Elegance, engineering combine in Maya Gupta’s high-end jigsaw puzzles


Maya Gupta was sitting in the San Francisco airport one day when she saw some unusual jigsaw puzzles in a shop. A puzzle fan in childhood, she liked the shape and quality of the finely cut pieces, but thought the art was boring.

She hadn’t done a jigsaw puzzle for about 20 years. A UW associate professor of electrical engineering, Gupta had forsaken earlier hobbies — music, foreign languages, hiking — to concentrate on getting tenure. “I took it very seriously,” she said.

Having succeeded in that, she thought it would be nice to have a hobby again. “But I needed a hobby that would be compelling, engaging enough that I couldn’t just ignore it,” she said. “And playing a musical instrument, it’s too easy not to do.”

She examined the puzzles that day in the airport, which she could see were cut by laser. “I was very impressed, I thought they were great,” but the images were old-fashioned “traditional puzzle art — kitten art, grandma art,” she said with a smile.

“That just wasn’t the kind of art I was interested in doing. And I thought, well, really, I could just make these myself. Why suffer with images I don’t like? Because it is a lot of fun to put these things together again. I’ll just get a laser-cutter and make my own puzzles.”

Thus began her company, Artifact Puzzles, in 2009. “My original plan was to make one or two puzzles a week, but that really didn’t make sense economically.” She discovered economies of scale in production, as well as a demand for imaginative, challenging puzzles made from great art.

Her good friend Maria Berg soon joined Gupta in the fledgling business. “We got things rolling and it sort of took on a life of its own.”

They wanted to push the boundaries of the traditional jigsaw puzzle, Gupta said, “so that every puzzle would be kind of different, and the cuts would be different.” She said it’s easy to cut a puzzle where all the pieces look “sort of noisy and jaggedy.” They try to make puzzles that are elegant, even beautiful, in design, and challenging to the solver. “You also want something that sort of surprises the do-er,” Gupta said, “so that they have this sort of Gestalt moment where they’re like, ‘Oh, I get it. I get what’s going on!’”

Laser-cutting of jigsaw pieces from quarter-inch wood is an update of a century-old tradition of cutting such puzzles by hand. There are still hand-cutters out there, though. One of the little “surprises” Gupta borrows from hand-cutters is the use of what are called “whimsy” pieces — jigsaw pieces cut into recognizable shapes, like fish or animals, and tucked into the larger puzzle like a joke within a joke. Many of Gupta’s puzzles have up to 5 percent whimsy pieces, she said.

Gupta came to the electrical engineering UW in 2003, and received adjunct appointments in applied mathematics in 2005 and computer science in 2011. Clearly a talented researcher, all in the year 2007 she received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program award and a departmental Outstanding Teaching Award.

On her faculty web page she briefly describes her research interests as: “Interested in the theory and application of statistical leaning, information theory, and statistical signal and color image processing.” Asked to briefly elaborate, she wrote that her research group “develops recipes for computers, called algorithms, that tell computers how to make good guesses based on data,” and added that the research has broad practical use, “from helping control different printers to print the exact same colors to identifying objects in the water based on their sound (sonar) signals.” Gupta also is principal investigator of the Information Design Lab.

One might ask, is there perhaps an inner connection between her professional work and the design elegance she works to achieve in puzzles?

“I don’t know that there’s a direct connection, but a lot of beauty and — let’s say, aesthetics crop up in signal processing,” she said. And in writing test problems, “It’s the same sort of design problem — an engineering problem that feels beautiful, that really feels elegant and is simple, and often the best-engineered systems and the best natural systems have a lot of symmetry.”

Art from before 1923 is in the public domain. Gupta and Berg make puzzles from classic works of art as well as pieces by current and new artists. “Some artists recognize that their art is puzzle-friendly, and other artists are just really excited to get their art out there and have people sort of playing with it with their fingers — it’s a nice tactile expression,” Gupta said. One artist, Joe Vaux, even helped design the pieces themselves, “to give the shapes a bit of Vaux flavor. I’m really excited about this!” he said on his entertaining website.

Gupta said, “There are artists who we’re in some sense doing a favor and there are artists who are doing us a favor by working with us.”

Artifact Puzzles has about 60 puzzles available, and another 10 in production. She said it takes an average of about two months to go from finding an image to offering it for sale as a puzzle.

Asked what the future holds for Artifact Puzzles, Gupta said, “I think that we’ll grow — we’ll double a couple more times. But I think it will always remain a fairly small company. This isn’t something that’s going to turn into a multimillion dollar enterprise — it’s just too small a market.”

She said their “factory — and I use the term loosely” was in her house, in Wallingford, for a long time but was moved to Berg’s roomier house on Lake Tapps. “We still need more space but we’re trying to hold off for as long as possible, probably six months before we move into an industrial space. …One way businesses fail is that they expand faster than they really should.”

Gupta always has her eye out for art she’d like to turn into puzzles. One piece in particular, she said, is The Fall of the Rebel Angels, by sixteenth century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel. Artifact Puzzles will get a business intern this summer, she said, one of whose tasks will be to contact the museum in Belgium holding that painting to get a digital image to use for making a puzzle.

Gupta prefers not to give details about how business is for Artifact Puzzles, other than to say, again smiling, “We’re definitely making money and the prognosis is good.”

And it will remain only a hobby, she said. Gupta said she loves her work at the UW and is even a little sad to be taking a sabbatical next year (she’ll work for Google Research’s Machine Learning Group).

It all serves as a bit of relief from the more demanding work of her day job.

Still, she said, “I think my parents have wondered why I can’t just live a normal life.”