What else can a box be?

I’ve never been interested in the box as just a box. I’ve always wondered how it could engage you beyond just being a container. After three years and a hundred puzzle boxes designs, I thought to myself, “There’s got to be more to a box than trying to keep people out of it.” Then something came along to help me find my way out of the confines of my own box: cyanoacrylate, or in plainer terms, Crazy Glue. This glue, in its more viscous versions designed for woodworkers, made it possible to bypass clamping, which confines one to  a 90-degree construction. It opened up the world of angles.

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My first explorations were about balance and composition: boxes made of shapes angled together in a way that the ensemble seemed to defy gravity or be about to fall over. I guess I was still trying to put my viewer on edge. But I began to have fun trying out improbable assemblages that made you wonder how they held together or stood up. My most ambitious composition was called “Carmen Miranda”, inspired by that woman’s amazing cornucopic headwear, but the demands of gravity proved too much for it.


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My next explorations might have been titled “What happened to this box?” – a box that looked like it had had wedge taken out of it, or had been split in two, or was passing through a solid barrier, or had already been opened up, or had run into a low bridge, or whose top had started to warp. Could a box strike you as funny, make you chuckle?



This led me to thinking of the box as a body – how could a box suggest the human body and maybe call forth a subtle, visceral response? Using the proportions and angles of the human body, could I make a box suggest an attitude or an emotion, even evoke a sympathetic connection? So I made a shy box, a bold box, a drunken box, a wounded box. I paired bodies and made a mother and daughter box, a dancing couple box. Instead of starting with geometric shapes and refining them to a fully rounded human figure, I went in the reverse direction. Starting with iconic sculpture, I took the David or the Venus de Milo and ended up with a box of geometric shapes – an odd journey I admit.


I went on in following years to explore other box possibilities – I won’t enumerate them all – but settled finally, in the last ten years, into the evocative possibilities of architecture. Looking back, I realize now that the fascination for me has always been trying to answer the questions, “What else can a box be? What more can it contain?”


As I wrote in my previous entry, my earliest boxes were puzzle boxes that were deliberate portraits of people that I knew. To spark ideas for a puzzle box, I would try to think of a friend, the ways that they opened up and ways that they were hidden. I would ask myself, “If they were a box, how would they open?” It wouldn’t take long for a design to develop.

So for example, for a friend who always replied to any question with a funny and disarming quip, I designed a box where every drawer had some unexpected way that it couldn’t hold anything: an inner barrier, a missing floor, another drawer that closed as you opened the first one. For two very stubborn and independent friends who were getting married I made a box with two drawers that could only be opened together, taking turns, an increment at a time, and requiring four hands. For a friend who was very talkative I designed a box that opened right away but then wouldn’t close.

Though these gave me many ideas for how to design other puzzle boxes that were not inspired by specific personalities, they also started me down the road of what I began to call “Portrait Boxes” – boxes designed to symbolize a moment or event that was significant or meaningful to the person commissioning the box.

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For example, a woman who had suffered a traumatic death in her family wanted to commission a wedding box for her brother, who was the first family member to begin to separate from the family since the tragedy. I designed a box with four box components attached to each other, one for each member of the family. A key piece of wood, that itself could not hold anything, locked the four boxes and prevented them from separating and opening. This was the tragedy that had to be extracted and set aside so that the boxes could pull apart and open.

For a coupe celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, I designed a monolithic box which pulled apart into two halves that were mirror images of each other. Each half contained a drawer for each member of the family, as well as a hidden compartment for the family secrets.

Another box was commissioned by a father for his idealistic son graduating from college and headed for a teaching job in Africa. The father wanted to convey to his son the advice to “follow your vision, maintain your goal”. The box was a puzzle box, made of African woods, with a series of drawers that needed to be opened in the correct order. Deep inside was a small, simple box meant to accompany the son on his travels.

These Portrait Boxes, and the many others I have designed over the years, are all about the challenge of representing specific ideas in concrete, three-dimensional ways. Perhaps in another entry, I will write about other ways I have tried to think metaphorically in my box-making.


For the many years that I did the craft show circuit, I had a big sign on the back wall of my booth that read “Jay Rogers - UNIQUE BOXES”. As people looked into the booth I would open a few boxes to try to lure them to come in and explore. Over and over again, the first thing they would say was, “Are these boxes?”

It’s true that my boxes have never really looked like boxes, and as they have gotten further and further afield, it has taken more work and planning to find ways for them to open. Sometimes a prospective buyer hoping to lower the cost will ask, “Can you make it the same but just not make it a box?” My answer is always, “But I make boxes.”


So why boxes? To me the question feels like a fork in the road I encountered way back at the beginning of things, and the path I chose then has only led on, never back. When I was a kid I made lots of things – model cars, miniature furniture, small dioramas. One day when I was a teenager I read a story about a man who kept his secrets hiden in a puzzle box. As a kid with lots of secrets, I found the idea intriguing, though I had no idea what a puzzle box might be like.

Then my last year in high school, my best friend got himself into a dilemma with no clear way out. Musing about it one day, I got an image in my mind of a box with multiple drawers, each of which kept the others from opening. But, I thought, there must be a solution; there must be a way for it to open. I got obsessed with trying to design it, and eventually came up with a box with six drawers that could only be opened in a certain order. I bought some balsa wood and an Exacto knife and went to work. The result was a bit flimsy, but it worked, and I was launched. I felt I had discovered something powerfully compelling that I was only at the very beginning of exploring.

Over the many years since then, as I have moved from puzzle boxes to designs based on composite forms and sculptural shapes, through many ideas and sources of inspiration all the way up to the present architecturally inspired constructions, I have had ample opportunities to ask myself, “Why boxes?” It always seems to come back to the same thing: a fascination with what is inside versus what is outside, the idea that what you see is not all there is; that there is more, and you have to find it. And for me, the box is always a metaphor: nothing and no one is ever as simple as it appears, there is always something hidden, something contained. How do we get to it? There is always a way.

My first boxes were puzzle boxes that were deliberately portraits of people I knew. Over time I have had to accept that my boxes are really all self-portraits. They are my way of saying, “Please take a look. There’s more than what you see on the surface. I think it will be worth the work.”