For all their mercurial, even egotistical temperaments, creatives often need to work on a team. From Gertrude Stein’s salon to Ettore Sottsass’s Memphis design collective from 1980s-era Italy to Pentagram, there’s plenty of living proof that high tides really do rise all ships.
Chrissie Macdonald (who, it should be said, speaks with a chipper eagerness and sounds neither mercurial nor egotistical) is also proof that power lies in numbers. When the illustrator, who lives in London, graduated from the nearby University of Brighton Faculty of Arts, she says her career went a little wayward. She had a style—she creates 3-D models of Pixar-sweet scenes out of foam, paper, and acrylic, and then photographs them—but no outlet. “I veered off working in art departments, on films, or window displays, trying to find how to place my work,” she says.
The hustle is real for illustrators. It’s not like being a graphic designer, where firms or publications will hire you full-time. It’s work by commission, and for a rookie wandering around town doing portfolio drops, maybe no work at all. So in 2000, Macdonald and six other like-minded Brighton graduates banded together and formed Peepshow Collective. The early days for the design group sound like a young person’s fantasy of bohemian life. “We’d meet up in the pub because none of us had a studio,” she says, “to talk about ideas and to think of ways of getting noticed.”
Peepshow pooled their heads and funds and staged events, like pop-up installations in the foyers of advertising agency offices, or a design store at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s courtyard arts fair. Plus, the designers inspired each other. “You don’t go get a job as an illustrator; it can become lonely,” Macdonald says. “It was like a support network.”
Around three years after Peepshow got its start, Macdonald’s career started to take off. Her illustrative style seems particularly well-suited to the times. Like today’s animated movies and wearable gadgets, the objects in her photographs have a smooth, manufactured quality to them. Unlike those animations and gadgets, however, she takes a Luddite approach. Most items are cut out of foam, and then carefully covered in card or paper (“A scalpel is my best friend,” Macdonald says). For certain items, like spherical shapes, Macdonald sources items from junk shops, or orders laser cut pieces of acrylic. In a recent illustration for a design book, Macdonald recreated some artifacts from the Transport for London’s Lost Property Office. The coins are acrylic covered in gold leaf; the glass domes are silicone breast implants purchased from a thrift shop.
Macdonald’s hit a stride with editorial work for publications like the Guardian and WIRED, but says a children’s book might also be in the pipeline. And as for Peepshow? The collective is all grown up, and is seeing group commissions roll in. “We’ve become a company without meaning to.”