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THE UUSI DESIGN STUDIO

Custom Playing Cards With Hand-Drawn Art

Uusi was launched in 2010, and is the Chicago-based design studio of artists Peter Dunham and Linnea Gits. For the curious, "uusi" is the Finnish word for "new", and is pronounced oosee; it reflects the feeling of discovery that accompanied the new venture they were embarking on when they began their studio collaboration.

Self-described as having a love for "traditional craftsmanship, material exploration and a search for the essential beauty in every day objects", Peter and Linnea look to combine authenticity and playfulness, while drawing on their wide range of abilities, which include expertise in areas such as fine art, illustration, graphic and interior design, photography and woodworking. With these diverse skills to draw on, they are able to use traditional forms of art and a fusion of styles to create a variety of interesting designs, which includes products ranging from furniture to prints. They've had their work featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, and their art has been used in award-winning advertising campaigns, and exhibited in galleries.



With credentials like that, it may come as no surprise to us to learn that when they turned their hand to creative custom playing cards, they were a big success. In 2012 the Uusi team began a series of decks for which they made a deliberate decision to only use traditional art methods rather than computer generated imagery, being of the conviction that these traditional methods create an emotion or feeling that digital artwork cannot replicate or capture. Their success came as somewhat of a surprise to them because Peter and Linnea were in the first place designers with little experience in the playing card industry. So the fact that their their first deck, Blue Blood, proved to be such a hit on Kickstarter in 2012, was somewhat unexpected to them personally.

This was really their introduction to the custom playing card community, and the enormous support they received spurred them to create more projects. They've come to really appreciate the unique experience of benefiting from the input of backers on Kickstarter, and see it as a platform that offers backers and collectors the excitement of discovering and supporting an exciting deck, while offering creators the feedback and financial support they need to create a deck that takes more risks than might otherwise be possible in the traditional retail market. They went on to create several other beautiful decks, including the popular Bohemia Playing Cards deck, the playful Hot Cakes, the modernist BRuT, and the artistic Pagan.

With a portfolio of several beautiful and artistic custom decks of playing cards, Peter and Linnea have been recognized for their skills numerous times already. In 2015, they were voted Designers of the Year by PlayingCardForum.com. In this year's awards, they've been nominated for Deck of the Year 2017 for Pagan Playing Cards, and as Artist of the Year 2017. DPI Magazine, a leading Taiwanese design publication, recently featured their work, with artwork from their Pagan Playing Cards deck used for the magazine's cover. Their Bohemia deck was also featured in the California lifestyle magazine and in New York Magazine, as well as on numerous design blogs. So let's join the many who have already given them praise for their beautiful and original decks, and check out some of the playing cards they have created! This feature article covers five of the series of six decks that they began creating in 2012.




THE UUSI DECK SERIES

Bohemia

After their first deck (Blue Blood) was sold out, the Bohemia deck was Uusi's second contribution to the world of custom playing cards crowdfunded via Kickstarter. They describe it as follows: "Street art meets Baroque in this luminous, hand-painted deck."

The magnificent and colourful tuck box makes an immediate impression of elegance and colourful artistry. The font used for the lettering of Bohemia is a calligraphic style typical of the Bohemian region.



The artwork for the Bohemia deck was inspired by a rather unlikely pairing: a 17th-century Baroque style combined with contemporary urban street art.

But wow, does this blended mix of old and new in a water colour look ever make an impression! As the publisher describes this unique combination: "Each have a flair for drama, tension and grandeur that when mixed together create one lush, combustible style!"



Added sophistication comes from the swirling lines on both sides of the cards, which helps accentuate the hand-painted feel.

The court cards all have a completely original look, and yet the indices ensure they are immediately identifiable. As a result this eye-catching style is suitable for all kinds of occasions - whether a friendly card game with the family, or in the hands of a skilled magician or card flourisher.



All the artwork is completely hand-painted with gouache paint for the illustrations on every single card.



Every card has big, juicy, hand-painted pips that vary in shades of brilliantly luminous blue for the dark suits of spades and clubs and lushly romantic red for the light suits of hearts and diamonds. This makes every card feel truly unique and a work of art - even the number cards! Normally these can be relegated to a place of obscurity in a deck, but not so here.



The stylish Jokers are wonderfully lively and colourful, and make an appropriate and beautiful addition to this deck. Other extra cards in the deck include a blank card and a promotional Uusi ad card.



In addition to the custom face designs, the deck features colorful card backs that showcase both color and beauty.

Thin borders ensure that the effect of this is maximized in fans and spreads. I also love the background colour used on both the faces and backs of the cards. It's a vintage style light brown, that adds authenticity to the artwork by giving the impression that the vibrant colours are painted on an old canvas that has crossed time.



