They were only meant to be a record of his travels, but Nigel Peake’s distinctive maps are now exhibited across the globe. Fiona Nicolson meets the part-time cartographer who remains an architect first and foremost

Everyone knows what a map is. It’s a visual presentation of how to get from A to B. But in the hands of map drawer and illustrator Nigel Peake, it becomes something very different. He uses his imagination to portray straightforward information in a unique and unusual way.

Originally from Northern Ireland, Peake is currently a tutor at the Edinburgh School of Architecture, where he is also completing his architectural studies. However, his talents for drawing have already come to the attention of companies such as Habitat, and he has created illustrations to adorn a range of products for the retailer’s summer 2008 collection.

There have been architectural accolades along the way too/ Peake received a prestigious commendation from the Royal Institute of British Architects at silver award level, for a thesis based on his vision for the rejuvenation of Istanbul’s Galata Bridge. This was a significant project, not just for the recognition it achieved, but also because it provided the inspiration for the very first of Peake’s intricate map drawings.

‘The city was beautiful, noisy, vigorous and chaotic, and my reaction was to want to tidy it up and make it orderly,’ Peake recalls. ‘It has since become my way of remembering places I’ve visited and I now draw a map of everywhere I go. I like starting with fragments of information and building them up into a picture.’

Peake has since gone on to create many more of his maps, which are unusual and individual representations of a country, town, or even just a street or field. His versions of the contours and layout of a place bear very little resemblance to those you might find on traditional Ordnance Survey maps. Instead, they are highly detailed drawings, sometimes in colour, sometimes not. Some maps give a broad, overall impression, some zoom in on specific landmarks. ‘I’m playing with the concept of a map, while keeping it within conventional parameters,’ he explains.

Peake’s favourite part of the creative process when drawing a map is the very beginning. ‘I like getting back to basics with just a pencil and a bit of paper, with some music on in the background and taking it from there, although I enjoy the technological aspect of my work, too,’ he says. ‘It’s good to be able to transfer my map on to a computer, where I can make changes to scales or colours quickly, without having to start drawing again from scratch.’

One of Peake’s biggest projects to date was for the Six Cities Design Festival earlier this year. He created a series of map drawings of each of the six Scottish cities, which were featured on a billboards at Aberdeen’s railway station.

His technique for drawing maps is to keep things simple. ‘I make a point of not having a map of any city that I go to,’ he explains. ‘Instead, I create my own, by walking around and taking photographs of things that catch my eye, and finding the connections between them. I write up my impressions in a journal and draw the maps on the train, on the way back. It’s only when I’ve finished my own version that I look at a traditional map of the place, for comparison.’

He has mapped out far-flung places too, having cycled from Edinburgh to Budapest last year, mapping the route as he went. A visit to the Far East has also been documented, with a book due out in the near future. Peake particularly relished creating order out of the exotic chaos he encountered in the East. ‘Shanghai is a crazy city – great for mapping,’ he enthuses.

Interest in his work continues to gather. There are forthcoming exhibitions of his maps in Antwerp in the Netherlands this December and Philadelphia, US, next year. Peake’s drawings were also recently on show at The Lighthouse in Glasgow, as part of his collaboration on Shifts, an exhibition on future projections for Scotland’s central region.

So, what does the future hold for Peake – is it to be architecture, illustration, or both? Peake confirms he is still planning to be an architect, but his drawings could well be mapping out a very different future for him.

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