A transformation deck is a unique deck of playing cards where the pips have been incorporated into a larger artistic image. As an example, the five pips on a Five of Hearts might be transformed into five faces that are part of a larger image picturing five people. Typically these pips use their traditional location on the card and their traditional red/black colours. Decks where the pips aren't in the expected position/colours are sometimes referred to as semi-transformation decks.
In this article I'd like to feature some of the beautiful transformation decks of playing cards that have been created over the years. Many collectors love these decks, and I count myself among them; they are easily among my favourites, due to the incredible creativity and ingenuity that is required.
The practice may well have originated from a parlour game or social pastime, in which cards containing the pips were embellished using pen and ink to create miniature scenes. Playing cards typically didn't have indices on the corners at the time, so the entire card could be used as a canvas.
For example, the pictures shown here are cards that were drawn by hand with pencil by Thomas Walters, on a standard pack of Hunt’s Playing Cards in 1874.
Similarly the art below has been hand painted onto a De la Rue pack of playing cards from around 1890.
Transformation decks have a long history, and it seems to me that this history can be divided into three main phases.
1. 19th century: The first examples of transformation playing cards seem to have appeared in the early 1800s. A beautiful example of a 19th century transformation deck is the famous deck created in 1883 by Andrew Dougherty as a marketing tool for the Murphy Varnish Company, and I'll be showing you images of some cards from this attractive deck below.
2. Late 20th century: Having enjoyed a wave of popularity in the 19th century, by the 1900s the trend in transformation cards largely vanished. Towards the end of the 20th century, however, transformation decks saw a brief resurgence with some notable examples including the Key to the Kingdom deck, the Art for the Earth deck, and the Under the Sea deck - all of which you'll see in this article as well.
3. Modern era: Then we fast forward to the modern era of the 21st century, and particularly the time when the custom playing card industry exploded in 2012 with the advent of Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms. This has made it easier for graphic designers to bring their creations to the marketplace, and as a result over the last five years a number of beautiful transformation decks have appeared. As contemporary examples, I'll be featuring decks by Emmanuel Jose, Ben Jones, and more.
This article is by no means an exhaustive or complete list of all transformation decks that have appeared. But it is intended to be a brief introduction to the genre, and to showcase some of the lovely playing cards of this type that have been created over the years.
The very first complete transformation deck of playing cards was created by J.C. Cotta in 1804. Some have estimated that around 70 different transformation decks were subsequently created throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, which by modern standards is a relatively small number. By the late 19th century colourful and creative transformation decks by Vanity Fair and Harlequin showed pips incorporated into artwork of people dining, skating, playing tennis and riding bicycles.
But in addition to transformation decks, several beautiful smaller sets of transformation cards exist, and the concept already came to life in the form of artwork that predates the very first complete deck.
Early Cards (1801-2)
According to some sources, the first transformation cards were created in 1801 by D.W. Soltan and D. Berger. They consisted of a set of eight copper engraved cards, and pictured scenes from the book "Hudibras" by Samuel Butler. Two examples are shown below:
A set of twelve engraved transformation cards were produced in 1802 by Christoph Haller von Hallerstein. But these were not intended to be a functioning deck of playing cards, but an experimentation with a new form of art.
The same can be said of the sketches and drawings created by Jan Rustem in 1802, which also took artistic liberties with the playing card concept, but which don't appear to be created as a complete deck of playing cards.
John Nixon (1803)
Caricaturist John Nixon published illustrations for the first complete set of transformation cards in 1803 under the title "Metastasis".
This was effectively a published scrapbook, which had concept drawings and coloured images.
Even though this collection wasn't an actual deck of playing cards, it certainly is another step closer in that direction.
As is evident from all these images, it was a good example of the creativity and ingenuity that was already at work in this time.
J.G. Cotta (1804)
The first transformation deck that was published as an actual and complete deck of playing cards was produced by J.G. Cotta in Tubingen, Germany.
The deck was called The Playing Card Almanac (Die Spielkarten Almanach), because each card represented one week of a calendar year, and was published in 1804.
