by Alia Tawil



Boxology, a term coined by its creative master, Richard Rothbard, involves the cutting apart of pieces of wood and gluing them back together forming puzzle boxes. Virtually every box is only accessible when you remove the puzzle key. Then, slide the top off of the box and let the adventure begin. “It’s a very elaborate, fun greeting card in wood,” Rothbard said. One of Rothbard’s most fantastic pieces is “Alice in Wonderland.” The miniature piece of wood (five inches long) has one jagged, shorn edge that sharply contrasts the smooth face. Painstakingly detailed with a scene of Alice and the Mad Hatter in the forest, the box opens to reveal layers of scenes hidden beneath one another. From the Cheshire cat to the entire tea party, one compartment even has the piece of cake that Alice eats to grow. The final puzzle key is a small red heart, and once removed, the final scene reveals Alice asleep by a tree as leaves fall gently around her.

The beginning of boxology can be traced back to Rothbard’s arrival in New York City, when he constructed some “rustic” furniture and paneling for his apartment. After earning a degree in finance, Rothbard moved to the Big Apple to pursue acting and singing. During his time working as an actor, he began responding to ads in theaters requesting shelves and other small set pieces. Built in his living room with only a matte knife and a disc sander, Rothbard remembers it as a “dusty lifestyle.” The turning point in his career arrived when he came across a walnut dining table that had been crafted entirely by hand from free-form planks. The piece resonated with Rothbard, inspiring him to drop acting entirely and join a wood-carving workshop in Manhattan in 1967. Later that year, he opened Impressions in Wood on the Upper East Side. The store specialized in “avante garde” furniture and developed a diverse clientele, including members of Jefferson Airplane. A decade later, Rothbard closed the store and moved to the country in New Jersey where he continued to experiment with puzzling by roughly slicing apart limbs and reattaching them to form small boxes. They began supporting themselves by exhibiting and selling these and other pieces at craft fairs. The boxes’ popularity earned Rothbard numerous awards and commissions, eventually driving them to expand their shop.

Now, Rothbard is the owner of An American Craftsman, a gallery that highlights his and other artists’ creative works. With three locations in Massachusetts, two in Manhattan and another NYC store on the way, Rothbard’s business has thrived. This May, the craftsman has shows on the 7th and 8th at Rockefeller Center along with 135 other artists, and admission is free. Between art shows and the business generated by the galleries, Rothbard keeps his hands full. Delighted tourists and devoted regulars have increased the demand for individual commissions.

Along with the weekly requests their shop receives for personalized pieces, Rothbard’s work also includes music boxes shaped like grand pianos or music notes. On the piano, remove the keyboard on which playing hands are intricately carved to hear Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” Each box is lined with a soft material to cushion the miniscule parts or personal belongs it may contain. Currently, Rothbard is working on more figurative pieces and sculptures with hidden compartments to be sold as safes.

From Noah’s ark to Sleeping Beauty’s dragon, Rothbard’s pieces are fascinating in their detail. Carved with such cleverness and dexterity, the limitless boxology series is marvelous in its inherent beauty and intelligent sense of humor. “It’s telling a story or even recapturing events of one’s life in wood,” Rothbard said, “it’s a way of life.”

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© Melt Magazine 2005