Chris Gray

For a 26 year-old, Chris Gray has an impressive number of strings to his bow.

He is the founder and director of Manchester-based illustration agency TOY, he is represented for film and animation work by Studio AKA in London, and he is a designer and illustrator in own right, producing work recently for clients that include Umbro, Howies and Nike. He recently created his own artist pack (at CR’s behest) for ustwo’s Granimator iPad app, and is also a regular contributor to Tourist Magazine as a photographer and writer.

These various activities are all the more impressive when Gray reveals that he had a wobbly start in his graphic design studies at Salford University. “I was by no means a great student,” he recalls, “my sketchbooks were often completely empty and my attendance was less than perfect.” However, a confidence crisis in his second year and a worry that his coursemates were better than he was and progressing at a faster rate, led him to pull his proverbial socks up and provided him with a new and lasting drive to create and collaborate.

It was a similar worry that he wasn’t producing work to his own high standards that led Gray to set up TOY in February 2009. “I had become increasingly frustrated with the quality of work I was producing with the client restraints of working for a mid-sized advertising agency,” he tells us. “I was also hearing horror stories of illustrators being mistreated and underpaid,” he continues.

“There seemed to me to be a gap for an agency that could not just provide artwork, but also creative ideas, no matter what the scale, surface or  2 3 device. The idea was to work with my friends, heroes and young image-making talent.”

Fortunately for Gray, his plan to set up TOY was met with support by his then employers, LOVE in Manchester. “They were extremely generous,” he says. “They allowed me to use a space in their studio and helped an enormous amount with registering the business, setting up accounts, commissioning work and advice with the day to day running of a business – which for myself and most other illustrators I talk to is the most terrifying part of the job.”

Beyond sourcing commercial work for himself and TOY’s ten illustrators (which include Jiro Bevis, Jon Boam and  Jean Jullien), Gray is keen to bring his and their work to new audiences. Earlier this year, to celebrate the agency’s first birthday, he organised a group show in Berlin, the culmination of which he describes as “probably the greatest moment of my life to date”.

Currently Gray is living and multi-tasking in Malmö, Sweden. There’s a new TOY website in development; plans for TOY’s second birthday group show ­– which is looking like it might take place in Copenhagen – are afoot; an animated piece with Studio AKA for the New York Times is bubbling away, as are thoughts of developing products.

“It seems easier than ever to produce things now,” says Gray, “with numerous websites devoted to printing papers, 3D printing, manufacturing, laser cutting, vinyl cutting and more. Anything you can think of there seems to be the means online to upload a few files and have a polished, produced item ready to re-sell or develop. I would really like to expand on what TOY has already achieved with the work on interiors and structural pieces and to produce items worthy of being sold.”

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