Almanacs were popular at the time, and combining this with playing cards was an obvious move.
This particular deck was designed by Charlotte von Jennison-Walworth.
While the court cards pictured characters from a play by van Schiller, the transformations of the number cards weren't related to this play, but were independent drawings.
H.F. Muller (1809)
Another of the earliest transformation decks is by H.F. Muller of Vienna.
The number cards from this deck have been well described as "delightful period scenes of everyday folks in imaginary stage sets depicted with a subtle sense of humour and excellent characterisation of figures and faces."
Here the pips represent all kinds of things including hats, collars, and bows.
Rudolph Ackerman (1818-19)
In his periodical “Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashion etc”, Rudolph Ackerman included plates of original transformation playing cards, like the ones shown here.
Like many European transformation decks of the time, these typically told the story of "Beatrice of the Fracas".
Caleb Bartlett (1833)
The first transformation deck known to be published in the USA is Caleb Bartlett's creation of 1833.
Bartlett's American produced deck basically borrowed Rudolph Ackerman's designs above, but with brighter and heavier colours.
A. Crowquill (1850)
Under the influence of London's A. Crowquill (a pseudonym for Alfred Henry Forrester), the 1860s saw a brief change in the style of transformation decks, as the pips themselves contained illustrations and intricate designs.
The cards pictured here are from a Crowquill deck printed around 1850.
A deck like this was even designed for the royal wedding of Edward VII by Liverpool's C.B. Reynolds in 1863.
Adolfo Matarelli (1860)
The charming examples shown below are from a colourful transformation deck by Italian Adolfo Matarelli.
This deck was first published in Florence.
Matarelli is a well-known caricaturist who also has the distinction of being the first illustrator for Carlo Collodi's story Pinocchio.
His intriguing transformation deck features colourful street scenes.
George Gordon McCrae (1875)
In a Christmas Annual entitled "On the Cards" or "A Motley Pack" published in 1875, Scottish born poet George Gordon McCrae contributed illustrations for 40 transformed playing cards.
Unlike some transformation playing cards, McCrae has resisted the temptation to turn most of the pips into people, resulting in some very clever and humorous designs.
The pictures were related to the book's story, which was written by the Australian writer Garnet Walch, and undoubtedly accounts for the presence of some Australian animals and characters.
While not a published or complete transformation deck, McCrae's Motley Pack deserves a place in the history of transformation cards due to his creativity.
C.E. Carryl (1879)
By the end of the 19th century, transformations were becoming more colourful and attractive, like the Harlequin Transformation Deck shown here.
This deck was designed in 1879 by C.E. Carryl.
Today it is widely considered to be one of the most skillful and artistic of the American transformation decks.
Murphy Varnish (1883)
This beautiful and iconic deck was originally printed in 1883 by Andrew Dougherty.
It was created as an advertising deck for the Murphy Varnish company from Newark, New Jersey, and is famous for its humour and clever artwork.
As an advertising deck it also depicts comical pictures of varnish salesmen, people worshiping cans of varnish and all of the good uses for the Murphy Varnish.
The pips have been cleverly incorporated as part of larger images that depict scenes filled with warm humour.
Even though it was a promotional product, it remains a stunning example of a beautiful and creative transformation deck from the time.
The good news is that Home Run Games has lovingly restored it in the beautiful new edition pictured above, making this classic deck readily available for collectors today. The restored version has been printed by United States Playing Card Company with their usual air cushion finish, so the cards are durable and high quality cards that look great and handle well. You can obtain it directly from the publisher, Home Run Games, here.
Joseph Clayton (1887)
Freelance artist Joseph Clayton was very fond of author Charles Dickens. Under the pseudonym "Kyd", in 1887 he published in Fleet Street Magazine illustrations featuring characters from the Dickens' classic "Pickwick".
Evident in the Pickwick deck is the Crowquill style of incorporating images within the pips themselves.
Clayton's illustrations were later published as a deck of playing cards by the Navarre Society in 1982.
Vanity Fair (1895)
The Vanity Fair Transformation deck was published in 1895 by the United States Playing Card Company.
