by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame
The Uusi Design Studio
A wonderful thing about the custom playing card industry is that anyone with creative gifts and talent can make an artistic contribution, impress collectors, and produce a successful deck of playing cards. A recent example of this is Peter Robinson, better known under his artist moniker Ten Hundred, an artist whose Vivid Kingdoms Playing Cards came out of nowhere and raised over $2 million on Kickstarter, making it the most funded deck of playing cards ever.
Uusi is the brand of artists Peter Dunham and Linnea Gits, and is a more well-known name in the world of playing cards. But like Ten Hundred, this is a creative team that consists of traditional artists who have successfully made a crossover to custom playing cards. They opted for the brand name Uusi (pronounced oosee), because it is the Finnish word for "new", and captures something of the adventure that they were embarking on with their studio collaboration. Peter and Linnea have expertise with a diverse range of skills that include fine art, illustration, graphic and interior design, photography and woodworking. They use a fusion of styles to create a variety of interesting designs, which includes products ranging from furniture to prints.
In 2012 they began applying their skills to the world of playing cards. They rely on traditional methods of art, convinced that these methods can create an impact that can't be replicated by digital artwork. Their first custom deck, Blue Blood, proved to be a huge hit on Kickstarter, and spurred them to create further projects. In the process, they discovered how valuable a tool this crowdfunding platform really was. It enabled them to engage with supporters, and build up a growing fan base, while creating a product that could be delivered directly to consumers without the need to rely on traditional retail channels and marketing, thus reducing the risk for them as creators.
Their growing success led to an initial series of six lovely custom decks, which was followed by several tarot and oracle decks, along with several further decks. Especially these latter projects are significant in size and scope, and typically take at least 12-18 months to complete. But it's worth the effort and time, and multiple awards confirm the respect they've earned through the beautiful and artistic custom decks of playing cards they have produced. In 2015, they were voted Designers of the Year by 52 Plus Joker's online forum. In the club's annual Diamond Awards in 2017, Uusi's Pagan Deck was nominated for 2017 Deck of the Year, and Uusi took out the award for 2017 Playing Card Artist of the Year, despite a strong list of other nominees. With their credentials established, let's take a look at some of Uusi's most well-known contributions to the world of custom playing cards.
Uusi's Blue Blood deck represented their first experience with Kickstarter and in making a custom deck of playing cards. It was an enormous success, selling out quickly after it was produced.
The stylish tuck box relies on an exclusively blue colour palette, carefully drawn with colour pencils. The delicate artwork almost has the look and feel of denim, but has a high level of detail where subtle differences in colour shades distinguish one element from the next. All the cards employ different shades of blue, hence the "Blue Blood" title.
There is a story behind the artwork of this 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. Each suit also has its own court animal depicted on the stylish Ace, such as the Eagle (Hearts), Swan (Clubs), and Peacock (Diamonds).
The card-backs have an intricate design with borders, and feature various shapes and patterns. The Jokers are either happy or sad, depending on which way they are dealt. Everything has a uniquely hand-painted water-colour look, and even the number cards can be appreciated as works of art.
The Bohemia deck was Uusi's second contribution to the world of custom playing cards. The artwork for this deck was inspired by a rather unlikely pairing: a 17th-century Baroque style combined with contemporary urban street art. But this blended mix of old and new in a water-colour look certainly makes a good impression! Starting with the magnificent tuck box, there is an immediate sense of elegance and colourful artistry.
All the eye-catching artwork is completely hand-painted with gouache paint. There are swirling lines on both sides of the cards, which helps accentuate the hand-painted feel, and looks especially beautiful when the card backs are fanned or spread. A vintage style light brown serves as background on both the backs and faces, adding authenticity to the artwork by giving the impression that the vibrant colours are painted on an old canvas that has crossed time.
The court cards have a completely original look, while retaining immediately identifiable indices to ensure playability and practicality. Courtesy of big, juicy, hand-painted pips, every card feels like a unique work of art. The faces employ shades of brilliantly luminous blue for the dark suits of spades and clubs, and a lush romantic red for the light suits of hearts and diamonds.
The stylish Jokers are wonderfully lively and colourful, and make an appropriate and beautiful addition to this lovely deck. Bohemia is a true work of art, worthy of being hung on a wall as a framed uncut sheet, or simply admired one card at a time.
