1-on-1: Lee McKenzie [Updated]

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1-on-1: Lee McKenzie [Updated]

[Update] Yesterday brought some much anticipated news to the Playing Card community, something that’s already caused quite a bit of buzz and excitement, the long awaited follow up to the very successful Empire deck from Lee McKenzie. 

The new project is Empire Bloodlines and will be launching on Kickstarter on July 15th. In the meantime, if you would like to learn a little more about Lee McKenzie, take a moment to read our Original 1-ON-1 Series piece about his background and road to card design. 


I would find it hard to believe that if you’re a collector of playing cards, a magician or cardist that you don’t know who Lee McKenzie is. If by chance you don’t, you surely know his work. Lee supplied us with some truly amazing concepts and visions that materialized into some of the most recognizable decks created to this day. Designs such as the Arcane, Infinity, Artifice and the Fathom decks all came from Lee’s vision and creativity.

I truly enjoy talking to all these people; everyone has such a great and interesting story. They all seem to hit the proverbial fork in the road along their walk through life and I was sure that Lee was no different. Although, when the opening statement from your interviewee is…”I was almost arrested when I was 11, and I never felt more alive.” You just hold your breath and enjoy the story…so, enjoy.

Born in Manchester in the UK, Lee has always considered himself creative, although he really didn’t define himself as such, but more so was just being Lee. As a youth Lee was obsessed with Ninja’s, Magic, Spies, Martial Arts, Drawing, Movies and B-Boying, and by his own admission, these things still have a hold on him as an adult.

“Anything you could do with your hands, body and mind that seemed completely impossible or just incredible to see, fascinated me. Day dreaming about the possibilities and then trying to make it happen in reality was something so exhilarating”

So of course being the Ninja Lee was, or is, we all know that practice makes perfect, or almost lands you in jail because of it…

“I vividly remember one night 2 of my best friends and I almost got arrested because of it. After being chased for an hour over rooftops and around our local area, the police thought we were thieves trying to escape a robbery or something and we had been reported. The truth was we were just three 11 year olds on one of our regular ninja training missions. Somehow we were seen and failed to remain hidden in the shadows, but it was a hell of a ride. "They gave us a real run for our money" one of the police offers told my friends Dad. We felt so alive!”

During Lee’s early school years he started to lean heavily towards graphic design and really started to get a feel for what his future would hold, or at least the direction he wanted that path to go.

“…I knew that whatever I ended up doing after school had to involve creating some kind of visual delights for people. It's those obsessions I have that make me come alive.”

With an A* GSCE (UK high school qualifications) for graphic design in school, Lee went on to study Multimedia in College at ND and HND levels, graduating with a Distinction qualification. This opened up an entirely new world for Lee’s creativity. From photography, interactive design, animation, 3D Modeling, motion graphics, and editing web design, Lee found his passion and was in his element. He even ended up teaching underclassman…

“I loved it and ended up being asked to teach 3d design, along with my friend, to students in the year behind us! “

Shortly after College Lee interned at a design agency in Manchester, a job he landed when a college friend had given the agency a good word on his behalf. When funding ran dry at the agency Lee decided to get together with one of his best friends and his older entrepreneurial brother to launch their own design studio. To help spread the word and get their work noticed Lee entered competitions, and actually won many of them, garnering not only the attention they were looking for but enjoying the swag and prizes that came along with the award.
Entering competitions slowly took its toll. Lee realized it was part of paying your dues, but during that time he made sure not to lose sight of his current goal…learning to design movie titles.

During the same time period Lee came across a company in Manchester that specialized in DVD menu production, visual FX for TV and other video production processes. After getting his foot in the door spending a brief time subtitling the children’s TV shows, The Teletubbies and Chronicles of Narnia, Lee started feeling that he had hit a bit of a wall and wasn’t really getting anywhere. Spending his lunch and spare time leaving interesting little graphic treats on his computer for the company to “stumble upon” and not getting any feedback, Lee eventually parted ways with the production company. Later, standing firm on his goals Lee actually turned down the offer to produce a brochure for the company, which was the more graphical role he was interested in, but not exactly what he wanted. He was determined to stay the course and realize what his true ambitions were. 2 months later Lee was contacted once again by the same company, this time with a much more appealing offer, that of the DVD Designer position.

