An old-school hobby gets a high-tech twist

During these times of self-isolation, family bubbles and lockdowns, Tinka Robev and Andrew Azzopardi have put some interesting twists into a good old-fashioned pastime.

The Victoria entrepreneurs have created the Puzzle Lab, a modern take on the timeless jigsaw puzzle that uses sustainable materials, visually stimulating artwork and custom computer algorithms and robotics to create complex, unique geometrical pieces.

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These aren’t your typical 100-piece sets. Every piece is a unique shape, which provides challenges even to experienced puzzlers.

“We wanted to present a thoughtful new product line to the world — one that encompasses our passions for beautiful aesthetics, computational design, digital fabrication and good old-fashioned analog fun,” said Robev.

The Puzzle Lab is an offshoot from the partners’ Robazzo Studio on Douglas Street, where they provide branding, websites and interior installations for businesses. It’s an extension of another successful foray called West Coasters, where they made artistic coaster sets from locally sourced logs. That enterprise sold 120,000 units locally and around the world before it wound down this year.

The shift to puzzles better aligned with the company’s high-tech processes, said Azzopardi, who was ramping up puzzle production after a recent launch.

As of Wednesday, they had shipped about 150 boxes.

The Puzzle Lab currently has 12 puzzles available in three categories: flora and fauna, abstract and landscapes. All are rectangle-vertical except the circular Mandala #1. They retail for $55 each and are available online at puzzle-lab.com

The puzzles are cut from one-quarter-inch birch plywood, sourced at the Cook Street Castle lumber store. The packaging is done by Victoria-based Metropol with no plastics, and shipping is carbon-neutral through a carbon-credit offset program, Robev said, adding the company will be scaled on demand.

The product is available online right now, but could be open to retailers if there’s interest. They are also creating customized puzzles where companies can choose their art for corporate gifts, and working out plans to partner with charities to use the puzzles as fundraisers.

Robev and Azzopardi met at the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture, moved to Victoria in 2014 and started their studio.

Azzopardi said the lab’s puzzles differ not only in the images they use, but the process of designing each piece. Traditional puzzles are cut from dies, usually stamped out on tick layered paper, using five to 10 different shapes.

The technology used in Puzzle Lab draws from Azzopardi’s passion for parametric, computational and generative design that involves writing custom computer algorithms to generate unique geometry for each piece and using robots such as laser cutters, 3D printers and computer numerical control routers to create complex shapes.

Robev’s eye and expertise are behind the visual graphics.

She said manufacturing puzzles makes sense, as people are self-isolating amid the pandemic and finding ways “to get off their screens.”

“The time we’re in is unexpected and tricky,” the partners said. “We were inspired to create something unexpected and tricky that feeds the soul, challenges the mind and satisfies our collective craving to overcome or solve puzzles in our lives.”

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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