Stack a few cards on the living room floor – turn it into a professional full-time career that takes you around the globe and straight into the Guinness Book of World Records.
That’s what Bryan Berg, 40, of Sante Fe, New Mexico, has done. Taught by his grandfather at age 8 to stack cards into miniature skyscrapers as a kid in Iowa, Berg has turned child’s play into a lucrative one-of-a-kind occupation with no glue, gimmicks, tape or tricks. His clients include corporations, governments, and non-profit organizations.
“People often use the phrase ‘house of cards’ to describe something shaky and unstable,” he says in his 2009 book, Stacking the Deck: Secrets of the World’s Master Card Architect. “They haven’t seen what I’ve been building with cards for years – miniature versions of stadiums, landmarks, and futuristic cities.”
His structures are generally so sound and strong they can support nearly anything: One of his card houses supported 2,700 pounds of Las Vegas showgirls – while “another held an entire Little League team, complete with coaches,” he says.
It’s why he takes almost as much joy in knocking down his structures after they’re completed as he does in the “builds” themselves – proving there are no hidden gimmicks about his work and showing how well constructed they really are. “A leafblower is usually my method of choice” for knockdowns, he says lightly. “Kids at my events love to take home the cards and start building after my structures have been destroyed.”
This is a guy, in other words, who’s taken the hand he’s been dealt – and found joy and profit in it.
Last month, Berg – whose easygoing manner defies the precise nature of his work – built a model of the newly renovated Plaza Romania shopping mall in Bucharest entirely out of 65,000 freestanding playing cards. It took seven days of full-time work. Last year during a two-week period in Sydney, Australia, he built a 13-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower, his “most difficult challenge to date,” he says. When finished it weighed over 235 pounds and was “strong enough to support 420 French baguettes.”
Berg holds a master’s degree from Harvard in design studies and earned his bachelor’s in architecture from Iowa State. He’s built card structures in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia and his client list reads like a who’s who of the best global brands: Lexus, Walt Disney World, Holiday Inn, Procter and Gamble, Fed Ex.
He’s constructed card towers for the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, and the San Francisco Opera, as well as for the Warner Brothers movie “Batman: The Dark Knight,” among many others. He also lectures regularly on science, technology and the arts at venues like The National Arts Club, Exploratorium, the Illinois Institute of Technology and the Alexander Calder Foundation.
So what’s the secret of someone who holds the Guinness World Record for the Tallest House of Freestanding Playing Cards (since 1992) – as well as for the World’s Largest House of Freestanding Playing Cards?
Berg uses a grid technique that “involves making little 4-walled cells that form a waffle or honeycomb kind of pattern. I studied images from nature and the patterns that cells make under a microscope in different kinds of plants, which led me to the technique I use,” he says. “I’ve found this is the sturdiest way to build something with cards. It also allows [my] buildings to not only get really tall, but also to take on a variety of interesting shapes and details.”
He has also developed a stackable card “toy” set, a starter kit for other would-be cardstackers.
Does he ever get paper cuts? “No,” he says. And – “It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. What people don’t know is that I'm terribly clumsy and I’ve sidestepped that major issue with passion.”
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