Not to sit back and relax, Lee kept busy on the side with a little help from his friends. Entering short film competitions, producing shorts for local TV stations, and teaching himself the ins and outs of visual effects. Just to keep things “bubbling” as he put it. During this time, and always loving magic, Lee learned about Ellusionist and got his 1st glimpse of the Black Tiger and 1800’s decks they were producing. There are those moments in life when you just have that light bulb go off…..this was Lee’s.

“Incredible. My mind was racing and my heart was thumping. I loved magic. I loved graphic design, why can't I do this? In fact I knew I could do something, maybe even better than what was there, because I had the burning passion and knew I had the ideas for it.”

After a visit to Rome, Lee came back inspired and was ready to set the wheels in motion for his 1st deck design. In an effort to have his deck alongside the other products he admired from Ellusionist, Lee sent his work to Brad Christian in hopes of not only showing his talent, but also start to break into the industry he loved and pursue his dream. With a lot of excitement and nervous nights, Lee got the news he was hoping for…Brad Christian loved Lee’s work, and that hard work was about to pay off. It was 2008 and Lee McKenzie was just about to start designing the 1st of a long and illustrious list of custom decks for Ellusionist, the Arcane deck. As time went by Lee focused and put all his energy into creating and designing some of Ellusionists best-selling products, all the while knowing that he wanted something more…

“I knew one day I'd have my shot, but I didn't have the balls just yet…Ellusionist was such an amazing experience”

In early 2013 Lee had left the freelance world and ceased working with Ellusionist with quite a list of credits to his name. This was also when he launched his 1st independent design on Kickstarter…Empire. At that same time, Lee found himself more determined than ever to realize his dream. We all have personal catalysts that move us along at times; during this time Lee was flying back to the UK to be with his Grandfather, who sadly had passed away while Lee was visiting. His Grandfather’s memory and life helped push Lee forward. As the Empire campaign progressed with all of Lee’s time, effort and income, Lee put everything he had into his dream…

“I had no more income and my girlfriend Megan and I were living on the floor of my incredibly gracious friend’s house. However, I was more determined than ever to prove I could do this, and with my Granddads memory powering me forward, I put everything I could into creating this future.”

That “Future” culminated with the funding goal for the Empire deck not only reached, but surpassed and the realization of Lee’s own company, Kings & Crooks. With the successful campaign, the enormous support from around the world and the “Humbling” compliments Lee received from people, his direction and focus for Kings and Crooks was never clearer.

“The future of Kings & Crooks will be heavily focused on pushing the playing card industry forward by creating fresh ideas and creating many accessories and lifestyle items to complement the magician, hustler and playing card connoisseur in raising their game in their art and life.Taking risks and breaking molds for our art so you can do the impossible with yours, that's my aim. For too long, magic and collectors have had to endure a less than favorable image in the press and minds of people outside the industry. I want to bring innovative style and substance to re-enforce a positive, stylish, powerful image by creating bold lifestyle products and tools to help complement and inspire the talented hustlers, artists and collectors among us. Give them the unique tools to express their passions, to help them come alive and make their mark.”

In the end Lee still has goals and an attachment to the item that has driven his dream for so long…Playing Cards.

“The smell, the feel, the sound. I love everything about playing cards and the possibility they represent.”

He is still passionate about magic, gambling, sleight of hand and still has a sentimental memory that he still hangs on to, memories of himself as a young boy getting his 1st Tally Ho deck. He still loves seeing amazing things done with cards. Whether it’s an amazing trick or well executed flourish. And of course with all of these loves and interests one can’t help but start to build a collection of cards of his own. His goals are very similar to a lot of people, but with a creativity and drive that’s all Lee…

“I want to do what I love, every day, for people who like it and in return make a living from my passions. To elevate the world of playing cards, evolve the industry and make awesome sh** for awesome people. To be able to continue to travel the world, injecting each day with creativity and purpose to enjoy a fulfilled and meaningful existence. To inspire others to take risks for their dreams, make them real and to show that not only is it possible, that it's worth every scary new step to get there. Kings & Crooks is bigger than just playing cards, and I hope in time I can show you all exactly what I mean by that.”

