London-based Peepshow started out as many collectives do: a bunch of friends with a similar outlook had recently graduated (in this case from Brighton University in England) and were looking to save on studio rent, swap clients, and set up a website together. They were simply sharing costs and conversations, but as the seven friends began to take on more group commissions, they quickly discovered that it made the most sense to become a full-fledged company.
“The division of fees now entirely depends on the project,” says illustrator, set designer, and one of Peepshow’s founding members Chrissie Macdonald. “There’s no hierarchy between us, so everything is done through discussion and mutual agreement.”
Since 2000, Peepshow have worked on numerous collaborative projects with a list of clients that includes Sony, Samsung, Puma, MTV, BBC, Quicksilver, and Bloomingdale’s. Despite the fact that the collective works on such a range of high-profile jobs, each member’s style is still deliberately distinct and unique. So a Peepshow animation or illustration might be based on one member’s style, but they’ll often work together by dividing up tasks like storyboarding, art direction, and production. If a commission comes through for a specific illustrator, Peepshow members also all have their own separate agents to deal with that side of things.
For Peepshow’s illustrators, being in a collective provides the best of both worlds. Its members get to reap the benefits of working together, but everyone still has their own career, style, and outlook. It’s a platform that’s given its members—including evocative Luke Best and colorful, bold Lucy Vigrass—strength in numbers when it comes to promoting and distributing.
“Working together—whether alongside each other or in collaboration—has also meant that we can share responsibilities and costs when it comes to studios, exhibitions, websites, promotion, and fun stuff like accounting,” adds Macdonald.
Peepshow is an especially successful example of a contemporary illustration collective, and its no surprise that others are following their lead. Two Berlin-based groups, Edition Biografiktion and Parallel Universe, were also founded by illustration graduates who met at art school. Unlike graphic design, which can depend on collaboration, illustration is often considered a lonely and personal occupation—a fact that contributed to both sets of art students banding together in the first place. Paul Pretzel of Edition Biografiktion attests that “In a collective you aren’t lonely, but you can be if you want to. There are no strict rules.”
Paetzel formed the collective together with Ana Albero and Till Hafenbrak when they decided to collaborate on a comic about the famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner while at the University of Arts in Berlin. The book’s stories were a mix of factual anecdotes and fictional stories, so they called the project BIOGRAFKTION (merging the German words for “biography” and “fiction”). All three have different drawing styles, but were united by a love of childish lines, bright colors, and whimsical shapes. After making two other comics (one about Eddie Murphy, the next about Abba) with a similar thematic approach, the three friends realized that working closely had many advantages aside from sheer motivation.
“Even if you’re not working on a project together, you always have somebody by your side who looks at your work with a critical eye,” says Paetzel. “We also now share printing costs, studio rent, and table fees at festivals.” The three illustrators also find that working together pulls them out of their comfort zones, and although their aesthetic styles never blur, they swap printing and production tips, influencing one another in that way.
“If you have an opportunity to form a collective with people you get on with and if you like what they’re doing, you should do it so as soon as possible,” stresses Paetzel. “It only has advantages.”
You don’t even have to share a studio or finances to make a partnership work. Parallel Universe bands together through a Tumblr page where clients can find like-minded illustrators. Since 2012, they’ve also organized group exhibitions and created publications together. Britain’s Puck Collective and Germany’s all women Spring Collective work in the same way.
“Forming a collective felt like fun and it felt strong,” says the very talented Parallel Universe member Cynthia Kittler, whose work illustrates the pages of the New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Zeit. “Initially, we loved that we could write our name on stuff, build a Facebook page, etc. We share our knowledge, we grow together, we help each other with stuff like taxes, and we recommend each other to clients. Mostly though, we’re friends.”
There have always been collectives, but the fact that so many formerly solo-going illustrators are banding together is telling. In some ways, it’s another sign that illustration is mirroring the multidisciplinary design studio model. And as illustration is increasingly treated like a design solution rather than a decorative element, there’s more need for larger collectives that can put their minds and pens together like an agency might. Peepshow may be at the forefront, but we expect smaller collectives (in Germany and beyond) to evolve in that direction.
After all, who wouldn’t want to work in a place like Peepshow, at least the way MacDonald describes it? “It’s a bit like a family,” she says. “And like any family we don’t always agree on everything, but we always respect and support each other.”