Art needs to be free. Without borders or bounds. No rules, no regulations. An artist should be free to create whatever they want, in whatever form they believe it should take.
So when it comes to interpreting other works of art, there’s probably nothing more limiting than decks of playing cards. It’s an object that — depending on the buyer — carries a myriad of design expectations, from the colors of suits to the number of eyes on court cards.
But for Oban Jones, those expectations aren’t limiting. They are inspiring.
“I may be wrong in this belief, but to my knowledge, there is no other artifact that is so complex in its design and so quintessentially unchanged for so much of its history,” said Jones, designer of the Sleepers deck. “You could look at a deck of cards from 500 years ago, and yes, there would be differences, but their purpose and essential design would be immediately recognizable.”
That unique longevity, combined with complexity, make a deck of playing cards fascinating and intriguing, Jones said. Drawing since he was 2 years old, Jones has mastered a wide variety of expression from conceptual art to more practical design. His command of line and form are based around the concept of honesty and sincerity, and his approach has led him to design projects for ITV, Blind and Folk Rebellion, among others.
His range is best defined by the two decks he has designed for Ellusionist: Sleepers and Disparos from the Prohibition set, a tribute to tequila. The deck features a monochromatic, weathered bandito design full of detail and danger. Even sharply-attuned eyes for art would have a tough time linking those decks to the same artist.
And that’s a victory.
“Disparos had one narrative, and Sleepers another,” Oban said. “They were both created through a love of creating and desire for them to be successful and valid in their own rights. If I, as the author, was more prominent than the designs themselves, I would have been less proud of the final designs.”
Aside from simple color palettes, Sleepers are almost a polar opposite from the messy, rustic Disparos decks. Originating from a concept by Daniel Madison about the King of Diamonds being the lone court card awake, Jones referenced art deco style by rendering the pips with geometric minimalism. Each court is surrounded by commanding custom typography emphasizing the themes behind each suit. Every card is a brilliant combination of vintage style and modern flair.
Jones said as he and DM collaborated on the deck, he was given almost complete artistic freedom to explore the concept. And he dove deep into Sleepers, studying every little dream and idea.
Some avenues went too far, Oban said.
“At one point I lost my mind and removed the numbers from a round of sketches,” he said. “That was toward the end of the concept stages and it made me realize that I pushed my process of stripping away to its logical conclusion of fundamentally damaging the deck. At that point I stopped stripping and started building on the bare bones of what makes a playing card. I felt pretty dumb after removing the numbers, but I think it was a necessary error in order to find that sweet spot. And dammit did the 10 of Clubs look cool in only pips.”
The overall design has created one of the most enigmatic decks Ellusionist has ever released. It stands out in a market filled with artistic variations of playing cards.
So how to decide which of a standard deck’s features should be reinterpreted? For Oban, it’s an exercise in determining what is and isn’t necessary.
“The must-haves to me are defined only as what makes the card work functionally,” he said. “Beyond this, all other traditional design elements exist as a comfort, a hint of the familiar … Providing the design doesn’t interfere with the usability of the card in a fundamental way, card design can be an exploded field where any variation of that medium can be judged on its own merits, not the merits of a predesigned structure.”
It’s a challenge that has become thrilling for the artist. Designing a deck of cards is a unique, compelling project to take on, and he plans to design even more decks in the future, including more collaborations with DM.
“Because playing cards open themselves up to so many interpretations, they’re a damn pleasure to create,” Jones said. “They can be halfway between a product and a work of art, and the idea that talented people out there in the world can get their hands around something I’ve designed and make them do any number of beautiful things is extraordinary.”