A mash-up of eclectic artists, the five-year anniversary poster for Boiler Room tells you everything you need to know about the mythical club nights that are broadcast live online. The art director behind this celebratory collision of styles is Joe Prytherch, a music lover and illustrator who found himself in his dream job at the age of 25.
Prytherch’s journey was punctuated with rejection and serendipity; the intricate cross-section drawings of Steven Biesty fascinated him as a child, but it wasn’t until much later that he realized he could draw himself. First came a degree in film studies which ground to a halt after a “super pretentious” short film was met with poor grades. Finding the filmmaking world far removed from the creativity he craved, Prytherch discovered that design allowed him to get his hands dirty immediately, and a portfolio of T-shirt and band posters bagged him his first job at a small agency. “I literally couldn’t believe that I was going to be paid to do design work… it was unbelievable,” he tells me.
Prytherch developed a mild obsession with the underground illustrators who created work for his favorite record labels. Artists Dust La Rock, So Me, and Parra playfully captured the characters involved with record labels Fool’s Gold, Ed Banger, and Stones Throw, respectively. “I wanted to do stuff like that,” Prytherch remembers, “more irreverent, and tied to music.”
Still unsure how his work would be received, Prytherch created a pseudonym, Mason London. “I did that so if I was really bad I could do away with it. If people were searching for my name as a designer I didn’t want all these poor illustrations to come up…” he explains. He needn’t have worried, his break was about to come.
Prytherch submitted a drawing to website Threadless, where users vote for designs to be made into T-shirts. “It was an ‘inner-city Hawaiian’ T-shirt. It got voted out immediately. It sunk. But Jeff Jank [of Stones Throw Records] saw it and thought it would work for J Dilla.” To Prytherch’s delight and astonishment, it became the record cover for a new compilation of Dilla’s work. “It made me think that you shouldn’t be quick to discard something just because it didn’t chime for one group of people.”
It was beyond belief to Prytherch that he was now being commissioned by a label he idolized. “I thought ‘I’m done. I’ve peaked far too early’”.
While a day job at digital advertising agency LBi paid the bills, he began running his own clothing label as a side project. The reality of running a business was far from the glamour he imagined. “It was supposed to be a fun thing but it ended up being the longest thing. I was spending every single lunchtime posting jumpers and T-shirts. I had to unpick the labels and sew in my own labels each time.” But an escape was still to come. Upon applying for a part-time position at the emerging Boiler Room, his interviewer was a previous employee of Stones Throw, and recognized his work for the label. He got the job.
The exclusive Boiler Room club nights began when its founder set up a webcam to record a mix with a group of friends. Realizing more people were watching online than were in the room, Boiler Room went on to broadcast up to five DJ sets per week online, building a cult audience. At the live events, a crowd famously dances self-consciously behind the DJ, very much part of the entertainment to the audience online.
During Prytherch’s tenure the brand grew and grew. Live festival screenings of artists like Caribou and Bonobo brought them credibility, and partnerships with brands like Ray-Ban made it a financial success. It was Prytherch’s job to churn out digital flyers to promote the events across social platforms. He describes the perfect vision of a 21st century design process; “I would have briefings via Slack, listen to the artist on SoundCloud, and publish on Instagram”. For Prytherch, the confines of Instagram can be a huge inspiration. “I like having those constraints. When someone’s looking at something on Instagram they’re only looking at that one thing. You have one second to catch someone’s attention, but once you do have it you have their whole attention.”
Most of the time he had no brief to work to, just the music itself. This would be terrifying for many artists, but Prytherch learned to embrace the blank page. He quotes American cartoonist Bob Gill, “he says anything you’re designing for, you find the interesting thing about it. And then that is what you bring out… so it’s about finding the thing about a night out that’s exciting. I’ve done a million techno DJs, but even if the music stays the same there’s always something in the personality.”
Boiler Room proved to be the platform that brought Prytherch’s style to wider attention. His freelance client base grew until he outgrew Boiler Room. Recent freelance works include a sneaker-inspired cookbook for a pop-up Japanese restaurant in South London, and an exciting project for Turner Prize-winning architecture group Assemble, both of which make use of very different sets of skills.
And how is he so widely skilled? The internet, he says. “I think that you can learn anything now. If you want to know how to do something there’s a tutorial on it.” If YouTube tutorials can win you clients like Stüssy then Prytherch is the poster boy for a new generation of self-taught designers. The next client on his hit list? None other than Kendrick Lamar.