The history of playing cards reaches far back in time, with the earliest recorded reference found in the literature of 9th Century China. Card design generally adapts according to the needs of the games to be played; they also need to be uniform and durable. Beyond this playing card design changed according to the times and fashions of the regions in which they were used, and also as printing and papermaking technology developed.
Although different countries and games had their own peculiarities, playing card design eventually settled into the conformities of a 52-card deck, also known as the French Deck. This includes four suits – clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades – with 10 number cards and three courts of face cards, the jack, queen and king. Within these constraints there is a huge potential with how the deck is designed and the type of artwork employed.
These two kings are from an astonishingly beautiful set of playing cards designed and illustrated by Ukrainian artist Vladislav Erko. The images and characters are based on Ukraine’s folklore and traditional dress.
Ukiyo-e, which translates literally from Japanese to English as ‘floating world’, is a traditional Japanese art form of woodblock prints and paintings. Ukiyo-e became hugely popular during the Edo Era of the 17th Century, and continued as a popular and influential part of Japan’s culture into the 20th and 21st centuries. This stunning set of playing cards features typical ukiyo-e imagery such as samurai warriors, geishas and scenes from Japanese mythology.
Viennese playing card makers Piatnik produced this exquisitely designed deck in the late 1970s. Danish artist Bjorn Wiinblad, who is probably best known for his ceramic work for Rosenthal and Nymolle porcelain company, designed the colourful stylised characters.
Starbucks presented a deck of ‘Duke for Prez’ playing cards featuring Uncle Duke and other characters from Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip. The deck carries the fictitious campaign for the US presidency of Duke, a character based largely on the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
A portrait of Lancelot from the takes of King Arthur features in this reproduction of a medieval playing card, printed in a book entitled ‘Facts And Speculations On The Origin And History Of Playing Cards’, which was published in 1848.
Playing cards come in all colours, shapes and sizes. Circular playing cards have traditionally been the norm in India, while round and oval playing cards have existed in Europe since at least the 15th Century. This is a more recent deck, from the 20th Century.
This deck of cards from Soviet Russia has a design aesthetic rooted in the Russian Orthodox Church’s tradition of icon painting, with a decorative, jewel-like surface set against a black background. The deck was produced to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Leningrad Playing card factory.
8. Krazy Kat
Krazy Kat features in this card from the All Star Comics Card Game, which was made by Whitman Publishing in 1934. The game features a variety of popular cartoon characters from the 1920s and 30s.
There’s a delightful, psychedelic fluidity to the paintings that decorate these German playing cards from the 1970s.
These playing cards are also German, but from a far earlier age. Germany has a long tradition of making playing cards, which often featured characteristic design elements. Eastern and southern parts of Germany have distinctive cards with suits of Hearts, Bells, Leaves and Acorns instead of the more widespread Hearts, Diamonds, Spades, and Clubs.
A special crooked deck of cards produced by Freed Novelty Inc N.Y.C. in 1969.
12. Dancing Bones
This six of clubs from a late-19th Century pack of playing cards features dancing skeletons, reflecting the artistic tradition of the ‘danse macabre’, or dance of death. The genre uses images of dancing skeletons as an allegory on the universality of death, and was particularly prominent in the late-medieval period but has continued to the present day as a popular thread in art, including playing card design.
These modern playing cards show characters and scenes from Tang Dynasty China. The world’s earliest known playing cards were made during the Tang Dynasty in the 9th Century. In his book The Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang of 868 AD, writer Su E describes Princess Tongchang playing the ‘leaf game’, the first identified reference to playing cards.
These finely crafted playing cards are designed by Prospero Art and feature quotations from Shakespeare along with full-colour illustrations. The pictures are pastiches of old masters such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Millais. The decks are divided into two ‘volumes’, the first featuring dramatic quotations from Shakespeare’s plays and the second a mixture of the Bard’s humorous and scornful insults, as we see on these four cards.
American artist Donald Sultan works across the media of painting, drawing, sculpture and printmaking. He has created a complete deck of cards as aquatint prints with an intriguing minimalist aesthetic, disregarding the identity and stories of the cards and suits and instead focussing on the cards’ geometry and mathematical symmetry.
Artist Siriol Clarry designed this charming deck of cards for John Waddington Ltd in the 1960s. The pack is called The Four Elements, with the suits representing earth, air, water and fire, as seen in these court cards.
Fashion illustrator Connie Lim has produced a very cool deck of playing cards in seductive monochrome with splashes of red. Lim’s imagery combines gothic and Manga styles with dark experimentation.
Russian artist Elena Dolgova, who works under the name of Albicocca, designed this deck of playing cards with sensuous themes from The Arabian Nights.
This beautiful deck features traditional card designs from the Italian region of Piacenza, which are used for playing Scopa, Scopone, Briscola and other ancient Italian card games.
Finally, Sobranie made these simply stunning cards for the 1982 World Bridge Championships. The deck is the result of a collaboration between cigarette and playing card makers Sobranie and 20th Century Russian-French artist Erté. His work encompassed a wide range of fields all characterised by the elegance of the art deco period in which he operated, as we see in these amazing playing card designs.