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 introduce you to her exquisite work and art.
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.
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 that 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.
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.
Alexandre Dumas decks
French novelist Alexandre Dumas is a literary giant who bears the distinction of being one of the most widely read authors of all time, given that his works have been translated into almost 100 languages. He’s known for his historical novels of high adventure, with the two books that are arguably the most famous of his works being The Count of Monte Cristo (1845) and The Three Musketeers (1844). He wrote a large body of fiction, but it’s these two works that have stood out over time, and were the inspiration behind these next two decks.
Not only will they please collectors of playing cards, but they will especially be appreciated by those who enjoy literature. The two decks have a complementary style, with different back designs and different colour schemes. More importantly, each of the decks depicts the characters, setting, and theme of the book it is a homage to.
The Count of Monte Cristo deck honours Dumas’ book of the same title. It’s a truly monumental and massive work of fiction with a wide array of themes including romance, loyalty, betrayal, justice, mercy, revenge, and forgiveness. It is set against the historical backdrop of the historical events of 1815–1839 in Western Europe, particularly France and Italy.
The main plot concerns the young man Edmond Dantes, who is initially wrongly imprisoned, escapes jail, proceeds to become very wealthy, and then undertakes to wreak revenge on those who were responsible for his imprisonment, with far-reaching consequences. All of these elements have influenced the deck’s design, starting with the lush symbolism on the extravagant tuck box.
Each of the Aces is also worthy of close scrutiny, with oversized pips and details drawn from the novel’s themes and concepts.
But the court cards and Jokers are one of the highlights, given how they include many elements drawn from descriptions included in the book. As you’d expect they feature the main characters, such as the protagonist Edmond Dantès (King of Spades), shown here along with Mercédès Mondego (Queen of Diamonds). The background artwork on each of the court cards has small details that captures the symbolic elements of each character’s traits.
Characters featured from the novel are the following: (in order of King, Queen, and Jack)
● Spades: Edmond Dantès (The Count of Monte Cristo), Haydée, Abbé Faria
● Hearts: Fernand Mondego (Count de Morcerf), Mercédès Mondego, Albert de Morcerf
● Clubs: Gérard de Villefort, Héloïse de Villefort, Edward de Villefort
● Diamonds: Baron Danglars, Madame Danglars, Benedetto (Prince Cavalcanti)
The Jokers feature Bertuccio & Abbé Busoni, and Sinbad the Sailor & Luigi Vampa.
The number cards have an elegant and court-like look, with the stylish pips and minimalist design inspired by actual playing cards from the 19th century. This gives them a sense of historical authenticity, and also makes them very practical for use in playing card games.
● The Three Musketeers
The Three Musketeers deck is a homage to another Alexandre Dumas novel. In this historical adventure, the young man d’Artagnan heads for Paris to join the Musketeers of the Guards, and gets involved in the affairs of state and court after becoming friends with the three musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.
This novel is set in 17th century France and England, and has literary themes that include courage and honour, ambition and treason. Just as with the Monte Cristo deck, evidence of these themes already finds its way onto the tuck box artwork.
The card backs have a different design than the Monte Cristo deck, and also a different colour scheme, with the red and yellow combination giving a very plush and elegant look.
By employing over-sized pips for the Aces, Karin could incorporate additional thematic elements into the artwork on these cards.
The historical and geographical setting of The Three Musketeers is reflected in the detailed court cards and Jokers.
In this case the featured characters are: (in order of King, Queen, and Jack)
● Spades: D’Artagnan, Constance Bonacieux, Count de Rochefort (The man from Meung)
● Hearts: Athos (Count de la Fère), Milady de Winter, Cardinal Richelieu
● Clubs: Aramis, Queen Anne of Austria, Duke of Buckingham
● Diamonds: Porthos, The Lover, The executioner of Lille
The Jokers feature these character pairs: Planchet & Grimaud; Bazin & Mousqueton. Taken together, this two deck set is a superb and fitting tribute to a wonderful writer, and two wonderful books!
The King’s Game decks
Few board games have the same illustrious history as chess. This famous game goes back centuries, and in days of yore was especially enjoyed by the nobility and royalty, hence the designation “The Game of Kings”. It’s remains a popular game today, so it’s not just a game of kings, but is truly a king among games.
Karin Yan’s next project under the Bona Fide Playing Cards label is a tribute to this royal game, with an elegant custom deck of playing cards inspired by chess, entitled King’s Game Playing Cards. Consisting of a White deck and a Black deck, it especially focuses on the figures represented by the chess pieces themselves, namely the King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Rook, and Pawn.
● Black deck
The tuck boxes have a very luxurious look, befitting the kingly status of the game they are about, with the Black deck using gold and black foil. First impressions are important, and with this deck we are immediately confronted with a look of luxury and sophistication.
Both the front and the back of the box depicts a King playing a game of chess, one with the white pieces and the other with the black pieces. Taken together, both sides of the tuck show a battle between two kings across a chess board, thereby reflecting the concept embodied in the name of this deck.
The Black deck has cards with a white background on the faces and backs, and of the two decks this has the most traditional look. Karin Yan excels at creating highly detailed symmetrical designs that emphasize bold and simple shapes on her card backs, and the card backs in these decks are fine examples of her talent.
The Aces capture several chess-related images and themes, and evoke a military feel that suits the nature of the game. Their artwork is taken from the medieval setting that has inspired other elements of the overall design.
A great deal of thought has been put into incorporating the symbolism of chess into all aspects of the playing cards, including the fact that in an actual game of chess each player gets 16 chess pieces: one King, one Queen, two Bishops, two Knights, two Rooks, and eight Pawns. In this deck of cards, the traditionally black suits of Spades and Clubs represent the black player’s pieces, and the traditionally red suits of Hearts and Diamonds represent the white player’s pieces.