While the two-way court cards were also turned into comic figures (e.g. one is smoking a pipe, another holding a spoon), the real attraction of this deck lies in the number cards with transformation art, like the ones shown here.
The star of transformation decks was beginning to fade somewhat at this time, but this deck remains a great example of what the genre could produce.
LATE 20TH CENTURY
After fading into obscurity for most of the 1900s, there was some resurgence of interest at the every end of the 20th century in the 1990s and early 2000s. This period saw the creation of a few landmark transformation decks, including some of those featured here.
Evident in some of the transformation decks from this era is a greater flexibility used in the placement and style of the pips. This semi-transformation style gave opportunities for more creativity and variety.
Circus (1989) by Frank Robert Schick
Frank Robert Schick created this transformation deck in 1989 using a circus theme, including clowns and musicians.
The pips have been transformed into humorous animals and other circus act figures.
This charming deck was made by Carta Mundi in Belgium.
Only 1000 copies were made in a limited edition.
Art for the Earth (1990)
The Art for the Earth deck is a very well known transformation deck.
It was published around 1990 by Andrew Jones Art for Friends of the Earth.
All the cards of this deck are by different artists.
Just as with Schick's Circus deck, this was produced by Carta Mundi.
Key to the Kingdom (1992) by Tony Meeuwissen
Tony Meeuwissen's Key to the Kingdom deck was published by Pavilion Books Ltd in 1992.
This transformation deck features illustrations that are inspired by traditional nursery rhymes and poetry.
Strictly speaking it is a semi-transformation deck because the pips are not in their conventional positions.
This stunning deck deck was commissioned by London's V&A Museum of Childhood, hence the nursery rhyme theme.
It won the WH Smith Literary Award for best illustration and The Designers and Art Directory Association of London gold award.
The cards were sold with a book containing each poem and a picture of the corresponding card on the opposite page.
Additionally, the deck was constructed as a puzzle contest laid out in the form of an original poem.
The poem gave clues to pick certain cards, which then could be decrypted into a secret message (solution here). The prize of $10,000 and a golden key was won by Susan Kavanagh of Essex.
EPCS 10th Anniversary (1993) by Karl Gerich
The English Playing Card Society's 1Oth Anniversary Transformation pack was designed and produced by Karl Gerich.
It also took English nursery rhymes as its theme.
To ensure that it was an authentic transformation deck, Gerich retained the traditional position for all the pips, and ingeniously incorporated these into the artwork.
This deck is an absolute masterpiece of creativity!
Teddy Bear (1994) by Peter Wood
The Teddy Bear deck is a custom deck created by Peter Wood.
This transformation deck was inspired in part by the teddy-bear collection of Peter's wife.
All the numeral cards show teddy bears in unexpected or unusual situations, interacting with the pips.
It was published by Andrew Jones Art in 1994, the same publisher that had earlier produced the Art for the Earth deck.
As with its predecessor, these playing cards were also manufactured by Carta Mundi.
Teddies enjoy themselves both at the beach and in the snow!
There is an excellent variety among the images included.
The attention to detail is beautiful!
2000 Pips (1999) by Peter Wood
Like the Teddy Bear deck, the 2000 Pips deck of playing cards was created by Peter Wood, and was limited to just 1000 copies.
Once again, this is another example of an outstanding transformation deck which demonstrates real creativity.
All the pips are cleverly transformed into a vibrantly colourful picture which is unique to each different card.
Peter Wood's love of the natural world is clearly evident, especially insects, flowers and garden objects, fruits and animals.
The artwork is almost scientific in its observation, and the careful observer will be rewarded with small and charming details.
Lovers of plants, animals, and nature will especially appreciate it.
Under the Sea (2005)
The Under the Sea deck of playing cards was published in 2005 to raise money for the Marine Stewardship Council, an environmental charity which promotes sustainable fishing practices.
Once again this is another fine example of a beautiful transformation deck, in which the pips are incorporated into the artwork.
54 contemporary artists and illustrators were commissioned to create images for the deck, each one donating artwork.