Uusi's third deck is Royal Optik, which 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, 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. This proved ideal for creating the shapes, postures, and clothing of the characters.
The card-backs have a very engaging design that matches the artwork on the tuck box, with pleasantly thin borders. The busy Op Art patterns on the card-backs create a real sense of movement and inevitably proves attention-grabbing. Just as with the Bohemia deck, using a beige background colour instead of stark white is a wise choice, preventing the artwork from looking garish, and ensuring a feel in keeping with an older woodcut style.
The powerful artwork on the stunning court cards was a combined effort by both team members, and included pencil drawings, painting, and cut-outs that were then digitally scanned. The number cards also feature customization, with a completely unique look achieved by drawing one half of each pip in the Op Art style. As we've come to expect from Uusi, these pips are all very large and practical, yet have a very original look in keeping with the rest of the Royal Optik deck.
I'm especially fond of the Ace of Spades, which adds twin tigers that reinforce the idea of lines and stripes. The Jokers are also quite striking, with a Pied Piper style figure that is also given the Op Art treatment to match the rest of the deck. Starting with the Royal Optik deck, Uusi would begin a tradition to use the two bonus cards offered by the printer USPCC to form a delightful diptych (two cards that make up a single picture), which in this case forms a striped tiger.
Pagan is another deck that was entirely hand-painted. The tuck box is quite different from the previous Uusi decks, and features a unique and complicated foil design, evoking a strong sense of earthy elegance and style. It combines minimalism with rich detail, as represented by the lavish touches of intricate embossing and gold foil. It's arguably the most ornate and rich-looking of all the Uusi decks, and has a luxurious look courtesy of the detailed gold foil accents.
The back design picks up on the gorgeous artwork from the tuck boxes, and is a borderless hand-painted design with a scale reminiscent of the classic Bee diamond back pattern. This deliberately creates the illusion of a repeating pattern when the cards are fanned or spread, and evokes a sense of movement, much like the shifting shadows and moving branches in a forest.
The thematic inspiration for this deck arises from a love for the great forests and lakes in parts of Wisconsin and Michigan. The artwork can best be enjoyed when imagining yourself in a wilderness area, immersed in the sounds and smells of the forest. The pagan beliefs of pre-modern Europe represent another inspiration, harking back to a time where pantheistic, polytheistic, and animistic religions were closely connected with nature. This came to expression in various cultural festivals, customs, and myths, and was often reflected in the personification of forest inhabitants, much like those on the court cards.
Uusi deliberately uses different artistic mediums with each deck in order to give each of them a distinctive and independent look, and in this case oil paints are that artistic medium. Creating this deck was no small undertaking, because every court card was an original painting. Pagan most certainly represents a stunning achievement as a creative work of art.
The number cards feature ornate hand-painted pips that breathe style and elegance. The signature Ace of Spades represents the concept of being bowed but unbroken, by depicting a young tree that has been felled in the forest and yet continues to grow. The natural setting is strengthened with the elaborate artwork on the other three Aces, which feature wreaths made up of plants and flowers. Meanwhile the Jokers picture wild forest inhabitants, in line with the deck's overall feel.
Hotcakes was Uusi's fifth deck, and represents a taste of the burlesque. It was somewhat of a change of direction and tone, and showcases Uusi's versatility in design. Hotcakes was intended to be a more light and fun project, and Peter has stated that it was largely created as a homage to Charles Pry and his classic "naughty" decks.
The style was borrowed from the cartoonish look of 17th century court cards, and combined with the hot-neon colours witnessed during the Pop Art era. Peter did the inking and Linnea did the painting, using tempera paints and markers as a way of evoking a very spontaneous and playful look in keeping with the theme of misbehaving royals. Even the Ace of Spades gets a saucy touch.
The one-way court card designs do mean that this deck is more of an artistic project rather than a practical deck, but that was partly the goal, although oversized indices were still used to ensure playability.
Regardless of how you feel about the faces, it's hard not to fall in love with the exuberance and vibrancy of the borderless card backs. These feature twisting lines, filled with splashes of hot pink, and make for very eye-catching fans and spreads. It's definitely a racy deck designed to get the heart pumping. The limited edition even comes with a "modesty sleeve" for those who find it all a little too much.
The sixth and final deck of Uusi's initial set of six custom decks is Uusi Classic, which comes in either a red or a blue version. The faces of the two decks are identical, and the only difference is the colour of the card backs, which have delicate hand-painted patterns with a somewhat traditional and classic look, giving a sense of sophistication and style.
