Every YouTube star has a video that cemented his or her place in internet fame. In the case of Zach Mueller, that video is probably one called "Hypnotic Cardistry Kid." In case you're not one of the 1.2 million people who's seen it (and you can scroll down and watch it below), it'll change the way you look at a deck of cards.
Set to Pogo's "Do Something Rhythmic," the three-minute sequence shows Mueller playing with cards while he kicks around near LA's art museum. And as he sits in a bamboo grove or perches in a cypress tree, Mueller makes his deck of cards do things that cards simply do not do: They float in space, blossom like lotus flowers, and flutter through the air like hummingbirds. In Mueller's hands, cards happily ignore the basic laws of physics. They seem to be alive, to move on their own, as though Mueller is coaxing them around on invisible strings.
Except he isn't, of course, and that's the whole point. Zach Mueller is a cardist, and his YouTube videos are a window into an unusual talent most people have never even heard of.
A few years ago, Mueller was a bored teenager sitting in a bedroom in his parents' house and spending a little too much time on the internet. Today, Mueller is probably the foremost cardist in the U.S. He is also the creative and entrepreneurial force behind Fontaine, a brand of cards, a line of clothing and a YouTube channel. Mueller has toured Europe, appeared at Sundance, starred in TV spots and signed on for consulting jobs. And while Zach Mueller didn't invent cardistry and is hardly its sole practitioner—an event called Cardistry-Con draws the faithful from all of the world—he has one particular claim to fame: Fontaine, the manifestation of his creativity and business savvy, is cardistry's first lifestyle brand.
"I really love my cards," Mueller told Adweek. "I really think it's something I'll be doing for a long, long time."
The story of cardistry
Cardistry might feel like a millennial phenomenon, but its roots are as old as magic itself. Before he became a famous escape artist, Houdini practiced cardistry. So did a tuxedoed impresario named Cardini, who headlined in New York in the 1930s. Most all magicians used flourishes to make their card tricks seem more mysterious, says Murray Sawchuck, who debuted on America's Got Talent and now headlines at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. "Card flourishing shows the skill you have with your hands," Sawchuck said. "It's almost like a piano player doing a run. It showcases how talented you are."
But cardistry as an actual calling, one that these days appeals almost solely to postadolescent males, traces its origins to two guys: Dan and Dave Buck. A few years ago, the brothers began making their own cardistry videos, the allure of which was only aided by the fact that Dan and Dave are identical twins. One of the pair's wide-eyed watchers was Zach Mueller.
Mueller had dabbled in mail-order magic tricks since he was 10 years old, but as he entered his teens, he gravitated toward cards. He liked the elegance and simplicity of working with them: no silk cape, no rabbit and top hat. "Just a deck and you're set," as he put it. Mueller's moves were good enough that he began making instructional videos for an online magic shop called Theory 11. He built a following and then began shooting his own tutorials on YouTube. And gradually, he found that he liked cardistry better than magic.
Mueller began developing his own flourishes—swing cuts, pirouettes, twirls and waterfalls—and that took practice.
But the birth of Fontaine, the brand, happened pretty much by accident. One night in 2013, a "super bored" Mueller was toying around with Photoshop when he decided to design his own deck of cards, figuring it would add a bit of splash to his videos. Taking his inspiration from the mirrored-logo style made famous in the 1970s by Vegas casinos like Jerry's Nugget and the Wynn, Mueller created a mirror-image logo from a lower-case "f" and toyed with it until he was happy.
"I made a little design," he recalled. "It was pretty much an hour of effort." When Mueller began using his homemade Fontaine deck on YouTube, viewers asked him where they could purchase a deck. At the time, he said, "I thought it was weird." But when viewers kept asking, Mueller had another thought.
The United States Playing Card Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, is America's largest producer of playing cards. It manufactures cards for brands such as Bee, Kem and Bicycle—and it will make custom decks, too, if the customer can pay for a minimum order of 2,500 decks. On a whim, Mueller went to fundraising site Indiegogo to appeal for funding to produce a run of Fontaine decks.
