Card Games

Designer Spotlight: Karin Yan

In previous articles we’ve taken a look at some well-known brands and well-known playing card manufacturers. We’ve also focused on a few well-known playing card designers and creators like Alex Chin (Seasons Playing Cards) and Randy Butterfield (Midnight Playing Cards). In this article I want to introduce you to a lesser known designer, although perhaps you’ll have come across her spectacular work courtesy of her beautiful deck designs. So let’s go ahead and meet Karin Yan, who is the designer behind Bona Fide Playing Cards.

Who is Karin Yan?

Karin Yan is the creator and designer behind playing card publisher Bona Fide Playing Cards, which she runs together with her siblings. But it’s Karin who is the creator and artist who comes up with the playing card designs. She has an enthusiasm and passion for art, and drawing and design is something she has long enjoyed as a hobby. She loves the creativity and versatility that this offers, and is particularly drawn to classic drawings and designs. That’s evident in her series of Nouveau decks, for example, which features a design style that goes back to the roots of French playing cards, and is also inspired by the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th century.

The name of the company is derived from the Latin phrase bona fide, which literally means “in good faith“. In the English language this expression has come to mean genuine, real, and sincere. This is linked to their objective and goal: “We put great effort and interest in every single detail because we value the meaning behind an intricate and unique design.” As evidence of Karin’s success under the Bona Fide label is the fact that one of her designs was chosen by the UnitedCardists forum for the annual deck in 2016.

In this article I’ll give an overview of Karin’s main playing card designs, and introduceou to her exquisite work and art.

Nouveau decks

Our journey into Karin Yan’s world of Bona Fide Playing Cards begins with the Nouveau Playing Cards, which is a set of several decks with similar design features. Nouveau is a French word meaning new, fashionable, newly arrived or developed. The decks of this series are in part inspired by the Art Nouveau style of 19th century France, and as well as the court cards that were typical of the very first French style playing cards.

● Nouveau

The original Nouveau deck is the first and main Nouveau deck. It had the distinction of being selected as official United Cardists 2016 Annual Deck, and this honour is reflected on the embossed tuck box.

This deck has two main influences. Firstly, it depicts the characters that have been traditionally featured in French-style playing cards since the 16th century. Secondly, it uses a style that has its origin in the philosophical and artistic Art Nouveau movement, which was popular in France in the late 19th century. This style can be described as “a style of decorative art, architecture and design promoted and popularized in Paris in the late 19th century and characterized by intricate linear designs and flowing curves based on natural forms.

Designer Karin Yan turned to France in order to choose an artistic style to use for two reasons: firstly because the Nouveau decks are intended as a tribute to the original French deck; and secondly because France has long been associated with the world of art.

The interwoven curves of the Art Nouveau style are a chief feature of the intricate and elegant back design, which also includes the year of publication in Roman numerals and a reference to United Cardists with a delicate monogram in all four corners. The circular shape draws your attention inwards, and magnifies the impact of the ornate designs which emerge from the center of the card in a variety of colours that complement each other beautifully.

Special mention should be made of the beautiful and ornate Aces, which are very detailed and eye-catching. Like the court cards, there is a beautiful tiled background in which the pip shape is a central feature.

In French-style playing cards, there’s a long tradition that every court card is associated with a particular figure in history and literature. The Nouveau deck goes back to original images of these heroes and heroines as the inspiration of its artwork. While scholars aren’t in entire agreement about which characters the court cards represent, and there is no universally accepted consensus, various names keep returning, and in the Nouveau deck we find the following (in order of King, Queen, and Jack):
● Diamonds: Julius Caesar, Rachel, Hector
● Clubs: Alexander the Great, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Lancelot
● Hearts: Charlemagne, Judith, Étienne de Vignolles
● Spades: David, Pallas Athena, Ogier the Dane

This source material draws on mythology, theology, and history. To add an sense of historical realism and a connection with the past, Karin came up with the clever idea of using for the court card designs actual sculptures and famous art works depicting these characters. As background for her artwork choices through the deck, she’s also adopted a common theory about the original French suits, where the Spades are considered to represent nobility, Hearts the clergy, Diamonds the merchants, and Clubs the commoners and the peasantry.

The number cards also feature custom pips and a very elegant design with oval borders tat accentuates a long and slender feel, while the indices are deliberately small to emphasize something that is delicate. The Jokers represent two stock characters used in late 19th century Commedia dell’arte (“theatre of the professional”) in Paris: the clowns Pierrot and Harlequin. They add an element of playfulness and vibrance, and help bring the time period to life.

● Nouveau Bourgogne

The companion deck to the first Nouveau deck is the Nouveau Bourgogne deck. The obvious difference immediately evident in this companion deck is a changed colour scheme, with a rich burgundy colour now dominating instead of the green, and a more luxurious look courtesy of the addition of gold foil.

The lavish gold foil on the tuck box complements the deep red colour beautifully, and is a striking addition which serves to enhance its beauty even further.

