In 2010, husband and wife team Peter Dunham and Linnea Gits opened the doors to their new design studio in Chicago Illinois with a very telling idea in mind: that life is worth the meaningful effort, and its reward is one of discovery.
That design studio was Uusi (Finnish for “new”). Their client list eventually grew to include Herman Miller, Design Within Reach, Chronicle Books, Sharpie, Draft FCB and Prismacolor. Their work is presented in many diverse media, from Fine Art, Illustration, Graphic & Interior Design to Photography and Woodworking.
Linnea and Peter had been collecting Playing Card decks for years as inspirational objects, and in 2012, decided to design a custom deck of their own. That deck was Blue Blood, which was launched and funded on Kickstarter with huge success and accolades from their backers. Uusi had brought a long-missing Fine Art feel back to the playing card community and opened the door for a creative surge that is still going strong today.
With the success of their first deck, Uusi released their second deck, Bohemia. Its bold “Street art meets Baroque” hand-painted design was release to much of the same success and acclaim which Blue Blood had garnered. With the release of Bohemia, the studio also revealed that it and Blue Blood were the first decks in a planned six deck series, Bohemia being the second deck in the series.
In 2013 Uusi released their next 3 instalments to the series, Royal Optik, Blue Blood Redux and Pagan, all via Kickstarter, and all reaching the same success and praise their previous projects had enjoyed. Royal Optik is described as the combination of two art styles “Op Art and Woodcut – coming together to create one completely original playing card deck”. Released in two color variations, Royal Optik was deck 3 in the series.
Blue Blood Redux was the next release, and marked the return of the “Indigo Monarchs” of Blue Blood to an established and new audience that may have missed out on the original Blue Blood deck. Redux was much the same deck as the original with some minor changes consisting of a new tuck box image and some changes to the court cards. They also added unique diptych cards (a “diptych is a work of art in which two image “panels” create one continuous image when joined together) and two new Aces. Redux was not meant to be one of the planned six-deck series, but more of a “companion deck” to Blue Blood. I guess we can call it deck 1B in the series. That is not an official statement, by the way. ;)
The fourth deck in the series is Pagan, returning to one of the oldest mediums in art: oil painting, and drawing inspiration from a personal place for Linnea and Peter:
“Our inspiration for Pagan came from our love of the great forests and lakes of Northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The smell of the woods, their silence and the enormous beauty of the forests and lakes in that region of the US has always inspired us. When you are deep in the forest, the feeling of wilderness is intense - and it was that feeling that became the creative starting point for our new deck.”
The fifth deck in the series, Hotcakes, which is currently Live on Kickstarter, draws its inspiration from traditional 17th Century, full-figure (non-reversible) court cards combined with a mix of Pop Art, such as Andy Warhol’s playful style and Charles Pry’s one-off art decks and Italian designer Emilio Pucci’s pattern work. All these elements combine for a playful, colorful vision of courts of old.
Peter and Linnea were and are very busy with their current project, but still found the time to discuss aspects of their work as designers as well as what Playing Cards mean to them and what the future holds:
Uusi is about much more than Playing cards, which non-playing card project have you been most excited about, either past or present?
Peter and I began as artists and transitioned in to design about ten years ago. Our first design job was with Herman Miller, the renowned US furniture and design company, where we were contracted for a series of murals for their showroom in Chicago. They loved the work so much that we were given the job of creating murals for their National Design Centers in LA, New York and DC as well as their company headquarters in Zealand, Michigan. They also commissioned Peter for site-specific cabinetry and myself for added graphics and desktop items for their showrooms and headquarters. We continued to work in the commercial design market for private clients and large companies like Draft FCB, before starting Uusi in the fall of 2010. Our decision to start our own design studio rose from the desire to get back into the studio process again; focusing on material exploration, craftsmanship and the luxury of refining an idea outside the mainstream of the marketplace. Creating Uusi and this kind of environment has really been our favorite overall project to date!
Do you have a "Creative Process" you go through when taking on a new project?
