It’s hard to summarise the work of artist, or as he has suggested it ‘drawer’, Nigel Peake because there is so much of it and it’s varied. Nigel, who grew up in Ballytrustan (County Down) and currently lives between there and Paris, originally studied architecture in Edinburgh for six years and in 2013 lived in Switzerland for a period to teach an architectural studio. In the past 10 years he’s written and drawn 41 books, both for publishers Laurence King and Phaidon as well as under his own steam, covering cycling, bridges, cities, shapes, patterns, maps and much much more. His distinctive drawings have also appeared on work for Hermès, New York Times, FLOS, Tate, and the Royal Horticulture Society and he’s had exhibitions in New York, San Francisco, Paris, Shanghai and London. He once cycled from Edinburgh to Budapest and it’s probably fair to say that both architecture and cycling are a heavy presence in his extensive body of work.
Whatever the subject is, it’s his signature that is acutely present in every creation – the hand drawn, slightly wobbly line that he says is not a knowing style, more a case of “I really draw how I draw.”
Though Nigel is often on the move around the world for work, we managed to catch him electronically to ask some questions about his drawing habits, his attitude to colour and pattern, and what he’s been working on lately. We discovered, via his answers, that he has a quite lovely, poetic take on life…
Your work is varied, but seems to encapsulate a few themes – can you explain more (or put us straight)?
“I draw to understand a thing or a place because it does not make sense to me otherwise, or perhaps better to say, I don’t know it until I draw it. The world it is both remarkable and bizarre. Caves as deep as the highest mountains. Places of void and others of extreme density. Some loud, some quiet. I remember reading a sentence by the writer John Banville who said he always thought of himself as a visitor to this world. I like that idea, the visitor to a place, this feeling of never really knowing it but trying to grasp it.
One of my earliest memories is painting with the colour green when I was four at school, we wore old shirts back to front (mine was yellow and checked and the cuffs were beautiful) and the brushes were long and fat. At break time, we would each have a biscuit, and the teacher would break the biscuit. Perhaps to make it more interesting or to appear more plentiful, but I remember always joining the biscuit back together again like a puzzle on top of the table. 30 years later I am essentially doing the same thing, sitting at a table, wearing an old shirt while I work and trying to put the ‘thing’ back together or at least catch parts of it onto the page.”
How have your collaborations evolved with Hermès?
“The first work I made with Hermes was the press ‘Objets’ book in 2009 and since then I have worked with them in a number of different projects from scarfs to fabrics and in-between. Regardless of the project the beautiful thing about Hermes, is that the ‘story’ and the ‘craft’ of how it is to be made is central to the discussion.”
Can you tell us more about A Walk In the City panels – whether you knew it would be a triptych and where the idea for street scenes at different times of day came from?
“From the beginning it was seen as a triptych. I like the idea of how three pieces work together, it is the double and the other. I very much enjoy walking through a city, the same route but at different times of the day to see how light and shadows fall onto and into something and transforms it.
Did you have in mind particular applications for the panel – did you see them in a particular kind of building or interior?
“I imagine them as a drawing that could go any place. Like a book. From my table they go out into the ‘anywhere.’”
What is it like going from 2D work to projects such as shop windows for Hermès?
“The summer windows in 2015 in Faubourg was a collaboration with Antoine Platteau who is the creative director of window displays for Hermès in Paris. It was a good adventure. I enjoy very much the idea of a thick drawing, one that you can walk into. I recently developed this in a workshop at Boisbuchet.
How something is framed is important and it is why I find windows and doors wonderful. A hole in a building that frames the outside or inside. But all you have to do is tilt, lean, slant, jump, kneel, sink, rise and it all shifts and there is a widening of the world. The word window comes from the Norse word for eye-gate, which interests me because of the direct link to the eye while the gate speaks of the outside rather than door which implies inside. You are outward not in.”
What is your approach to pattern and colour –do you have in mind colour palettes and contrasting patterns before you begin or does it evolve as you go on with a print?
“The idea of putting something together is important, because it comes down to the tectonic of something i.e how does one thing meet another. It is probably what I enjoyed most about studying architecture. One could also say that it is about composition. How a drawing is structured but also beyond drawing, how something is composed in the everyday. One of my favourite things to do when I am in Ireland is to hang out the washing. To take it out from the machine, a wet clump, the colours all darker than normal, and translucent. Then to separate and peg each of these pieces onto the line, the best being the long sleeved lined shirt. It is heavy with weight but then the wind catches, it becomes a sail. And so you have all these shirts in a line, moving, snapping, falling, twisting. It is an act of composition and transformation, and I find it beautiful to do. The breeze becomes visible.”
It’s often observed that one aspect of your work that’s so lovely, is that we can see the work of your hand – is this important to you?
“The hand will be visible because the hand made it. When I make work I do not think of it in terms of style because I don’t know what the word actually means. I really draw how I draw. I do not think of how it will appear to others. It is a private solitary act by its nature and in the making of something it goes through this process of mark making then looking at it then returning to it and reacting to what has been done before. Until it is a collection of decisions, mistakes and moves. It is interesting to me when the idea of craft and technique become part of the making, not when it becomes the work but rather part of it.”
Do you work with particular materials?
“I use simple tools. At the moment in the floor of the room where I draw, there are pens, pencils, wax crayons, gouche, watercolours, inks and oil sticks and rolls of different types of paper.”
What kind of things inspire you – or if that’s too broad a question, what has inspired you recently?
“There are occurrences that just cause me to stop and look and I know I want to draw or write about it. These things change, years ago it was sheds, and then maps, then bridges and all these still interest me and I think about them but after I have drawn them, I do not necessarily return to them as a subject.
I am at my happiest when I am observing something in a quiet way, without having to explain it or wonder why I am looking at it. Recently I was having dinner in Milan and the two chefs were husband and wife, 80 and 81. They poured the oil, grated the parmesan, stirred the pot, tasted the sauce all with a beauty that comes from and with the rehearsed hand. I could have watched them all day.
After I have looked at something, I use what I have, words and lines to try and capture it, perhaps not necessarily ‘it’ in terms of shape but ‘of it’. Near the end of Aeneid Book VI translated by Seamus Heaney, there are two lines that hint towards the sometimes impossible nature of this desire to catch the ‘thing’: ‘Three times the form reached in vain, escaped like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.’”
Do you keep things around your desk that inspire – what is your work space like?
“My table is a collection of papers and tools and books and cups. To make something, it involves quite a lot of time and so the table is a reflection of this, almost geological.”
How different is working on your own projects, to working on commissions from a client?
“I make and publish books myself, I recently made three new editions for an exhibition of my drawings in Marseille at Fotokino. To make a book in this way is hard work, but in a very quiet way and indeed beautiful because it is done in silence. This collection of books was based on Receipts from my pockets, Stacks that I saw in various places last year and Unshorn in small landscapes.”
Is there a dream project you haven’t done yet?
“The world is a big place and there are many things that I have not yet drawn.”
What are you working on now / next?
“There are projects for Hermès, and I am preparing for a show in Yvon Lambert in Paris in late autumn and I want to build a wall.”
Find updates on the work of Nigel Peake on his website.