Fredericks & Mae playing cards

Fredericks & Mae–designed playing cards (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Centuries of use haven’t changed the standard deck of playing cards much, although designers continue to experiment with how it can evolve. A new version designed by Fredericks & Mae puts all 54 cards (52 playing cards, plus two jokers) on the color spectrum in a fanning rainbow.

Fredericks & Mae playing cards box

The Brooklyn-based design team has previously brought its vibrant, clean approach to other classic games and toys, including their polka dot wooden bocce set and feathered darts with broad stripes. The playing cards, released by Princeton Architectural Press ($12.95), are part of their “material anthropology of objects with confused origins,” as they put it. That may be an overly serious way to describe what’s basically a glossy paper product, but they did do their homework on playing-card history; it’s included in a small booklet along with some common and more obscure suggested games.

“A deck of cards might seem all fun and games, but actually it’s cloaked in a bit of the forbidden,” the pair write, noting that most of our early knowledge of playing cards goes back to them being banned due to gambling and distraction. The short history recounts how the origins of cards are believed to lie in China, with them migrating to Europe through Egypt, and includes some fun facts like how the low ace was elevated to a high card after the French Revolution, “symbolizing the triumph of commoners over royalty.”

New York happens to have the only known complete deck of illuminated playing cards from the 15th century, on view at the Cloisters. While some of the shapes have changed, the deck we use today is still roughly the same, with its royal figures and numbered symbols. Fredericks & Mae don’t explain in the booklet why they picked a rainbow, even though Bicycle has long offered a rainbow deck of their popular cards. As long as the design doesn’t give away your hand, can endure the wear of use, and shuffles smoothly, you can really do just about anything with the design of playing cards, which is probably why they’re so popular for new editions. As Boing Boing recently noted, Bicycle has a modern monochrome edition accented with red, the Bicycle Black Ghost deck. The Fredericks & Mae design is simpler, with little elaboration on the faces, but after shuffling them into colorful confusion, it would be pleasing to play a game of solitaire and win by putting the suits back in their orderly spectrum.

Fredericks & Mae playing cards

Fredericks & Mae playing cards

Fredericks & Mae playing cards

Fredericks & Mae playing cards are available from Princeton Architectural Press

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...