So here we are, 2014 and Lee is more driven than ever. He has great plans for Kings and Crooks, along with the follow up project to the Empire deck. The Kings and Crooks website will be up and running soon, if you haven’t checked it out and signed up for notifications yet, I would recommend doing so. Lee has some great sneak peaks scheduled along with some giveaways planned for this upcoming year and you don’t want to miss out.

Lee was nice enough to share his story and even nicer of him was answering a few more questions:

1. Was it difficult to leave Ellusionist and take that 1st step to fulfilling your dream?
It was difficult in the way that I was effectively cutting off all income, until; hopefully my Empire Kickstarter was successful. It was a risk quitting freelancing cold turkey, but what felt so completely right was that I was doing it for the right reason and every single bone in my body felt it. I had a great run with Ellusionist, but I wanted what seemed impossible for them to give, and something I know I couldn't ask for. To not just be a gun for hire, like any other freelancer, but to be a part of each product that I poured my soul into. If I didn't like magic or playing cards so much and I was just a random designer, things would have been very different, but I knew I wanted to make this a bigger part of my life. It meant so much to me. I felt I was hired to build someone else’s dreams, and I wanted to build my own. They gave me such a great experience and freedom to express myself and I enjoyed every second working with them. It was just time for me to take my shot.

Freelancing has been very tough which is why we went to live in Thailand to save money and live so much cheaper than we could anywhere else. The famous "noodle-diet" was our 1 meal a day and I lost so much weight. However, we loved living there and got a chance to really experience a new life, working on our future without it costing us everything. All I wanted was to share my passion with the world and make a living in return, but it's never that simple.

My Granddads passing shown me we don't have a lot of time here and that no matter what you believe, right now in this very moment, we all have this one life to live. You can spend it in regret, always thinking, “I should have done this… I should have done that…” Or you can take a step toward something much more. Do what makes you happy and brings happiness to others. Everything else is secondary. It's never easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. Plus, it’s so much more rewarding.

I believe you should earn your existence. Contribute to something greater than yourself in life and above all, don't live with regrets and "what ifs". When things around you are quiet and you can finally hear the little voice inside you, take note of what it says, take steps towards something happier and don't listen to anyone else who tries to stop you. There will always be resistance.

2. Do you have a “Creative Process” you go through when working on a new project?
Not so much a process, but a selection of things that help to realize a new idea. First of all, being under the open sky creates a powerful stream of imagination that opens me up to so much possibility. My best ideas for everything have always benefitted from some time outside. My head seems like a little theatre that plays movies of all the possibilities I'm thinking of. Joining the dots. Things just come together and I get so excited. Next, to solidify these thoughts and notes, I love to punch relative keywords into Google and see what random things show up. This creates further insight into strengthening and visualizing a much more real idea. Then, it's playtime. Crank up Photoshop or Illustrator, get a sketchpad going and let the floodgates open. Add, subtract, test, move, recreate, delete, and start again.

This is how it goes until something emerges and a story starts to be told in front of me. It becomes like a quest of perfection, creation and destruction over and over until something clicks and feels right. It's hard to nail down the way creativity flows, but that's a bunch of ways that seem to be common in my approach. If there was an actual "process" I feel things would be more efficient, sure, but maybe at the cost of being less inspired. Pumping out the same lackluster execution can definitely still “do well”, but I can’t sleep at night knowing I short changed anyone else, let alone myself. Some people can. I’m just not him. Betraying yourself or anyone else’s trust for dollars is a dirty game, wrapped up in nice packaging and hard to see.

