Once a group of Brighton University graduates with “degrees in illustration and no grand plan” Peepshow has grown to become one of the best-loved creative collectives working today. Their gorgeous new book does not intend to tell that story, rather by focussing on the individual members and their work is encapsulates the spirit and the talent that underpins it. We spoke to four of the members – Miles Donovan, Chrissie MacDonald, Luke Best and Andrew Rae – plus designer Emmi Salonen to find out how you distill more than a decade of work into a single tome.
From the beginning, the challenge for the Peepshow team was to condense down a practice that has never been “a fixed entity” – in terms of members or disciplines – into a cohesive whole. Taking in illustration, animation, set-design, textiles and art direction for a mighty client list including M&C Saatchi, the BBC and The New York Times, plus loads of their own work for exhibitions and publications around the world, the problem for the team was never going to be a lack of work for the book, but working out how to structure it.
Early discussions around chronologies or categories were jettisoned so as not to “impose a false sense of order onto a process that is often more messy than planned,” as the book’s introduction puts it.
In fact it goes further than that as Luke explains: “We realised that we do not have that linear way of working and that is our strength.”
“So in terms of structure we just sat there and tried to find connections between pieces of work,” Miles adds. “It could be as much as: ‘This person collaborates with this person,’ but we got down to saying things like: ‘Chrissie is married to Andrew…’
“There is a logic but it’s our logic,” Luke says, and they credit Emmi with bringing the work together through her elegant, restrained design.
An early decision was taken that they didn’t want the final book to cost any more than £25 and this filtered down into every decision from the number of pages to the paper stock (which had to be changed after supplies of the first choice were wiped out in the Japanese Tsunami).
Each member was given a set number of pages to fill and was responsible for selecting their own work, but again this wasn’t always straightforward, as Andrew says: “Everyone had their own ideas of what they wanted other people to put in.”
While some of them reached back 12 years to find work they wanted to use, others chose from a much more recent pool, and finding that the collective input was invaluable in shaping the final decisions, that process too became a public one.
“We had little crits,” says Chrissie. “It was the first time since college we have done that.”
The team wanted the book to serve as an introduction to Peepshow for people who don’t know their work, but were determined to add enough depth to satisfy those more familiar with the collective. They were also determined not to try and give a blueprint for success, and there’s genuine humility that their way of doing things is only one among many.
Full of praise for their publisher and obviously delighted with the finished article, is there anything they feel is missing? Original plans to include more rough drafts, references etc were scuppered by copyright laws and Luke says the only thing he would change is to focus a little less on their finished products. “I think overall what is missing is the stuff we are interested in outside of work – it does not show the other bits of our personalities.”
Emmi admits that she avoided a tough decision by having everyone choose something for the front cover, and the call on whether to include individual names was also settled by the designer: “I said to put their names on the front because the layout works better!”
Having a designer who knew them all personally and works out of their east London studio was clearly a great help, because as Chrissie said: “We could just prod her in the back with a big stick if we saw her doing something we didn’t like.”
She’s joking (I think!) but there’s no doubt this is a seriously good way to mark ten years of Peepshow, much more than a greatest hits, it’s a considered, colourful, stylish way to link the group’s past, present and future. Here’s to the next ten years guys!