Jesse Rothman shows a customer at Laguna Mountain Toys how one of his puzzles works. (Photo by Claire Jones)

Arts and Entertainment

The ‘perfectly imperfect’ Laguna Mountain Toys handmakes creations for generations

In the garage of their Laguna Beach home in 1987, 3-year-old Jennifer Kucera watched her father Don carefully shape a piece of wood into one of the mechanical puzzles that he created with his wife Lee. Around 32 years later, Jennifer Kucera, her husband Jesse Rothman and their 2-year-old daughter Janelle find themselves doing the…
<a href="" target="_self">Claire Jones</a>

Claire Jones

July 26, 2019

In the garage of their Laguna Beach home in 1987, 3-year-old Jennifer Kucera watched her father Don carefully shape a piece of wood into one of the mechanical puzzles that he created with his wife Lee.

Around 32 years later, Jennifer Kucera, her husband Jesse Rothman and their 2-year-old daughter Janelle find themselves doing the same for their generational toy company, Laguna Mountain Toys. Together they offer toys for children and adults to enjoy while maintaining their family values.

They sell them as part of the annual Sawdust Art & Craft Festival, held from the end of June to early September in Laguna Beach.

For most of the year, Jennifer Kucera and Jesse Rothman are teachers, but in the summer they turn their full attention to Laguna Mountain Toys — the only toy booth at Sawdust, which otherwise specializes in paintings, sculpture and other arts.

Laguna Mountain Toys’ booth at the Sawdust Arts & Crafts Festival in Laguna Beach. (Photo by Claire Jones)

“Living in Laguna, you have two things that you can do in the summer — you can complain about the tourists or find some way to get involved,” Lee Kucera said.

Lee Kucera started the company in 1977 by making puzzles out of beads, string and tongue depressors that she drilled, sanded and painted. Her mechanical puzzles are tactile games that focus on detangling knots or shifting pieces around.

She first drew inspiration from handmade wooden toys she called “mountain toys,” along with puzzles she purchased at craft fairs while visiting her grandparents in North Carolina, where she grew up.

“When I was trying to figure out what to do for the Sawdust, it dawned on me,” Lee Kucera said. “If I bought puzzles then maybe somebody else would too.”

One of Lee Kucera’s customers would later become her husband.

Don joined in 1982 and the company took off. For example, he helped transition from tongue depressors to real wood.

“It ended up being a huge hit — more so than she ever imagined,” Jennifer Kucera said at this year’s festival. “She met my dad and he really brought in new resources, new tools. He brought in the new forefront of the company. He discovered his love for puzzles as well.”

Jennifer Kucera said they spent time as a family making puzzles every Saturday morning for years.

“I was raised in a toy workshop,” Jennifer Kucera said. “I was just a part of the creating process — I was actually hands-on.”

After Don Kucera died in 1998, the family continued to sell at Sawdust until 2004. Then they took a hiatus so Jennifer could focus on school and her mother on teaching.

“It was just me manufacturing the puzzles,” Lee Kucera said. “It just wasn’t as fun to do without my husband.”

Jennifer Kucera said the company had become something synonymous with her father.

Jennifer Kucera married Rothman in 2013 and had Janelle in 2016. When they moved close to the Sawdust Festival grounds, they decided to start the company again.

Although they wanted to appeal to Laguna Beach residents, they also wanted to create something special for their daughter.

“Janelle now says, ‘Dad, I want a boat,’” Rothman said. “And now we have boats. She inspires some of the toys now.”

They hope they can inspire their daughter to someday take the reins as Jennifer Kucera did and be a third-generation toymaker, according to their website.

“It’s nice to have something so unique for our daughter to hopefully embrace one day,” Jennifer Kucera said.

The puzzles and games include 3D tic-tac-toe boards, colorful ring towers — where the tower needs to be re-stacked on a new peg without losing its color pattern — along with bead counters to help teach counting and basic math to children.

