Who is Lee McKenzie? British designer Lee McKenzie is a name that many people in the playing card industry might not immediately recognize, but that's only because most of the decks he has designed are more widely known for the brand they were published under: Ellusionist. Lee designed decks for Ellusionist for around five years, from 2008 to 2013, at a time when it was one of the biggest players in the industry, and just when custom decks were really starting to boom. You might recognize some of the decks he created, which include popular titles like Arcane, Artifice, Infinity, and Fathom. These designs were among the first non-Bicycle branded custom decks that entered into the mainstream, at a time when the playing card industry was really starting to take off, and it's Lee McKenzie's creativity that lies behind the success that these Ellusionist decks had. Though his name might not be well known, he is in fact a leading figure from an important time. In 2013 Lee decided to stop freelancing under the Ellusionist banner, and set out on his own by successfully using crowdfunding to launch his Empire Playing Cards deck, and subsequently its follow-up, the Empire Bloodlines series. He has since launched a brand new website, which serves as the online portal for his lifestyle brand Kings & Crooks. It features cutting edge graphic design and stunning visuals, and includes branded items like playing cards, clothing, and more. Lee's own life journey illustrates his qualities as a risk-taker, artist, and explorer, who is willing to take bold steps into new territory as an independent designer and creator. He's also a perfectionist, and invests an enormous amount of himself when creating a deck of playing cards, and indeed into everything he does. His love for playing cards began with an interest in magic at a young age, and he was able to combine this with his skills in art and design, and his interest in the visual story-telling worlds created by movies, music, and photography. Equipped with this passion and these skills, Lee's design career has produced many popular playing cards. With his proven track record, credentials as a successful designer, and his fascinating life story, Lee McKenzie is well placed to share some fascinating observations not just about how he makes custom playing cards, but about the playing card industry as a whole, and perhaps more importantly, about an attitude to life. I'm very pleased that he was willing to share some of his thoughts for our readers. As always, Lee has a lot to say, and it's worth reading carefully and reflecting on. The Interview For those who don't know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself and your background? What do you do for a day job and/or what are your other interests? Today, after many years of building and sacrifice, I'm fortunate enough to be able to work on my passion full time. I devote every second I can to designing the kind of playing cards I wished existed and sharing them with magicians, collectors and card lovers like myself, all under my company, Kings & Crooks. I was originally born in Manchester, UK and growing up I was always fascinated by the cinematic worlds of movies, art and just getting lost in my imagination. Alongside martial arts, ninjas and spy movies, my curiosity for the mysterious and doing the impossible naturally led me to a huge interest in magic and playing cards at around 10 years old. An addiction to practicing and learning magic for endless hours each day became a big part of my early teens back in the 90's. That's when books, a mirror or face-to-face were the only ways you could learn anything. I first went to the Blackpool magic convention in '96 with my best friend and fellow magician, and that's when I realized just how many other people love this stuff like we did. Whenever I saw a Bicycle or Tally-Ho deck (instead of the crappy paper playing cards that creased and tore easily), I knew I was in good company. Every week we'd go to Affleck's Palace in Manchester on the third floor to a little magic shop where we could watch and learn from some much older and more experienced magicians (Ian and Mark) who had a huge impact on us. There was also Mushy Pea Juggling shop that had an awesome magic shop at the back (run by a guy called Simon). It was such an exciting time, constantly learning the secrets of this art I'd come to love. It was clear though that my focus was on playing cards almost exclusively. Something about them just felt simple and right but also powerful. A small normal object but that offered endless techniques, effects, skills to practice and amazing secrets to learn. A world of impossibility made real, right in your hands. I couldn't resist. From a young age, I had always been into drawing too, and that continued with me throughout school and college where I developed my "professional" career as a graphic designer. I worked in the post production industry mostly, designing motion graphics and highly visual design for DVD movie menus and TV graphics amongst other projects. That was where I could combine my love for design and visual storytelling with movies to create high impact and striking imagery to bring the viewer into another world and make them feel something. That's mainly what floats my boat. When did you start designing playing cards, and what got you started? I was always drawn to expressing myself outside of the confines of a traditional job, and so was often coming up with side projects to keep me stimulated ( one of which was a t-shirt brand ). Magic and playing cards were still a heavy part of my life and I'd continued practicing and learning from 11 yrs old to this day. Around 2007, I was hit with a spark of inspiration when I saw Ellusionist's Vintage 1800 decks and some kind of gut alarm bell started ringing inside. Given my love for graphic design, playing cards and magic, I felt compelled to start designing my own. Like a green light came on and the gates swung wide open just for me. During travel to Rome, inspired by some of the old-world gothic architecture I'd seen, I began work on my first deck. A year later, I had met my Australian girlfriend in Edinburgh and we eventually both decided to set off to travel the world. I spent a good chunk of change to get some decks printed in the US of my first concept, then I sent it to the CEO of Ellusionist, Brad Christian. I had dreamed my deck would be put alongside their own and help me bring the deck to other magicians via awesome brand I really admired. Brad simply responded with "All I can say is wow, I'll be in touch soon" and my heart skipped a beat, I was thrilled! With excitement coursing through my veins, our travels began and so did an opportunity to become the signature deck designer for Ellusionist. I initially wanted to launch that first deck of mine with them, and be part of their offerings, but they offered me to run with another idea they had and so I thought that would still be a great way to go. It was an amazing experience with great people and I truly felt like I was a part of something that was so right for me. After your success with Ellusionist, how did you come to start your own playing card company? 4 years, 5 decks and 15 countries travelled later, after the loss of my Grandfather, it became extremely clear that life was too short to put off doing the things you want. I decided I needed to realize my original dream to create my very own decks. To "build my own dreams instead of being hired to build someone else's" as the quote goes. It was a big risk as I didn't feel I could do both, so I left Ellusionist, determined but hugely under-prepared financially. I designed and launched my first deck on Kickstarter called Empire Playing Cards. The dream came true. It became a humbling success supported by almost 1000 card lovers from around the world. That was the next green light I needed and I couldn't believe it was actually happening. From then I decided to officially launch my own brand to continue sharing my vision and art for designing playing cards with all the magicians, card collectors and card lovers like me. Kings & Crooks was born and since then it's been what I've been working on every single day. The journey here has had so many challenges and fraught with sacrifice (as anything worth doing is), but I still think the risk was worth it and hope to keep pushing for my mission to inspire others with my art. What is the significance of your brand name, Kings & Crooks? The name Kings & Crooks itself is a reflection of the mindset it takes to create your own path in life, take risks and do what matters to you most. Even if that means breaking some rules in order to make your own, to live your own life and tell your own stories. It also relates to both the magician performing in the spotlight and the sleight of hand artist honing his deception skills under the cover of shade at the table. Magicians and mechanics, card men and con men, believer and deceivers. The imaginative and cinematic-like images these words conjure up in your mind is one of the big inspirations behind my work. I love to take those movie scene style visions and try to capture that feeling and put it on the back of a card. I always believe art should say something to you, to your eyes, your heart or your soul. It's a vehicle for expression. You can either contribute to the rest of the noise in the world, or say something that's worth hearing.