone into a piece – you get a sense of who they are.”
Kate Higginson, director of Print Club London, says puzzles can be the perfect way to introduce new illustrators and artists because of the captive audience. Print Club London has produced several puzzles with well-known and newer illustrators alike, and she says a conscious effort is made to design packaging and other promotional materials which celebrate the person behind the print.
“The illustrator really has to be the main focus of the packaging, and we include a leaflet in each box which describes a bit more about the print featured on the puzzle, as well as the illustrator and their methods,” she says.
Making puzzles look “as vibrant as possible”
But Higginson explains, producing art puzzles isn’t as easy as just transferring screenprints onto cardboard. She says huge care needs to be taken when it comes to quality. “We had thought about doing puzzles ourselves a few years ago, but we knew at the time we couldn’t do the prints we sell justice,” Higginson says.
It was only after a partnership with Luckies of London, an online gifting company, that she says Print Club London felt confident in their offering. Proper manufacturing was high on the list of requirements.
“We had to find a reputable factory to ensure we kept our carbon footprint down, and similarly we knew we needed to work with recycled cardboard,” Higginson says. This presents its own challenges, because recycled cardboard often produces a more matte finish, which can leave prints looking dull.
Additionally, the density of the cardboard and the colour processes also needs to be considered. Print Club London puzzles use a water-based ink, so care needs to be taken to ensure prints look as “vibrant as possible”, Higginson says.
“To switch off and find entertainment in something more analogue”
The result of all these considerations is a product that Higginson says is a great entry point into illustration and design. “We often find that people frame their puzzles once they’ve completed them,” she says.
Art and design have historically been inaccessible fields, Higginson says, and puzzles can be a good way to engage with new work and creatives for those who feel “uncomfortable going to a gallery”, for example. It’s a belief that Blaschke holds too: “The ultimate goal is still to give people frame-worthy art, but just bringing it to life in a puzzle form first.”
As for how the fortunes of puzzles will continue, all three are confident that this new era of art puzzles is here to stay. “Yes, there will be some people that, coming out of lockdown never want to look at another puzzle again,” says Metal. “But equally, I think the uptick in puzzle-buying speaks volumes about our collective desire to switch off and find entertainment in something more analogue.”