The card backs and card faces are mostly unchanged in design, but feature an entirely different colour palette, which makes for outstanding and beautiful card backs.

The same heroes and heroines are featured on the court cards, albeit in a different colour scheme.

But there are some more subtle changes as well that the attentive observer will notice. The tiled look that serves as background to the court cards in the Bourgogne deck also has changed. It now has a look that reminds one of stained glass or a mosaic.

The style of the pips is also more elaborate and ornate in this version. This is especially evident in the number cards, which have dispensed with the oval background, but have pips with a very exquisite tiled design.

To me, this deck feels even more rich than its predecessor. With a classic look and a fresh design, you will fall in love with the Nouveau Bourgogne deck the moment you start taking the ornately decorated cards from the lavish tuck box.

● Nouveau Bijoux

The next decks in the series all have a jewelry inspired design, with the Nouveau Bijoux deck and Nouveau Perle deck having a matching design in different colours. These decks continue the main ideas of the original Nouveau design, but takes the original concept in a somewhat new direction, with the design now inspired by Art Nouveau jewelry.

The Nouveau Bijoux deck is the main deck, and green and yellow are the dominant colours on the ornately decorated tuck box. As with all the decks, the exquisite looking tuck box is finished with an attractive custom seal.

With very pleasing aesthetics, the Bijoux deck stands on its own as an independent creation, apart from the other Nouveau decks that have preceded it, courtesy of the additional ornamentation that is produced by the art nouveau jewelry behind the design.

The colour scheme is reminiscent of the original Nouveau deck, but the elaborate design on both the card backs and the Aces is entirely different and original.

Once again the court cards reflect the same historical and mythological characters depicted in the original Nouveau deck. But in the Bijoux deck, these characters have been given a white look that makes them look like actual sculptures.

Also the background is no longer a tiled mosaic. Instead there is a lattice in a gold colour, with a colour scheme and style that matches the elaborate pips.

The pips have an extra degree of ornamentation and sophistication, and have been given a jewelled look in keeping with the theme, to make them look like jewels delicately set in gold by a master craftsman. The Jokers are also quite different than those in the previous two Nouveau decks.

The two main colours in this deck are a turquoise green and a burgundy red, which is somewhat reminiscent of the original Nouveau deck, but produces an entirely different look here due to the different design.

● Nouveau Perle

The Nouveau Perle deck is very obviously indebted to its Bijoux sibling for its good looks.

The graphic design and artwork is very similar, but a different colour scheme produces a whole new look.

The Nouveau and Bourgogne pair were effectively differently coloured twins. In contrast the Bijoux and Perle pairing does more than merely change the colours of the objects on the cards, and instead also alters the colour of the background.

The use of a deep ocean blue as the background colour for the card faces and backs results in a whole new look. One of the results is that it emphasizes the white sculptured look of the court cards even more, and I love the “statued” look this produces.

The 19th century Art Nouveau style is often described as being dominated by intricate linear designs and flowing curves based on natural forms, and the colour scheme used in this deck seems to lend itself particularly well to this.

By having a somewhat minimalist colour palette, the details feel even more stark, sophisticated and stylish. The number cards have the same ornately decorated pips as the previous deck, but on a different coloured canvas the result looks quite different.

Of the entire series, the colour choices make this deck feel the most unique. It produces a cold, delicate, and thoroughly beautiful look, and the effect is an artistic impression that brings to mind white sculptures and frosted ornamental glass.

● Nouveau Gemmes

The final installment in the series is the Nouveau Gemmes deck, which is the third deck inspired by Art Nouveau jewelry. This was produced in an extremely limited edition of only 500 decks, so it’s not easy to get your hands on a copy of it.

This tuck box is perhaps the ultimate crown jewel of the series, with a very lavish and highly ornate design. The front of the tuck box reprises the gorgeous artwork of the exquisite Ace of Spades, while the back of the box gives us our first glimpse of the lovely patterns that we’ll see on the card backs.

All four Aces feature highly detailed artwork, with influences from nature in the form of plants, flowers and birds clearly evident.

The artwork on the card back is absolutely exquisite, with lots of detail to reward the attentive observer, and yet a straight-forward and immediately recognizable overall shape and design.

Like its predecessors, the court cards feature the classical heroes and heroines commonly pictured on French decks from when playing cards first commonly appeared in sixteen century Western Europe, but given a style to fit the rest of the Gemmes theme.

The Jokers are somewhat reminiscent of the ones from the previous decks, but there’s a striking new colour scheme that evokes rubies and other precious gemstones.

The large pips on the cards feature a very intricate jewel-inspired design, much like that of the previous versions of this deck, but the Gemmes deck has the advantage of having very clear pips as indices, that helps make this deck more playable and functional than its predecessors.

All the five members of the Nouveau series are excellent, but the exquisite artwork and colours of this deck have made this last member of the set a fine jewel indeed.

Credit: Designer Spotlight: Karin Yan