The Bohemia deck is a true work of art, and worthy of being hung on a wall as a framed uncut sheet, or even being admired one card at a time.




Royal Optik

The third deck in what would eventually become a series numbering half a dozen, is the Royal Optik deck.



This deck was designed to bring together two unique art styles: Op Art, and Woodcut.

The woodcut style is especially evident with the court cards, and was considered ideal for the faces, hands, and weapons, because of its expressive and traditional look. In contrast, the Op Art style has a more precise geometry that proved ideal for creating the shapes, postures, and clothing of the characters. Op Art is a style that relies on optical illusions, and gives the impression of movement by the use of abstract lines in black and white. As Linnea and Peter explain, both the woodcut style and Op Art style together "use negative space to create volume and movement, but differ greatly in how they express it."



The artwork featured on these stunning court cards was a combined effort by both of them, and included pencil drawings, painting, and cut-outs that were then digitally scanned. People that I have shown this deck to were blown away by the court cards in particular, so they are very eye-catching and powerful.



Like the rest of their decks, it is important to the Uusi team that their decks be both artistic and playable, and so they have ensured that the indices and pips are aesthetically pleasing, but also very functional and readable.

The number cards also incorporate customization, with one half of each pip being drawn in the Op Art style, for a completely unique look. Like the Bohemia deck, the pips are all very large and stylish, and yet have a very original look in keeping with the rest of the Royal Optik deck.



Traditional card design elements such as the two one-eyed Jacks, Suicide King (Hearts), and Man with the Axe (King of Diamonds), have deliberately been retained, to preserve the connection with a standard deck.

I'm especially fond of the Ace of Spades, which adds twin tigers that reinforce the idea of lines and stripes. The Jokers also have a very traditional look, with a Pied Piper style figure, who is also given the Op Art treatment that matches the rest of the deck.



Meanwhile the card-backs have a very engaging design that matches the artwork on the tuck box, and looks beautiful in fans and spreads. Like the Bohemia deck, thin borders accentuate the look of cards when they are spread, and the busy patterns of the Op Art patterns on the card-backs create a real sense of movement and inevitably draw the eye. Quality cards with an air cushion finish from USPC ensure super smooth handling, which makes creating these fans and spreads a cinch.



And just as with the Bohemia deck, using a beige background colour instead of stark white is a very wise choice for this deck, because it prevents the artwork from looking garish, and ensures a feel in keeping with an older woodcut style.

Two bonus cards are also included as part of this deck, which combine to make up a delightful diptych picturing a striped tiger. Starting with this deck, this diptych (two cards that make up a single picture) would later become a signature element of all the Uusi decks.




Blueblood Redux

The original Blueblood deck sold out quickly, and so Peter and Linnea decided to return to this successful title, and remake it with some changes, hence the Blueblood Redux deck.

My enthusiasm begins with the exotic tuck box, which relies on an exclusively blue colour palette, carefully drawn with colour pencils. The intricate design is accentuated with carefully placed embossing, for an added touch of luxury. But it's especially the design that is beautiful, especially on the back of the tuck box. The delicate and detailed artwork has the look and feel of denim material but with a high level of detail where subtle differences in colour shades are what distinguishes one detail from the next. It's truly beautiful!



There are some changes from the original Blueblood eck, particularly with the artwork for the court cards. In addition, the pips and indices were redrawn in Uusi's now signature style, two extra cards were added as a diptych, and the Aces upgraded.

There is a story behind the artwork of the Blueblood deck, because each suit has its own character and narrative. Spades represent vision and philosophy, Hearts represent passion, Diamonds represent reason and finance, and Clubs represent deception. I'll share the story as Peter and Linnea tell it for each suit:

Spades: "The oldest and wisest of the monarchies, their King is an eccentric ruler of ancient lineage who is forever deep in profound thought. His Queen is a heavy dreamer lost in nocturnal epics. Their court has seen its first Jack fall in battle and his replacement is a determined warrior of powerful intensity. He is the watchful guard over this somnambulistic kingdom and he will not rest until his comrade's death has been avenged. "



Hearts: "There has been a coup in this kingdom – a once fiercely loyal Jack has forsaken his King. With the help of a predatory comrade their king has been assassinated making the original Jack of Hearts a new and electrified Suicide King. The Jack who takes his place – and has the blood of a king on his sword – keeps a waiting, watchful eye on this new, rogue King. The flirtatious Queen too has been replaced by a glamorous and ambitious woman of the court."