3. Is there a story behind the name “Kings and Crooks”?
It's possible for you to be the magician, the performer, to exist as the entertainer and showman delighting audiences with your miracles and talent. To lead and serve, to deceive with a smile and to give to the people things only you can. A power only you possess. A King. Or, the very same person could take those hard earned skills, leave the spotlight behind and enter underhandedly into dealings and deceptive practices built to strip others of their cash, their belongings and have no one be the wiser. The darker side, the Crook. The same deceptive talents and skills could serve you in the light or in the shade. The choice is ours and people choose different paths. Both paths involve stepping out into the unknown with your art and doing whatever it takes to make your mark on the world. A bolder breed that play in the spotlight or shadows. Give or take. Delight or deceive. They are the Kings and Crooks, the original hustlers.

4. With Empire marking your 1st independent project and 1st Kickstarter, what were the few days before going live like?
Horrible. Back and forth between sickening nervousness and excitement. I cared so much about this, my first move on my own. I worked solidly for almost a year on this. The trailer, the art, everything took so much from me and here I was days before thinking to myself, "what if no-one even cares?” My worst fear. No more income, we were literally living on our last few hundred pounds. It all came down to this. I've faced a lot of challenging situations before through travelling and trying to walk my own path, but this was about to be public. Judged in front of thousands. What if they hated me and I failed. My entire future depends on what people I don't yet know think of my work and me. It was one of the worst feelings, which soon became one the absolute greatest.

I couldn't believe how soon we got funded and how much everyone loved Empire. I could have easily backed out, and the world would never known. But I'd know and I'd have to live with that every day. I promised my Granddad and myself that I would never live to regret again. So, I took the step and even though I'm nowhere near being able to make living doing this for people, I know its worthwhile journey and more importantly, that it's possible if I keep doing things that scare me and move forward. I have such great support from family, friends and relatives; I'd be letting them down now too, which is always a good way to remove any doubts that creep in along the way. If I didn't care so much about this, I wouldn't be so affected. I guess that’s a good sign and a true testament to the hustling it takes to make your mark on the world. That has become some of the core values of Kings & Crooks.

5. Are there any new projects on the horizon or in the works?
So many projects on the horizon I can't begin to tell you. Playing cards galore and lots more incredibly exciting ideas to complement them. It's a bright future, and if I can count on the support of all the amazing people who've backed me so far, it's going to be a great ride for all of us.

As always, any last thoughts or comments for everyone?
Go, do and be anything you want to. It's almost cliché but life IS too short to choose things that don't make us happy. Every choice we have ever made has brought us to where we are now. If you don't like something about where you are now, you need to start making different decisions. Our destiny is reached not by chance, but by choice. It's not something to be waited for; it's something to be achieved. Smile, travel, do what you love and be happy. When something hits you and you know that it would make you really happy, it might seem risky, but just know that the real risk is standing still and not pursuing it. I've come to see fear as a sign that usually means that you should do something. "The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all". As Bruce and my awesome Morgan Freeman impersonator said in the Empire trailer, "Live a life worth remembering"

Finally, thank you Anthony for this opportunity to share bits of my story with you and your readers. I hope it's an interesting read. And thank you to all everyone who's supported me on this ride, before and after Empire was launched. It may only seem like a deck of cards to many, but your support means more than you'll know.

Onwards and upwards.

I can’t begin to thank Lee enough for taking the time to share and collaborate on this piece with me, Lee’s definitely on the list of people I would love to meet in person. Full of energy, drive, passion and creativity…what’s not to like. If you want to keep track of Lee’s upcoming playing card projects you can visit his site and subscribe at kingsandcrooks.com, follow on Facebook, on twitter. You can find Lee personally at @leemckenzie.

Until next time!

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.

1-on-1: Lee McKenzie [Updated] Reviewed by Ivan on 7/12/2014 Rating: 5


  1. Anthony IngrassiaJuly 12, 2014 at 9:52 AM

    Lee's always been great to work with, was very excited to get the news about Bloodlines

  2. The empire deck is gorgeous! Any news on when the store will open?

    I can't wait to see the final design for Empire Bloodlines. So excited!

  3. Still no news on the store. :(

    Did you have the original Empire?

  4. Unfortunately not. I only found out about it after the kickstarter ended. I was wondering (and hoping!) they would be sold in the store when it opens.

  5. Anthony IngrassiaJuly 13, 2014 at 12:26 PM

    Lee has mentioned the store should be open in about a month, can't wait!


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