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Louie Mantia Updates Centuries-Old Japanese Playing Cards With Stunning Modern Designs

An icon designer by trade, Mantia was hired three years ago to design a hanafuda emoji for Facebook. As soon as he started researching the art form, he fell in love.

Founder: Louie Mantia

Year launched: 2020

Game types: Card decks

Flagship game: Junior hanafuda, a centuries-old style of Japanese playing cards reimagined with a punchy, modern design.

For Louie Mantia, it all started with an emoji.

An icon designer by trade, Mantia was hired three years ago to design a hanafuda emoji for Facebook. Loosely translated as "flower cards," hanafuda is a Japanese deck of 12 suits of four cards each, depicting the months of the year and the country's flora and fauna.

As soon as Mantia started researching the art form, he fell in love.

"I went totally overkill and bought 50 decks," says Mantia, the designer behind Portland card company Junior.

Before he designed his own deck, Mantia went on something of a quest to learn as much about hanafuda as he could. He called up his friend and colleague, Japanese app designer and Junior adviser Nobtaka Nukui, and let loose a deluge of questions.

Mantia and Nukui's research involved visits to museums in Japan and deep dives into hanafuda's history, from its origins by way of Portugal in the 1600s to the version that Nintendo released as the company's first product, all the way up to its modern incarnations.

Eventually, Mantia came up with his own contribution to the centuries-old craft—stark, beautifully simple shapes and symbols representing Japan's plants, animals and legends in bright colors.

Junior printed its first decks just before the pandemic hit, but put off releasing them until November. Land Gallery, Junior's Portland venue, is temporarily closed. But at Tokyo card specialty shop Uso no Tobacco, the decks quickly sold out.

Mantia has already designed Junior's next releases: rare, 14-suit dragon and tiger decks.

"Some people just don't even know that these kinds of cards exist because they're hyperregional," he says. "So I really want to bring that stuff to other people because I think it's cool."

What game are you really into right now? "I've been enjoying playing scopa with Italian playing cards, though my friend Alessio Gianni tells me I should also learn how to play briscola, another popular—and in his opinion, better—Italian card game."

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