The different pieces are represented via the court cards as follows:
● Black player King (King of Spades), Queen (Queen of Spades), Bishop (Jack of Spades), Rook (King of Clubs), Pawn (Queen of Clubs), Knight (Jack of Clubs)
● White player King (King of Hearts), Queen (Queen of Hearts), Bishop (Jack of Hearts), Rook (King of Diamonds), Pawn (Queen of Diamonds), Knight (Jack of Diamonds)
Even the number of chess pieces used in an actual game has been cleverly incorporated. The court cards representing the King and Queen both use a one-way design, since there is only a single one of each in each player’s army in a game of chess. In contrast the cards representing the Rook, Bishop, and Knight all use a two-way design, since each player has two of each of these in an actual game. Each player gets eight Pawns, and so the card representing this piece uses a two-way design and incorporates eight figures in total.
The artwork for each of these figures has also been deliberately crafted to capture elements of that character’s role in a chess game and in medieval society. The result is finished with a minimalist colour palette and a medieval look, which captures well the classic feel of chess.
The number cards all have customized pips, with the red suits customized in a way to highlight that these suits represent the White army. The pips and indices have a very straight-forward design, while still being stylish and original, and this means that they are well suited for practical use in card games, while offering a look of sophistication at the same time.
The assignment of the pieces to the suits and values is also far from arbitrary. Karin has taken into consideration the fact that traditionally each suit had a specific meaning that designated a social class: nobility (Spades), clergy (Hearts), merchants (Diamonds), and peasantry (Clubs). In line with this she has assigned the Spades and Hearts to represent the royal and clerical figures of the King, Queen and Bishops. And since the military were typically made up by the middle and lower classes, she’s assigned the Clubs and Diamonds to represent the military figures of the Rook, Knight, and Pawn.
● White deck
Like its companion deck, the White deck features a rich look with foil accents on the tuck box, in this case silver and copper. This was a limited edition version, and only 500 decks were produced.
The graphic design and artwork of these cards matches that of the companion deck, the cards of the White deck have a black background on the faces and backs.
Unique to this limited edition deck is the fact that silver foil is used on the card backs for an extra touch of sophistication, along with a numbered seal on the tuck box.
The coat of arms on the Aces for the Spades and Clubs have similar traits since they represent the royal and military of the Black player. The same is true for the coat of arms on the Aces for the Hearts and Diamonds since they represent the royal and military of the White player.
My favourite cards are easily the courts, which have spectacular artwork. Here are the cards representing the black player’s Queen (Queen of Spades) and the white player’s Knight (Jack of Diamonds):
The number cards have the same graphic design as the Black deck but new colours. Due to the black background, the colours for the pips are now gold and red, which ensures that they are internally consistent with the colour scheme of the rest of the deck.
From the tuck box to the cards themselves, these are truly spectacular decks that provide a thoughtful tribute to the game of kings!
So what can you expect from a deck of playing cards created by Karin Yan and Bona Fide Playing cards?
Classy packaging: The tuck box is your first point of contact with a new deck of playing cards, so it needs to make a positive impression. The tuck boxes from the Nouveau series and for The King’s Game decks are particularly impressive. The intricate details of Karin’s designs really come to life especially when metallic foil and embossing is added. The all-round look is elegant and classy, and when finished with custom seals, they immediately demonstrate a style that will attract the playing card collector.
Classic looks: The Nouveau decks in particular have a strong connection with the French-style playing cards from the 16th century, particularly the way this has influenced the court card designs. By adopting historical and literary characters, and utilizing artwork derived from how these have been depicted throughout history, these decks receive a classic feel that fits within a long tradition. Even though the overall look is fresh and original, Karin clearly wants to work within the framework of a long tradition that goes back to the roots of playing cards.
Classic style: Karin has made a conscious choice to create artwork in an established style, such as the Art Nouveau style from the 19th century. It’s an established and proven style that still gives her the freedom to create original designs that reflect her own approach. The idea of using jewelry from this era to inspire the design is particularly fitting, given the look she was after. Something similar can be said of the literary decks that are a homage to the two famous books by Alexandre Dumas. Not only do these incorporate characters from the novels, but Karin has carefully researched the time period that the novels are set in, and used this to steer the direction and details of her artwork.
Quality cards: The quality of Karin’s artwork and design is matched by the quality of printing and card stock. By opting to have her decks printed with Expert Playing Cards (EPCC), Karin isn’t going the more well trodden path of using giant publisher USPCC. But Taiwanese-based EPCC is very much an industry leader, and their playing cards are considered to be among the best in the business, with a very clean cut, pleasant snap, and a card stock that proves extremely durable and doesn’t show signs of wear very quickly. I own many decks by EPCC, and they are all fantastic.
Karin Yan’s decks are beautiful no matter what language you speak, and are clearly the result of a bona fide passion for playing cards, for their history, and for art. Karin excels at her work, and whether her creation is a tribute to the classic French origins of playing cards, to classic works of literature, or to a classic boardgame, the results are spectacular and beautiful. She not only has ability to make ornate and attractive designs, but also incorporates thoughtful symbolism and content based on characters and themes drawn from her subject material.
There’s a wealth of creativity, depth of thought, and artistic design that is present in her work, which results in deck designs that are sophisticated and classy in every way, and yet practical and playable. These are the kinds of custom decks that will be appreciated by discerning playing card collectors around the world!
Credit: Designer Spotlight: Karin Yan