This beautiful deck features stunning hand-painted artwork that was inspired by the Renaissance era. A beige background helps add a sense of faux ageing to fit the time period. Uusi's goal was to celebrate the rebirth (in French: renaissance) of the humble playing card by offering their own interpretation of a classic style deck.
To strengthen the unique and fresh feel, the characters depicted on the court cards are entirely original, rather than just being a variation of traditional courts. They are intricately detailed and carefully painted, with a strong historical connection that makes you feel as if you just stepped back in time into Renaissance Europe.
The number cards also look very stylish. 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, courtesy of chunky and practical pips. The Ace of Spades also has a very elaborate and ornate custom design, and the deck is rounded out with two beautiful Jokers. It's certainly a real treasure, whether as part of a collection, or for playing card games.
Following the completion of their sixth poker deck around 2014, Uusi began expanding their reach by exploring the world of tarot decks and oracle decks. This represents a different category and caters to a different audience, although there is some crossover appeal. But here they gained the praise of a whole new type of collector, and continued to enjoy strong success with their creative designs.
The first Tarot deck that Uusi created was BRuT Tarot, which they described as a hand-painted, modernist take on the traditional tarot and playing card deck. This deck explores a different sized canvas, with cards that are more elegant in length. The style was inspired by early 20th century modernism, Art Brut, and Brut Architecture, while the imagery was loosely based on the early Marseilles Tarot from the 18th century.
Instead of using cups, coins, wands and swords for the courts, Uusi decided to use modern French suits so that the BRuT deck could remain as multi-functional as possible. The 21 trump cards still provided ample opportunity to explore more traditional tarot themes.
Pagan Otherworlds Tarot
Next up was their Pagan Otherworlds Tarot, which will immediately evoke a familiar vibe for anyone that has seen Uusi's Pagan deck. Like its companion poker-sized deck, it is inspired by imagery and themes from nature. The stunning artwork of the cards from the Major Arcana is particularly memorable and impressive.
Unlike the BRuT Tarot, the courts of this deck don't use French suits, but feature full-sized artwork that makes good use of the space available for attractive illustrations, while the traditional pentacles, swords, wands, and cups are used for the pip cards. It's an 84 card deck that really brings out the best of Uusi's oil paintings.
Like the two previous tarot decks, this "naughty deck" represents another take on the Marseilles Tarot. And much like the artwork from the Pagan poker deck was reprised and expanded in a tarot deck, so the Eros Tarot has echoes of the colourful burlesque courts we saw previously in the Hotcakes poker deck.
The artwork was hand-inked by Peter Dunham and painted with watercolours by Linnea Gits. They opted for a slightly softer and more traditional feel than the Hotcakes deck, despite the very playful and racy look which stretches boundaries.
The Supra Oracle deck represented Uusi's continuing move beyond traditional playing cards, and an exploration of the new territory of oracle decks. These have much less rigid requirements than tarot decks, and are more open ended, although they are also used for obtaining guidance and inspiration for the soul. The Supra deck is described as being loosely based on Jungian psychology and how it mingled with Gnosticism. In a world of increasing technology, Uusi wants us to think about the value of our souls returning to our mystic roots, and to stop and reflect in order to consider our individual identities, rather than run endlessly at a machine-like pace.
The pen-and-ink line work that Peter used for this deck was inspired by masters of the 15th and 16th century, and their traditional line work engravings. This particular deck consists of 56 original oracle cards, all of which picture different concepts like Water, Air, Earth, Fire, Unconscious, Intuition, and Simplicity. A companion 150 page guidebook was created by Peter and Linnea as an add-on.
The Materia Prima deck defies classification somewhat, although it does consist of 84 cards, and is described by Uusi as an artistic tarot. But it can equally be considered an oracle deck, and by Uusi's own admission this deck breaks new ground as a type of oracle/tarot deck. It combines mysticism with science by being based on the elements of the periodic table. The concept is certainly a novel one, and revolves around seeing the periodic table of elements as a cast of characters, each of which plays its own role in the cosmic drama of life, while also being unified and interconnected.