Clubs: "The most dangerous of the blue monarchies, their kingdom rests on an island hidden by clouds and mist. When called forth, these spirit-like, soundless rulers are their enemy's fate star. Spies cannot catch a glimpse of them and the wise cannot strategize against them. Their King is knowing, inaccessible and unpredictable – an extremely dangerous ruler. His Queen is a beauty skilled in the art of deception. So great is she at controlling the thoughts of others, her manipulations go undetected. Their Jack, like his King, is not predictable. He holds to no standards of behavior save what will bring victory."



Diamonds: "The wealthiest kingdom in the Blueblood realm they are the traders, explorers and court politicians. The King is a calculated ruler consumed with his wealth. His Queen holds a secret to her lips that she cannot reveal. Their Jack is a skilled assassin deployed to guard their riches and protect a hidden treasure buried deep within their mysterious lands."



Each suit also has its own court animal depicted on the stylish Ace, such as the Eagle (Hearts), Swan (Clubs), and Peacock (Diamonds).

Notice how all the cards employ different shades of blue - hence the "Blueblood" title of this deck. Even so, the traditionally red and black suits are sufficiently distinct, by use of contrasting light blue and dark blue colours. The pips are the same shape and style as the other Uusi decks, and continue to offer a uniquely hand-painted water-colour look, that ensures that even the number cards can be appreciated as works of art.



Appropriately, the Jokers are a model of opposite moods, one jester being happy, the other being sad.



The card-backs have an intricate bordered design that features various shapes and patterns, including small hearts and the classic paisley shape. Once again thin borders and an off-white/cream canvas add elements of elegance and age.



The diptych ad cards included with the Royal Optik deck proved very popular, and so Uusi continued this signature element in Blueblood Redux, depicting a serpent-like dragon, "a legendary creature who lurks in the deep mists of the Blueblood kingdoms and holds the decks title banner in his powerful claws."




Pagan

The Pagan deck is considered to be the fourth deck in Uusi's series, and is an entirely hand-painted deck. Shown here is the Ivory first edition.



The tuck box is unusual in that it has a unique and complicated foil design, that creates a strong sense of earthy elegance and style.

From the outset, we are confronted with a sense of minimalism that is at the same time filled with rich detail and texture, and lavish touches via intricate embossing and gold foil, and an exquisite golden band that wraps all the way around the deck. Of all the Uusi decks, this one is arguably the most ornate and rich-looking, mainly due to the detailed gold foil accents which highlight the thin ribbons of lines on the patterned artwork, for a truly luxurious look.



Uusi deliberately uses different artistic mediums with each deck, to give them all a distinctive and independent look, and with Pagan that artistic medium is a classic: oil paints. Creating this deck required an enormous investment of time, because every court card was an original oil painting.



The thematic inspiration for the Pagan deck comes from the designers' love for the great forests and lakes in parts of Wisconsin and Michigan. To fully appreciate this deck, you need to imagine the smell and silence of the woods, and the primal experience one might have in a wilderness area deep in the forest.



There is a connection here to the historical pagan beliefs of pre-modern Europe, where a common world-view was to look at life with a pantheistic, polytheistic, or animistic perspective, and where religion was closely connected with nature. This thinking often came to expression in various cultural festivals, customs, and myths, and is reflected in the personification of forest inhabitants like the ones pictured on the court cards.



The number cards feature ornate hand-painted pips that breathe style and elegance. By now these are becoming a recurring feature on all the Uusi decks, but the hand-painted look doesn't quickly wear out its welcome, and the ornately shaped pips are very endearing, so I'm more than happy that Uusi have stuck to this style.



The signature Ace of Spades sets the tone for the deck by depicting a young tree that has been felled in the forest, and yet continues to grow, capturing the idea of being bowed but unbroken. The other three Jokers are all encircled with a halo shaped wreath made up of plants and flowers, to give them a truly artistic feel that is consistent with the natural setting of the entire Pagan deck.

As with all the Uusi decks, the Jokers feature original artwork that fits with the deck's personality and feel, and here they depict a `wild' forest inhabitant.



The back design is a borderless hand-painted design, that has been carefully scaled to match the size of the Bee diamond back pattern.

This is deliberately intended to create the illusion of a repeating pattern when the cards are fanned or spread. Unlike the tuck box, the lines don't have gold foil, but it is nonetheless a very royal look, that creates a sense of movement, much like the shifting shadows and moving branches in a forest, which might be difficult to distinguish from one another.



The artwork used for the diptych on the two extra cards is based on the mythological horse called, "Sleipnir" ("Slippy"), which according to Norse legend is an eight legged horse and favorite steed of the Norse god Odin.