With this deck, the transformations do retain the traditional positions of the pips on the cards (apart from the jokers and court cards).
The variety of styles of illustration and design results in a set of cards that is very eclectic in style, but remains visually enchanting.
All the images relate to the "Under the Sea" theme in some way.
It's a charming and yet beautiful deck!
THE MODERN ERA
The custom playing card industry really took off in 2012 with the arrival of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, and today is a thriving marketplace that is flooded with a plethora of amazing designs.
While the market today is in many respects crowded and fiercely competitive, the last five years have seen some beautiful transformation decks come into print. Some of these have been produced by larger publishers like Art of Play (e.g. the Ultimate Deck). Others have been created by individual designers like Emmanuel Jose and Ben Jones, who have capitalized on the new marketplace to publish creative designs that otherwise might never have seen the light of day.
Curator (2011) by Emmanuel Jose
Begining in 2011, Emmanuel Jose produced a series of several decks using his remarkable technique of paper cutting.
Setting himself a goal of creating one card a week, he began a very intensive project that required an enormous amount of work, but the results were stunning.
The Curator project was followed by several other decks using the same technique: Clipped Wings (2012), Sawdust (2013), and Delicious (2014), each of which was crowdfunded with Kickstarter.
Clipped Wings (2012) by Emmanuel Jose
Emmanuel Jose's next project, Clipped Wings (2012), was inspired by birds.
As with his previous deck, it employed a remarkable paper-cutting technique, and was created over the course of an entire year.
Sawdust (2013) by Emmanuel Jose
The next project from Emmanuel Jose was Sawdust (2013), and was inspired by the circus.
While not all of the pips in Emmanuel's designs are incorporated into the artwork, those that are included have been cleverly interwoven as part of a larger scene.
An extra feature of this deck is the court cards, which make up a triptych, and which shows a different picture when reversed.
Delicious (2014) by Emmanuel Jose
The final transformation deck from Emmanuel Jose is Delicious (2014) was inspired by food and cooking.
The artwork covers everything from the kitchen mixer to the kitchen stove, and even features popcorn!
Once again the court cards make up a panoramic picture.
Ultimate deck (2012)
The Ultimate deck was produced by Art of Play's Dan & Dave, in collaboration with award-winning design firm, Stranger & Stranger, and features different images by a range of artists.
Many of the cards take considerable liberties with the location and style of the pips, so strictly speaking this would be considered a semi-transformational deck.
The Dan & Dave team describe the concept as follows: "Every single card in the Ultimate Deck is represented with a story, incorporating classical art, as well as works from todays leading illustrators."
Some cards may look a little macabre or dark, but the majority of the artworks are simply gorgeous and attractive images.
This deck is available from Art of Play here, who also makes available an attractive uncut sheet.
Odd Bods (2012) by Jonathan Burton
This Odd Bods deck is exactly that - odd, but artistic!
Each of the court cards is given a unique character, but more importantly for our purposes, a transformation style is evident throughout, especially in the oversized aces.
The number cards feature pips that have been turned into creatures or are interacting with unusual objects, showing a range of activities and movement..
The artist behind this deck is Jonathan Burton, who was commissioned to design these cards in 2012 by the Folio Society, and he has has given each character its own unique and quirky personality.
The Joker also shows that one never knows what to expect in this imaginative and most unusual world!
People quickly fell in love with this quirky deck when it first came out, and it's not hard to see why! This deck is available from Rare Playing Cards here.
EclecDeck (2013) by Dave Ufford
The EclecDeck was created by Dave Ufford in 2013 with the help of Kickstarter supporters.
Dave's drawings do have a somewhat crude look, and appear to be hand-drawn with markers.
Nonetheless there are some great examples of creativity on display in this deck, with the two cards here being among my favourites.
Seen here are images that show some real ingenius use of the pips, in ways I haven't seen before.
While this deck might not match the polished artistic standards of some of the other decks of the modern era, it still shows a real willingness to innovate and imagine, which is what transformation decks are all about.
Pipmen (2016) by Ben Jones
"Pipmen" is a term Ben Jones from Elephant Playing Cards has coined for the characters on his cards, which explains as a combination of Pips with Stickmen.
