Jigsaw puzzles were making a surprising comeback even before the pandemic — the Museum of Modern Art started making puzzles of pieces from its collection a few years ago — but quarantine made the decidedly lo-fi activity even more appealing. Assembling the image isn’t particularly exciting and doesn’t tell you much of a story, but it does kill plenty of time safely indoors. It’s meditative, occupying your hands and your eyes enough to keep them away from your phone.
The problem is usually the puzzle’s content. They have a bad reputation, associated more with saccharine Thomas Kinkade landscapes and animal photography than visual art. That’s starting to change. Whiled, a new lifestyle product brand, is collaborating with artists scouted through Instagram to create a line of bright, colorful puzzles that function both as activity and decor. The visuals are the priority. Founder Alisha Ramos, who also created the newsletter Girls Night In, describes herself as “a big art history nerd and frequent museum- and gallery-goer.”
All of Whiled’s puzzles are unique commissions. After identifying collaborators, Ramos gives them a brief, discusses sketches, and then moves ahead with the final image. “It has been a fairly hands-off collaboration,” she said. “We really want the artist to shine in the medium of their choosing and feel like they have a stake in what they create.” Ramos chose Tess Smith-Roberts to create a puzzle because her work “sparked childhood memories of Richard Scarry books.” The resulting puzzle is a primary-colored, bustling cityscape populated by residents that look like Memphis objects.
The art isn’t the only innovation. Whiled dresses up puzzles in all the hallmarks of millennial lifestyle brands: minimalist white boxes with crisp graphic design, cloth bags to keep the pieces together, irregularly shaped pieces to add some challenge, and a soft-matte finish to the paper so it doesn’t glare under lights. Whiled’s aesthetic tends toward a kind of Matisse-lite, with domestic scenes arranged into energetic compositions. Ana Leovy’s “Ladies Who Lounge” brings a Fauvist palette to a cozy apartment interior.
For Ramos, puzzles have provided a break from the demands of running her own businesses and interacting with people in general. “Some of my absolute favorite moments in the last few years have been when my husband and I turned off the TV, set our phones aside, and worked on a puzzle together,” she said. The company “emphasizes the importance of analog over digital. We’re online for so many hours than is humanly reasonable nowadays. We need to unplug and rest.” “Whiled” is a reference to whiling away time, passing it however might be pleasant. It’s disconnected from work or the pressure to monetize your time in some other way: “As adults, we’ve forgotten how to play without the stick of constant productivity behind us.”
Maybe the appeal of puzzles is they don’t ask anything from you and once they’re assembled, it’s done. The only question is how challenged you want to be. The publisher Hardie Grant also produces puzzles, like “The Raconteur,” a 1000-piece creation by the illustrator Ilya Milstein. The scene, more detailed and complex than Whiled’s offerings, evokes an exotic trip and an evening spent in a room full of friends. At the moment it feels aspirational.
Five Other Art Puzzles to Check Out
Magic Puzzle makes puzzles that are interactive on multiple levels: When you finish the puzzle, you open an envelope and carry out a set of new activities to complete the puzzle image’s story. Pledge $20 to their Kickstarter campaign and get a puzzle.
The Museum of Modern Art store has a selection of jigsaw puzzles based on work by artists ranging from KAWS to Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol.
Areaware makes gradient puzzles that are like more straightforward Cory Arcangel pieces, but it’s even trickier to figure out where the pieces go without any reference points.