From an artistic point of view, each card represents and depicts a different element, using hand-inked images that are first burned to plate in order to be letterpress printed, and then finished with colour by screen-printing. In this way it seeks to capture scientific truths, but present them in an imaginative and creative way, which allows them to be used as a meditative tool. To help us understand how one might use the periodic table in this way, the Uusi team created another companion guidebook to accompany the deck.
Despite venturing into new territory and exploring new categories like tarot and oracle decks, Uusi hasn't abandoned the world of custom poker decks entirely. Over time they have produced several different versions of their original decks, such as the Blue Blood Redux deck, and a Blue Pagan deck. They also were commissioned to create custom decks of playing cards for clients like Hyde Park Mouldings, and Baha Mar Casino.
Uusi was honoured by being invited to create the 52 Plus Joker 2020 Club Deck, which was another lovely deck that featured hand-inked artwork inspired by earth tones. The cards of this deck are all monochrome in either red or black, and feature a woodcut look.
They followed this up the following year with Republic, which reprises the style and artwork of the Club Deck produced for the 52 Plus Joker playing card club. It's based on Finnish/Nordic folk art and design, and the name is taken from Uusi's home-town in Michigan, where there is a large Finnish community.
Artistic: Unlike some card designers, the Uusi team of Peter and Linnea are artists and designers first of all. This means they have very real skills in the world of art, which they draw on for their designs. There's no doubt that this has enabled them to come up with fresh ideas, and to innovate in ways that depart from cliches that might hamper other playing card designers. They have also found a way to collaborate effectively, combining their skills and strengths, and the beautiful results speak for themselves.
Hand-drawn: Right from the beginning, Peter and Linnea began creating custom playing cards by relying exclusively on traditional art methods and mediums to produce their artwork. In this way they want to continue the rich and lengthy tradition of the history of art, given that it is filled with centuries of exquisite hand-drawn artwork. They've also made a conscious decision to use different art mediums, and have created hand-drawn artwork that requires a variety of artistic techniques.
Diverse: The variety of art mediums used by Uusi ensures decks that look and feel very diverse. The different tools they have employed include colour pencils (Blue Blood), gouache (Bohemia), pen and ink (Royal Optik), and oil painting (Pagan). As a result each deck has its own very distinctive look. The diversity of themes depicted by each deck adds to this sense of diversity. When one then takes into consideration Uusi's exploration of other categories like tarot and oracle decks, the overall diversity of their artistic output is significant.
Functional: Creative and artistic decks have appeal to collectors, but the Uusi team is also aware that it's important to ensure that their decks remain functional for playing card games. 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. They also want to preserve the connection with a traditional deck by retaining the recognizable design elements that have an important place in the history of playing cards, such as the one-eyed Jacks and Suicide King.
Original: When the custom playing card market began to explode a decade ago, many creators were cautious with their level of customization. Even now it remains quite common to limit customization to things like the tuck box, card-backs, Ace of Spades, and Jokers. But rather than merely having court cards that are semi-modified variations of the traditional characters, Uusi hasn't been afraid to offer us genuinely fresh and even unusual royal characters, and to produce decks that have a thoroughly original look and feel.
Popular: The very first Uusi decks had the good fortune of hitting Kickstarter just as this crowdfunding platform was gaining momentum. Their Bohemia deck attracted over 1500 backers, and many of their later decks would generate similar levels of support. They've also won awards, including the illustrious Diamond Award from 52 Plus Joker as Artist of the Year in 2017, as further confirmation of their popularity.
Quality: Limited edition decks with high quality and unique art deserve a loving treatment in the form of high quality cards. The first six Uusi decks were all printed by the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC). Most of their more recent decks have been printed by Expert Playing Card Company (EPCC), another respected industry leader with a solid and established reputation. As a result all of Uusi's playing cards have a quality embossed card-stock, are printed well, and handle consistently and smoothly.
The custom playing card market can feel crowded at times, and is becoming increasingly competitive. Things can even seem somewhat stale for long-time collectors. That is, until an innovative creator like Uusi comes along. Uusi's designs feel like a breath of fresh air, due to the artistic and creative minds behind these genuinely beautiful decks.
All of their decks feel quite different from one another, and yet have a rich and classic feel full of elegance and charm. And perhaps best of all, they are practical enough for me to use when playing card games, where I can appreciate their function as well as their beauty.
Uusi has definitely made a lasting mark, so keep an eye out for what they produce next!
Want to learn more? Visit Uusi Playing Cards.
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.