Typical of the decks he designs are "little stickmen figures interacting with the pips to create a unique scene."
Ben produced his Pipmen decks with the help of Kickstarter, and has since gone on to produce several different editions of these wonderfully creative decks.
It's a brilliant concept, and Ben has done some terrific work in creating these, as you can see from the examples below.
These cards are also very functional and playable, with very clear indices.
While most of the cards from the Pipmen deck feature black, red, and white, some incorporate a wider range of colours.
Pipmen Shadow (2016) by Ben Jones
In addition to the standard Pipmen decks, which all have white faced cards, a Pipmen Shadow edition was also produced.
This uses black cards, and while it retains the same artwork for the most part, it effectively reverses the colours for a completely different look.
One notable exception is that the colour red is retained for the traditionally red suits, while the use of white for the traditionally black pips ensures that there can be no confusion between the suits, to ensure that this deck remains very playable..
Pipmen World (2017) by Ben Jones
The Pipmen decks are already amazing in themselves, but get even better with the Pipmen World deck. As with the earlier Pipmen decks, every single card in this deck is a self-contained picture.
For example, notice the adventurous Pipmen climbing the snowy mountain on the left, and the hard-working Pipmen digging tunnels below the earth on the right.
Here we have some Pipmen divers, and a brave or foolish Pipmen flying a hang-glider in an electrical storm.
But now for the fun part: Ben has designed the artwork so that all the individual cards can be put together to form a single giant panoramic image! So when the cards are placed alongside each another, they produce a larger picture, which you can see starting to take shape below.
This is what we call a polyptych - which is a picture that consists of several individual parts, that can be put together in order to make a larger single picture. Each individual card certainly looks great on its own - as shown here with some Pipmen balloonists, and a romantic Pipmen couple enjoying the moonlight.
But when you put the cards together on the table to make a single larger image (polyptych), they look even more stunning.
Here more examples from this deck, this time featuring an ocean scene, and including details both above and below the water.
After the incredible success of the Pipmen World deck, Ben Jones also produced a Full Art edition of Pipmen World, which has the same artwork as the original, but eliminates the distraction of any borders, to heighten the polyptych effect, and make the panoramic effect even more impressive!
What do I think?
Creative: The beauty of transformation decks lies in the creativity and ingenuity required to make them. The requirement to incorporate pips into a larger design is a huge restraint that artists have to work with. Being able to do this in a way that is imaginative and original is a real challenge. As is evident from the many examples, there are some wonderful works of art that have emerged as a result.
Collectable: Obviously many of the older transformation decks are not readily available. Many of these are collector's items, and fetch high prices. Even the beautiful decks from the late 20th century are not readily available anymore, and many of these are also prized items for those fortunate enough to own them.
Playable: While the prime appeal of these decks lies in their artistic merit, there are also some that have been produced, particularly in the modern era, that are just as functional as they are beautiful. This is particularly true of the decks created by Emmanuel Jose and Ben Jones. These designers have very deliberately tried to create decks that can still be played at the card table, and even though their decks show great creativity and imagination, they are very readily usable for playing a traditional card game.
Creatable: Are you an artist or designer that has some good ideas for transformation playing cards? As the last five years have made clear, the custom playing card market is alive and well. In the modern era of crowdfunding, anyone with a truly good idea and talent has the potential to be successful, if they're willing to put in the work to do the design, marketing, and fulfilment, or to partner with an existing publisher that can help with this. While competition in this marketplace remains tight, successes like the transformation decks created by Emmanuel Jose and Ben Jones show that creative and beautiful transformation decks will almost certainly find buyers and the support needed to make them become a reality.
Where do you get them?
While the vast majority of these decks are not readily available, the good news is that if you would like to add some transformation decks to your collection, there are certainly some places where you can get some of these, although your choices are mostly limited to those of the modern era, with one notable (and beautiful) exception. Some crowdfunded decks were only available via the Kickstarters that produced them, but fortunately there are some that have made it to retailers or can be purchased directly from the publishers, and can also be found on sites like Amazon and eBay.
