I’ve never really been one for puzzles—that is, until the pandemic forced me to take up a series of hobbies I was once “too busy” for. There are only so many Netflix Originals I can binge-watch, after all.
In an increasingly fast-paced, digital world, slowing down and putting a puzzle together piece by piece brings about a sense of calm, and can actually be used as part of your mental health toolkit. Just like meditation, puzzling stimulates the release of dopamine, which can enhance your mood.
Before 2020, a lot of us lived by the adage “work hard, play hard”—but without our usual adult playgrounds (clubs, restaurants, gatherings of any kind, really), we have had to redefine what “play” even means. And for many, it has meant hunkering down for a few hours to complete a jigsaw puzzle.
Puzzles are helpful for memory improvement and general mental acuity; studies have also shown that people who do puzzles have less of a chance of developing Alzheimer's disease, memory loss, or dementia. And lucky for us, a new crop of puzzle brands are changing the look of the game. You no longer have to piece together images of kittens in baskets or water lilies in ponds—these contemporary companies are putting design, art, and style at the forefront.
Ordinary Habit designs quality, artful games that help people relax and get off their devices. Mother-daughter duo Teresa Hopkins and Echo Hopkins combined their graphic design and art history backgrounds to create a product line of puzzles and matching cards featuring the work of artists like Bodil Jane and Josefina Schargo. Everything from the quality and functionality of the puzzle box, to the shape of the pieces, to the package you receive with your order has been painstakingly thought through; these games are really more like keepsakes, designed to be displayed with pride.
Cofounders Jena Wolfe and Rachel Hochhauser (who also run a creative agency together) started Piecework because they wanted to refresh the humble jigsaw. They adored working on puzzles, but did not feel like there were any out there that spoke to their aesthetic; in contrast, Piecework puzzles feature an array of fun images, from a hot dog-fueled picnic to a fruitful still life.
Alisha Ramos, founder of the popular lifestyle newsletter Girls’ Night In, created Whiled with the notion of “whiling away” in mind. A commonly-used phrase in the Nineteenth Century, to while away means to spend time idly or pleasantly without worrying about productivity. Designed for downtime, each Whiled puzzle is printed on 100 percent recycled matte paper in the USA. We love this breakfast-themed one and this cheerful cityscape.
After working intense hours at a startup, Jiggy founder Kailyn Marcotte used puzzles as a form of nightly meditation. Five years later she started her own puzzle company, which highlights emerging women artists from around the world (such as Olivia Wendel and Sasha Ignatiadou). A percentage of each sale goes to the artist, and each puzzle set comes with clear glue so that you can mount your handiwork when you’re done.
The four cofounders at Puzzledly used their digital marketing backgrounds to give jigsaw puzzles a makeover after struggling to find anything they liked on the market. What sets Puzzledly apart (aside from its beautiful designs—see here and here) is its no-questions-asked piece replacement policy. On top of that, the brand donates $1 for each puzzle sold to Hilarity for Charity, a non-profit organization that provides financial relief to families facing Alzheimer’s.
Fits showcases diverse art from up-and-coming women artists. The brand produces in small batches so that it can constantly feature new creators, and can minimize waste at the same time. To ensure top quality, Fits uses a one-of-a-kind punching tool to make sure every piece fits (get it?) perfectly together. Additionally, each puzzle—we’re eyeing this one and this one—comes with a linen finish so that there’s no overhead glare while you work, and the end result looks beautifully textured.