Then he went to bed. By the next morning, his campaign had raised $5,000. Within 18 hours, Mueller had the $10,000 he needed to produce a run of red Fontaines. Mueller priced them at $12 a pack, and every last one sold out, giving Mueller a profit of about $20,000.
"I was 17," he said, "and that amount of money was wild to me."
Without quite realizing it, Mueller was becoming a marketer as much as a cardist. When his next fundraising campaign (this one on Kickstarter) raised $67,000, he began producing Fontaine merchandise, too: baseball caps ($25), shirts ($40) and hoodies ($75). The blue Fontaine series sold out, too, and that was the point at which Mueller realized he had more than just a hobby. As he later recounted on his website, "I realized maybe this whole Fontaine thing could actually be a super-viable way to make a living."
The real trick is marketing
With the exception of the mirrored "f" design on the back, Fontaines look a lot like any pack of cards you'd buy at a drugstore. "There's nothing innately, hugely special about my cards," Mueller admits. "It's mostly the content I'm making that people like."
Mueller's YouTube productions are shot in colorful locations, layered with EDM tracks and frequently feature guest cardists Noel Heath, Rory Adams, Franco Pascali and other "homies," as Mueller calls them. The videos are irreverent and sometimes mildly obscene—a middle finger here, a penis cartoon there—and feature titles aimed squarely at the under-24 crowd. "Hypnotic Cardistry Kid," Mueller admitted, "is pure clickbait and cheesy, but this is the world we live in."
And it works. Mueller's subscriber base hovered around 6,000 when he started selling cards in 2013. A year later it hit 33,000. Today, he has over 65,000 followers. His 2015 video "Black Belt" notched nearly 562,000 views, but he's topped 1 million several times. The fact that Mueller's Fontaine cards occupy center stage in his videos has, of course, only helped sell more cards. After his run of 15,000 blue Fontaines sold out, he made a black series, and those sold out, too.
A card lifestyle brand?
These days, Mueller's income from his cards stretches well into six-figure territory (more than enough for him to have moved out of his parents' house and into his own place). And while sales of Fontaine decks will likely remain Mueller's bread-and-butter business, Fontaine is already finding a broader audience.
"People are recognizing the Fontaine brand who don't even do cardistry or magic," Mueller says. "A few years ago, I thought that my videos and Fontaines would be solely for cardists to consume. However, in the past year, layman audiences are liking and sharing our brand."
"It's really interesting that Zach has the capacity to run a brand like that—selling the hoodies and hats—even though the core product is a deck of cards," said J.D. Dillard, who hired Mueller as a card consultant on his 2016 film, Sleight, an unexpected hit at Sundance that's since been picked up for national distribution by WWE. "Look at a lot of the skateboard brands," Dillard added. "There are people who wear clothes from those companies who've never picked up a skateboard in their lives."
The Fontaine brand has also gotten a lift from Mueller's other media endeavors, which include a Japanese credit card TV spot. The magician Murray adds that Mueller's talent and showmanship is good enough to give him live-performance potential.
"There's a huge market for what he's doing, but he needs to put together an act that's three and a half minutes of his best material that can drop into a variety show," Murray says. "He's talented—no doubt. His stuff is amazing."
For now, though, Mueller doesn't seem to be pining for the bright lights of Las Vegas or late-night TV. He's branching out into dance, he says, referring to his most recent video, "Pastel Paper," which fuses break-dancing and pantomime elements with cardistry. Mueller is also branching out into consulting—"I've got a couple commercial things in the works," was all he'd say—and the creative freedom is a little dizzying.
"It feels great and weird," he said. "It can be scary sometimes being at the wheel of Fontaine, which was one design made for the fun of it and is now paying my rent." But, he adds, "it's also exciting. I've got so many ideas I want to put out with Fontaine, and I can't wait for the world to see them."