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They continue to sell a majority of their toys at their booth in the front of the Sawdust Festival.

When elementary school teacher Ari Klusmeyer visited their booth at the festival this year, she asked Rothman to give her the solution to a puzzle she purchased from Laguna Mountain Toys 15 to 20 years ago. He gave her a hint but didn’t want to reveal the answer.

“I put it in my classroom because it keeps [the students’] attention,” Klusmeyer said. “I thought they could figure it out because I couldn’t. I had two boys who always kept trying but they couldn’t do it.”

Klusmeyer hadn’t returned to the booth since she bought her first puzzle but came back to buy two more to add to her classroom.

“They look so simple, yet they’re very complex,” Klusmeyer said.

When Maritza Espiritu and her date stopped by their booth at the festival, they decided to try out the People Puzzle, a puzzle where two partners have to untangle themselves without removing the string from their wrists.

“It was great for us to figure out the puzzle together,” Espiritu said. “I really enjoy the toys they sell because I’m all about a challenge and that’s exactly what the Laguna Mountain Toys provide. It’s a wholesome activity for all ages and occasions.”

Espiritu said she plans to return to buy a puzzle for her September road trip.

There are many new toys that have been added to their selection.

Much like his father-in-law, Rothman has turned the family home’s garage into a workshop where he spends time creating new products to help expand the business.

“Jesse’s influence has brought in more toys instead of puzzles,” Lee Kucera said. “The generation today is willing to pay for the quality and Jesse has really taken advantage of that.”

Although some of the puzzles and family values are still the same, Jennifer Kucera and Rothman have had to find new ways to market the products to people, including moving online.

They said they have to make sure their website appeals to customers and has the highest quality photos so that people can understand what their products are.

“Our challenge is communicating the puzzles to someone who hasn’t seen them before,” Jennifer Kucera said.

Another challenge is competition with other toy companies. Mass-produced plastic toys are accessible in stores in every city, whereas Laguna Mountain Toys can only be found online or at the Ranch, a hotel and spa in Laguna Beach.

“There’s a place for all different kinds of products,” Jennifer Kucera said. “But people want to invest in our pieces because they do see that lifelong piece. They do see handing it down to their littles.”

Unlike toys that are produced and sold in large quantities, none of Laguna Mountain Toy Co. products look exactly alike. Rothman said even the same toys come out looking different each time because of variations in the wood.

“As one guy put it, ‘They’re perfectly imperfect,’’’ Rothman said. “So each piece is unique, and each grain pattern is unique on the wood. It just depends on where the tree was cut and where I’m cutting from that piece of wood.”

Their toys can be seen as a token from a trip to the Sawdust Festival. Whereas much of the other art at the festival costs from $200 to $5,500, they charge $15 to $30 for puzzles, games and toys, and from $35 to $100 for puzzle packs.

Over time, Rothman said he has become efficient in the creating process, but there’s still a lot of time and energy needed to make each toy.

Jesse grew up woodworking with his dad in Louisiana and later moved to Anaheim.

“My dad liked to make gum ball machines,” Rothman said. “It took me a while to figure out how to make these specific products. It was definitely a learning curve.”

They find time to make toys during holidays and breaks. In the summer, Rothman spends weekdays in the garage.

The time to make each toy ranges from a few minutes to a few days. Rothman said he can spend around eight hours a day making toys when he’s not working.

Still, Rothman and Jennifer Kucera said it’s difficult to find a balance between work, being parents and making the toys but have found a way to efficiently split the time.

However, in the end, they said they wouldn’t let it distract them from what they consider important.

“Family first is our big piece,” Jennifer Kucera said. “We can get frustrated about the purpose and cause of what we’re doing versus our family. We prioritize our daughter.”

Laguna Mountain Toys provides a lifelong memory of Jennifer’s father and creating a shared identity for her family now.

And who knows — when the year 2048 comes around, maybe it will be Janelle selling toys at the Sawdust Festival with a family of her own.