This deck has already been the subject of rave reviews in design magazines and online, and the Blue Pagan deck has been nominated for 52 Plus Joker's "Deck of the Year 2017"; while Linnea and Peter have also been nominated in the "Artist of the Year 2017" category for two releases (winners to be announced on 14 October).

Uusi Classic

After the creation of the burlesque styled Hotcakes (not covered in this review) as their fifth deck, the sixth and final deck in Uusi's series was made. The Uusi Classic deck comes in either a red or a blue version, the only difference being the colour of the card backs.

This beautiful deck features stunning hand-painted artwork that was inspired by era of the Renaissance. The word "Renaissance" literally translates from French to English as "rebirth", and Peter and Linnea wanted to complete their series by celebrating the rebirth of the humble playing card, with their own interpretation of a classic style deck. This classic and traditional look that they were striving for is exactly how the tuck box looks, for despite a mono-coloured style it is nonetheless very ornate and stylish.



The court cards feature characters that are intricately detailed and carefully painted, with a strong historical connection that makes you feel as if you just stepped back into time into Europe during the Renaissance.



The number cards also look very stylish, and it's not often that I've seen a deck that stays true to the classic look of the pips, and yet has a very distinct style of its own as this clearly does. The chunky pips are very clear and functional, and unlike some of the other Uusi decks they are not made with a water-colour style, but are a solid and consistent red and black.



As for the characters depicted on the court cards, these are entirely original, rather than just being a variation of standard court cards. All this helps give the Uusi Classic deck a truly unique and fresh look, while still having a classic feel.



The Ace of Spades also has a very elaborate and ornate design. The deck is rounded out with two beautiful Jokers.



The card backs have delicate hand-painted patterns with a somewhat traditional and classic look, giving a sense of sophistication and style. They look especially lovely when fanned or spread. Once again thin borders help enhance the visual impact of fans, and a beige background helps add a sense of aging that fits the Renaissance era that inspired this deck.



Uusi's trademark diptych is used to add some stunning artwork to an already beautiful deck.

The Uusi Classic Playing Cards are indeed a real and rare treasure, and definitely worthy of their place in a collection.




CONCLUSIONS

Collaboration: Some artists I know personally have told me about the challenges and rewards of collaborating with another artist. On the one hand you need to be flexible in working with another person, especially when that person has their own ideas about an artistic piece, and want to develop things in a direction different than what you had in mind. But on the other hand a collaboration gives the opportunity for two heads to produce something that a person on their own wouldn't have come up with. It allows two creative minds to work together and combine their gifts and talents, drawing on a wider range of skills and talents. Clearly Peter and Linnea have found a way to make their collaboration work, and the beautiful results speak for themselves.

Functional: While I love creative and artistic decks, it's always somewhat of a pity when the creativity gets in the way of a deck's functionality, and as a result it becomes difficult to use when playing card games. The Uusi team are very much aware of this, and so while they want their decks to be artistic, it is equally important to them to ensure that they are playable. For this reason they have gone out of their way to ensure that the pips and indices not only meet high artistic standards, but are easy to read. Furthermore, they have been careful to retain recognizable design elements that have an important place in the history of playing cards, such as the one-eyed Jacks and Suicide King, in order to preserve the connection with a traditional deck. The result is that the Uusi decks are not only beautiful, but eminently recognizable and playable.

Artistic background: Unlike some card designers, the Uusi team of Peter and Linnea are artists and designers first of all, and that means that they bring to the table very real and also very diverse skills from the world of art and design. For them, the world of design is not a hobby, but part of their real-life work, and they can draw on a wealth of experiences from the design world. This has helped them come up with fresh ideas, and also given them the freedom to innovate in ways that depart from cliches that might hamper other designers in the world of custom playing cards.

Hand-drawn artwork: When they first began their series of playing cards in 2012, Peter and Linnea did so with the vision of relying exclusively on traditional art methods and mediums to create the artwork for their decks. In their view, the advent of digital technology has led to the decline of traditional artistic methods. While they readily acknowledge that computer generated imagery offers a crispness and potential hitherto impossible, the history of art is a long one, and is filled with centuries of exquisite hand-drawn artwork, and it is important to retain an appreciation for and connection with these powerful styles. They want to continue this rich tradition, believing that "there is emotion and feeling to a mark made by a person that a computer just cannot replicate and it is this "emotional line" that we wanted to recapture for all our decks." They've certainly accomplished this, and it's one of the reasons for the remarkable appeal of their decks.

