In this digital age, the desk of a graphic designer or an illustrator is generally an uncluttered place. A Mac, a monitor, a scanner and printer and perhaps a sketch or ideas book are the telltale traits of the modern imagemaker’s work surface. Illustrator Chrissie Macdonald’s desk isn’t like that. A cutting mat and scalpel take centre stage and a rather fetching red typewriter. Which is made entirely out of card, wire, foamboard, circular foam stickers, double-sided sticky tape and a spot or two of glue. Clear plastic storage boxes are piled high – stuffed with similarly constructed models – and shelves groan under the weight of sheets of different coloured card, boxes of miscellaneous stickers and other materials. Cut out card silhouettes of birds and other animals are in evidence while a two-foot-tall orange robot surveys the scene just to the right of the desk. For the record, it too is made out of card, buttons, hair clips and other bits and pieces.
Macdonald makes things with her hands using the most basic of materials. A sculptor with a penchant for using card, she studied illustration at Brighton University, graduating in 1998. The friendships forged with some of her fellow illustrators (Andrew Rae, Miles Donovan, Spencer Wilson, Lucy Vigrass and more) on the course led to the creation of illustration collective Peepshow in 2001. “Towards leaving college, we knew we were a tight group and talked about maybe doing something together,” Macdonald recalls, “but it took a few years to actually form a collective. I think that’s what it took for us all to discover how lonely illustration can be as a profession. We’d all been working from home, taking our folios round to different people and what began to happen is that when one of us got a call to submit our folio, then we’d all go round or one of us would take all of our folios. It became obvious that this little network and approach to promoting ourselves was invaluable.”
The real catalyst for the formation of Peepshow was when Lucy Vigrass and Miles Donovan were taken on as assistants to artist Graham Rawle on a project for Expo 2000 in Germany – which involved creating a 4,000 square foot supermarket installation called Hi-Life. “It didn’t take long for more of us to get involved,” recalls Macdonald, “working together from a studio in East London, building and sourcing props for the project. I created a scale model of the installation which we then spent a month erecting in Germany. The experience really affected our outlook on the work we could produce and made us realise how enjoyable it was working together.”
Prior to this project, Macdonald wasn’t sure how to apply her 3d modelmaking skills and ideas to work or rather making a living. “After college I tried a few different things,” she recalls. “I worked on a film project and did window and in-store display at Harvey Nichols for a year. It was an amazing experience to do that and learn about it, but I was a team member and not actually designing the windows. After a while I realised I quite wanted to start doing my own designing – and move away from fashion stuff more towards the actual making side of things.”
Now Macdonald is happily making things for a host of clients, most recently for a series of Central Saint Martins brochures, print campaigns for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and also for Orange, and a video for David E Sugar’s track Chelsea Girls, which Peepshow, as a collective, directed.
“Primarily Peepshow formed as a way of facilitating self-promotion more than anything,” admits Macdonald, “but it grew from there. Even doing exhibitions, because there were a few of us, it meant we were guaranteed a better turnout. Costs were reduced and contacts were shared.” As commissions came through Peepshow’s door, its members have worked out between them which of them is best suited to a particular job and, perhaps inevitably, have ended up assisting each other and collaborating on jobs.
And collaboration is something that is really important to Macdonald, her working relationship with photographer John Short (One To Watch, cr July) being key. “Originally it was a mutual friend of ours, James Casey, an editorial art director based in New York, who paired us together for a menswear magazine shoot. It was a fashion story in a Halloween issue of Complex magazine. I worked with Marie O’Connor [a fellow Peepshow member] – we built these small, haunted house sets where things weren’t quite what they seemed. The idea was to tell a story as you went through the house, which was inhabited by cut-outs of men in fashion wear. It was a really fun job because we built the sets here in London and then went to New York to shoot the models and cut them out, brought them back to London, then shot the whole thing together. Quite an involved process but it was a really good job to start on together – and we pulled it off .”
They not only pulled it off, Macdonald and Short connected on the project. “We realised we had similar ideas and aesthetics and thought it would be great to do more work together. So we decided we’d do as much self-initiated work together as we could to fill our portfolios and explore new territory.”
One such non-commissioned project was initiated by Short who had access to a disused building and was taking shots of the rundown interior spaces. “John had been in the building and basically called me with the concept that in this decrepit old building, beautiful flowers could be growing out of the gaps and cracks in the floor,” explains Macdonald. “This is the great thing about collaborating with someone who can take you out of working in a particular way. We went down to Columbia Road flower market and bought lots of interesting looking flowers and then spent a day wandering round this cavernous building finding interesting places for the flowers to sprout out of. Essentially it was really spontaneous and it felt different, experimental. At the time it felt like a fun thing to be doing and we certainly didn’t expect the images to be as eye-opening as they are. People really respond to that series.”
The haunted house shoot has also proved popular and the pair are still commissioned on the strength of it – most recently by design agency Praline for a set of images to adorn posters and brochures for Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. “It’s in a similar style to that original haunted house project John and I did,” says Macdonald. “We spent a few days in Saint Martins shooting walls and objects and various things, not to mention students in various poses. We then made models of hybrid studios using different elements we’d shot and we placed cut outs of the students within those sets.”
Macdonald and Short have also been busy on their biggest job together to date, for Orange through ad agency Fallon. “It’s been surprisingly good fun working on such a big campaign,” says Macdonald. “You’d think advertising work would be really prescribed but actually I’ve found myself doing exactly what I like doing and even trying new things. It’s become a real project more than just another job.” The print campaign incorporates shots by Short of groups of 3d models of objects (including the two-foot-tall orange robot on Macdonald’s desk) designed by Macdonald. So many models, in fact, that Macdonald had to assemble a team of assistants. “For this job I had to put together a team who could work alongside me and help me get a huge amount of modelmaking done in a short period of time,” she explains. So is this an example of how working in a collective can be handy? “Yes, but I also got a lot of non-Peep-show people involved too,” she reveals. “Most of them are fellow ex-Brighton graduates that I recruited specially and we’re very possibly going to do more work together for the Orange campaign.”
Seeing Macdonald’s models in the flesh, the scale is a surprise. The camera that appears in Macdonald and Short’s campaign for Edinburgh Fringe, created through agency Marque, is actually about two feet wide. The mixing desk on the cover of this issue is only a few inches tall. “Yes, sometimes the things I make are big and sometimes they’re tiny,” says Macdonald. “I’d definitely like to work with a more human element in the future. Take things off the table top and into real environments.” It’s at this point that we start discussing the Stonehenge incident from Spinal Tap where a stage designer fatefully produces a model of the sacred stones some 16 inches high. “That’s actually happened to me,” laughs Macdonald. “I’m showing the client a model I’ve made and they’re like, ‘What do you mean this is the real thing?’” Of course, this highlights rather well the imagemaking partnership Macdonald is forging with Short. The size of the models isn’t really relevant, but the quality and detail of them is paramount. The expertise and aesthetic sensibilities Short brings to lighting and shooting them means the viewer believes the world they’ve created in a particular image. “Working with John has made a big difference to what I do,” says Macdonald. “We’re going to keep on collaborating and exploring ideas and hopefully we’ll keep getting a good response.”