- Murphy Varnish deck (1883): available from Home Run Games in a beautifully restored edition (link). Cost: $13-$21
- Ultimate deck (2012): available from publisher Art of Play (link). Cost: $25
- Odd Bods deck (2012): available from Rare Playing Cards (link). Cost: $15
- Pipmen deck (2016): available from publisher Elephant Cards (link) and Amazon (link). Cost: $12
- Pipmen World deck (2017): available from publisher Elephant Cards (link) and Amazon (link). Cost: $14
Recommendation: While I enjoy all kinds of custom playing cards, I especially have a soft spot for transformation cards. The examples above show something of the creativity and ingenuity this genre requires. With the new possibilities for publishing playing cards that crowdfunding has opened up in the last half a dozen years, here's hoping that we'll see many more beautiful designs emerge in years to come.
Credits: I have benefited from many sources in the making of this article, but I'd particularly like to acknowledge World of Playing Cards and BoardGameGeek user Geni Palladin.
Author's note: A revised form of this article was later published at PlayingCardDecks.com here.
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- Last edited Tue Jul 3, 2018 1:02 am (Total Number of Edits: 4)
- Posted Mon Oct 2, 2017 1:40 am
Except Colt Express!
"Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so." Douglas Adams
Ender, Have you ever come across any transformational Pinochle decks?
The best games ingeniously blend Euro and Ameritrash styles
THE CAKE IS A LIE !!!
Wow, that was an interesting read.
Thanks for writing this enlightening article
Thank you for such an interesting post!
Ender, Have you ever come across any transformational Pinochle decks?
No I haven't Mike, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. From what I gather, Pinochle originated from the French game Bezique, and was popularized in the United States in the early 1900s after being brought to the Americas by German immigrants. Quite a number of transformation decks were made in the 1800s, but by the time a custom 48 card Pinochle deck was developed in the 1900s, transformation decks weren't really in vogue, and only reappeared again at the end of the 20th century.
So if my history is correct, that would possibly account for the absence of transformational Pinochle decks. A standard 52 card deck is more versatile and has a longer history, as do some of the smaller European decks, and that's why these seem to have been the decks of choice for making transformation cards.
Just do it !
Wow, thanks for this awesome post!
Awesome article. I collect cards and I have all of the Pipmen cards. I'm always fascinated by the old decks that are out there that you never get to see, thanks for putting this together.
Just to supplement this article, I recently became aware that Peter Wood, designer of the Teddy Bear (1994) and 2000 Pips (1999) decks featured in this article, has also created several semi-transformation decks in the 2000s for Newts Playing Cards.
These are the following:
- Wild (2003)
- Busy Bears (2007)
- Newtropolis (2013)
Wild deck (2003)
The first two of these decks are a "Seek and Find" concept, where the pips have been hidden throughout the artwork. For example, the 7 of Diamonds has 7 Diamond pips cleverly incorporated into the artwork, while the 10 of Spades has 10 Spade pips hidden. Unlike a normal transformation deck, where the pips are deliberately obviously, in this deck these are somewhat hidden and disguised, and it's part of the challenge to find them.
A second challenge that these two decks offer is that tiny snails (Woody) are hidden throughout the deck, and your mission is also to find as many as you can. As an example, see the snail crawling on top of the 5 of Clubs, which also has five club pips hidden in the artwork.
Busy Bears deck (2007)
The Busy Bear deck pictures a "Busy Bear", wearing different types of uniforms and in different work settings and occupations. Examples include the Busy Bear pictured as a firefighter, truck driver, farmer, housewife, dentist, zoo keeper, doctor, forest ranger, librarian, and many more. Each occupation is stated on the card.
These also have pips disguised in the artwork, like the cards shown below.
Newtropolis deck (2013)
The Newtropolis deck features Heroes versus Villains, each with unique super powers.
Once again, pips are incorporated into the artwork.
So see more pictures and read more information about these three decks, see the separate article that I have posted here:
- Last edited Mon Apr 30, 2018 3:24 am (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Mon Apr 30, 2018 3:24 am