Diverse art mediums: With each of the six decks in their series of limited edition playing cards, the Uusi team made a conscious decision to use a new and different art medium. The artwork for the first deck (Blue Blood), was created exclusively with color pencils. Bohemia employed gouache to portray a "lush, expressive quality". The third deck, Royal Optik, relied on pen and ink, and combined woodcut styles with the geometrics of Op Art. The Pagan deck relied on oil paints, each court card originating in an elaborate oil painting. The Renaissance themed Uusi Classic employed a hand-painted style for an entirely different look again. In this way each deck has its own very distinctive look.

Varied designs: As well as using different art mediums, Peter and Linnea also wanted to create six very different hand-drawn decks. Kickstarter was the ideal platform to experiment with different genres and styles, and in their case their efforts at innovation paid off. All the six decks that make up their series have a very different look and feel, both in terms of the art medium used, as well as the style and theme.

Signature elements: Even though the Uusi decks are all quite different, there are some signature elements. First of all, there's the hand-drawn artwork, which feels fresh and original in every case. All the decks feature the same pleasant meeting of artistry and practicality. There are also other details that return, such as using the two additional cards typical for a USPCC deck in order to make an attractive diptych. The size and style of the elegant pips is another common and returning element. The use of a beige background as the canvas for all their designs helps lend a sense of authenticity and aging to the designs, increasing the classic and hand-made feel. While all different, these decks clearly originate from the same source, and bear a kinship in subtle ways.

Original courts: When the custom playing card market began to explode in 2012 with the help of the giant crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, it was still fairly common to depict court cards as variations of the traditional European characters. In many cases, customization was often limited to the tuck box, card-backs, Ace of Spades and Jokers. The unusual royal characters that inhabited the Blueblood deck might seem more than acceptable in today's market, but at the time this was still somewhat revolutionary and daring. Given the very positive reception these received, the idea of creating entirely original court characters for all the decks of the Uusi series has clearly paid off.

Popular designs: Sometimes you just need to be in the right place at the right time, and the remarkable success of the Misc Goods Co deck which I've documented in another article (link) is an excellent example. Similar to that deck, the Uusi decks hit the Kickstarter market just as it was taking off and gaining momentum. While their first project had just under 500 backers, their sophomore effort, Bohemia, attracted over 1500 supporters! From this point on there was no turning back, and with a loyal band of followers, all of their subsequent projects would typically see at least 1000 backers. While in many respects the custom playing card market today is over-saturated, Uusi managed to enter the marketplace at just the right time, and as a result achieved a level of success that would be so much harder to obtain today.

Card quality: Producing limited edition decks that feature high quality and unique art also means that these playing cards deserve a loving treatment in the form of high quality cards. To ensure that their decks have a quality that matches and complements the artwork, Uusi has decided to print all their decks with United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), an industry leader with a solid and established reputation. As a result, these cards are all printed with a quality embossed card-stock, and handle very smoothly and evenly, and shuffle well. The printing registration also seems to be more consistent that sometimes is the case with USPCC produced decks, which is especially important here given the use of narrow borders. They should also last a long time - as beautiful cards like this deserve.



Where to get them? You can purchase these playing cards directly from the publisher Uusi. Most of these decks are also available from Rare Playing Cards.

Recommendation

The custom playing card market today is starting to feel crowded, and once you've been immersed in it for a while, things can start to seem somewhat stale at times. But exploring the decks created by Uusi Playing Cards has felt like a breath of fresh air, due to the artistic and creative minds that have conceived and generated these genuinely beautiful decks. All of them feel quite different, and yet have a rich and classic feel that is full of elegance and charm, and yet where the artwork doesn't get in the way of using these lovely cards for an actual card game.

I think I'm falling in love. And once you see these decks for yourself, perhaps you will too.



Want to learn more?
Uusi Playing Cards: www.uusi.us
Playing Card Online Store: www.uusi.us/collections/uusi-playing-cards

Direct links for the decks featured in this review:
- Bohemia
- Royal Optik
- Blueblood Redux
- Pagan
- Uusi Classic




BoardGameGeek reviewer

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Amy (Other Amy)
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Loved this selection.
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Awesome write up!

Really loved the Bohemia set, we have a blue deck and a red deck. They are our go to decks!

The Pagan deck was ok, but ended up not interesting me as much as I thought - more a comment on my tastes.

Was flat out disappointed in the Eros decks (playing and tarot).
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Congratulations to the Uusi team, Linnea Gits and Peter Dunham, for winning the 2017 Diamond Award for Playing Card Artist of the Year, for their Blue Pagan and Hyde Park Mouldings decks!

This award was just announced earlier this month at the 52 Plus Joker Convention in Kentucky (see a full report on the convention here). There was a strong list of nominees, so this is a wonderful accomplishment!

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