In 1994, reigning master of sleight of hand Ricky Jay crystalized my fascination with playing cards when he brought his unique brand of legerdemain to New York City. Together with playwright David Mamet, they produced the Off-Broadway show Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants.
With his supporting cast of ordinary playing cards, he elevated popular vaudevillian magic to an erudite event of fine art, craft, and uncanny manual dexterity. As a renowned historian and collector of all things magic, his act also included scholarly tales of legendary conjurors delivered in a florid banter to inform and misdirect his willing participants on stage. Sadly, Jay died in 2018, but fans will long remember his gifts. We once spent an afternoon together, and I learned he was a film actor, master calligrapher, author and publisher who greatly appreciated graphic design and fine printing. He created a real collector’s item in the form of his periodical, Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, featuring special die-cuts, foils, and embossing.
Designers (me included) have an almost fetishistic relationship with playing cards. Their compact size, color, precision, silky finish, sharp edges, rounded corners, symmetrical design, flexibility, sound, and meticulous production make them irresistible. They are “high touch” objects of desire. Even legends like Charles Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright were tempted by their allure and offered modern interpretations of the classic model incorporating photography and geometric abstraction. In addition, the universal cultural appeal, embedded math, symbolism, graphic simplicity, and historical resonance of playing cards offer countless ways to entertain and serve as a visual “hook” for design.
I’ve relied on this conceptual device periodically for posters and, most recently, a Valentine’s Day greeting on Instagram.
One exercise I use in the design workshops I teach begins with asking students to pick a card from a deck and brainstorm a brand, product, campaign, or illustration based on their selection. Drawing a seven of hearts might inspire a new brand of daily vitamins, while an ace of spades becomes a book jacket for an international spy thriller.
For the card aficionado, there’s an entire subculture of super-talented designers and illustrators who create elaborate collectible decks. These creations have a high degree of tactility with their foil stamping, specialty paper, intricate embossing, varnishes, holographic finishes, and insanely detailed filigree. All this attention to handcraft challenges the current fascination with AI-generated imagery delivered via the lifeless touch of a digital screen. In these examples, the “pips, court cards, and tuck cases” are the basic framework for fantastically muscular design expression where more is more.
If your taste leans toward cool, reductive modernism, these designs might have little appeal, but the degree of technical skill is undeniable. Furthermore, when you explore the world of professional magicians and “card mechanics,” the production features deepen to enhance deception. Double-sided cards, blank backs, card thickness, and “coded systems” on card backs become tools of a specialized trade.
According to my 1930 edition of A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming by Catherine Perry Hargrave, card games were likely invented in China around the 12th century before being introduced to Europe a hundred years later. Card game popularity has had a devoted following ever since. A quick online search will reveal hundreds of possible card games enjoyed worldwide. You might have enjoyed Go Fish as a child, won a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em, and partied with Cards Against Humanity but have you ever played Hucklebuck, Barbu, or Oh Hell?
Despite their mass market appeal, playing cards are highly esteemed, and there are museums and collections in many countries dedicated to the topic. A favorite of mine is Musée Français de la Carte à Jouer near Paris, whose outstanding collection is expertly exhibited in contemporary casework that creates a striking contrast to the vintage examples on display.
After college in 1973, I was hired by Chermayeff & Geismar Associates, the legendary New York design firm that epitomized a multi-disciplinary practice. I was in awe of the firm’s culture, not only because of its world-class clientele, but their large midtown Manhattan office was decorated with fine art and graphic design. One piece that stood out was a poster incorporating an ace of spades that by their former partner, Robert Brownjohn, designed for a Vietnam Peace Moratorium Campaign. It took a while for me to decipher the message, but once I did, I was impressed by its ingenuity, power, and simplicity.
Playing card culture continues to evolve; new masters of legerdemain are now on stage, and card design seems limitless. My views here only scratch the surface of a seductive world deeply connected to history, civilization, art, craft, and community.
Next month: “A 50-Year Perspective on the Future of Design”
Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.
Robert Brownjohn poster courtesy of Eliza & Rachel Brownjohn.