Our Creative Process depends largely on whether it is a job for one of our clients, or a project for our own company. Client jobs come with their own set of limitations, expectations and deliverables that structure the creative process from the very start. Work for our own company tends to unfold more slowly, and is guided mainly by our passion for a genre and our intuition for what we want to see come to life there. Once we decide to pursue an idea for an object, we start by researching its history. It is important to know where something came from in order to take it somewhere else – we want to continue the conversation (so to speak) within a genre instead of just echoing what is already there.
For the playing cards we have created for Uusi, we used this research process which included not only reading about playing cards and their history, but collecting vintage decks – mainly from Europe. As we began to understand the deck's specific uses and the many ways the artwork had been created, ideas began to take shape on how we wanted to contribute to that story by adding something new to it and making it uniquely our own. At the time we got into designing custom decks – about three years ago – almost all of the new decks we saw were created using computer-based artwork. What we wanted to see was artwork created by hand and using traditional art mediums with a modern theme.
Given our Fine Art backgrounds this was a natural path for us to take and we decided it would be cool to use as many mediums as we could to fully explore the hand drawn line and color in the decks.
Another thing we wanted to do was change the way the tuck box was presented. So many decks use the traditional "banknote" design approach – borders that contain imagery and copy. When done well it is very appealing and just what you expect a deck's tuck to look like, but if you push the borders off the box you move into a different packaging realm and can create a more unique look and style that is distinctly your own.
Once we had decided how to approach our own contribution to this genre we were off and running. Knowing our approach to the overall process meant that each deck would have its own unique theme and a new art medium would be chosen to express that theme. The sketch process is the first step in resolving the theme and is often the longest one. Once a final direction is realized though, things move fairly quickly; final artwork is created with small adjustments in design getting worked out along the way and lastly, all artwork is transferred into a digital format for print.
Who are some of your artistic inspirations? Whose work do you really enjoy?
We draw artistic inspiration from so many things!! The natural world is a great source of inspiration as is the Fine Art world. Peter is a big history buff and also loves the mechanical side of the design process – figuring out how things work and the craft involved. With playing cards we are mostly drawn to old European decks. The colors, line work and patterns are really beautiful on these decks as were the processes that created them – chrome lithography, hand-brushed and stenciled colors right down to the way the paper was made – and led the way for so many of the decks we see in use today. We were some of the first designers to employ hand drawn imagery for the artwork in our decks and it has been very cool to see many of the designers that have entered the market after us appreciate that approach and try to incorporate an element of hand drawn work in their decks as well. But ultimately, the way you make your art really doesn't matter as much as your ability to express what it is you want to say successfully – for us it just so happened that a more traditional process was the best one.
There is a question that seems to be on many Playing Card aficionados’ minds as of late. Uusi had gone into this card series stating it would consist of six decks. Well, we're getting close to the end of that series...will we see Uusi deck designs after this series reaches its end?
Well...I guess the rule of thumb here is to say, "never say never"! But in all honesty, this series has taken an enormous amount of time to create and there are definitely other projects we have been itching to get to at the studio. We just signed a licensing contract with the wonderful, Brooklyn-based design manufacturer, Areaware, for our wood animals sets that we are really excited about and for whom we will also be designing other objects and functional items for the home. So I think when deck number six is finally finished and shipped we will feel a great sense of accomplishment in having created such a considered catalog of work, but we will also feel an equal amount of relief to be at its end. I am sure we will always remember this experience as one of the most enjoyable we have had as designers – but since we are not at the finish line yet! - and we are still very much immersed in this community, we are mostly just enjoying it as it is unfolding and whatever the future brings it brings. We hope after we are finished with this series though, we still can participate on some level with the people and companies we have gotten to know and respect and who have made this whole journey so much more enjoyable!
I can’t thank Peter and Linnea enough for their time and collaboration on putting this piece together. Uusi truly has its own unique vision and style, and it’s evident not only in the five decks that they’ve brought to us so far, but in their non-playing card work as well.
If you would like to learn more about Uusi and the work they do, you can visit them on their website or on Facebook. And don’t forget to check out the newly released Hotcakes Playing Cards now Live on Kickstarter!
This exclusive 1-on-1 is written by Anthony Ingrassia for kardify. No part of this article can be reproduced without written permission from the author. You can check out Anthony's awesome collection at sparkzcollector.