April 2, 2009

Get It, Got It ... And It's Good!

An Interview with Illustrator and Graphic Designer Christoph Niemann
(Part 2 of 2, link to Part 1)
Note: all pictures may be enlarged by clicking on them.
I loved the input that begins with ‘Art Shmart’, shown in the work here. What were you aiming for here in this message?
That piece was really nothing but a pun on art and making graphic design. I love 20th century art, I love abstract art and I love what you can do with these simplistic, recognizable images. So it was really in that case it was nothing but a silly joke.

Of course, the whole thing with fine art and especially illustration is a very vividly discussed subject. In terms of making fine art, it’s just something that I don’t really care about. For instance, if someone said to me ‘we want to show your work in the Museum of Modern Art’, I wouldn’t say ‘oh no way, it’s only illustration!’ I try to get my work done but I don’t think about creating anything that will eventually end up in a museum or a gallery. If it does, great, I would be extremely flattered and thrilled; but I don’t aim for my assignments to eventually be hanging above someone’s sofa or on a museum wall.

Still, even though I don’t care about that, I do know that a lot of my colleagues – colleagues that I highly value and really admire – are not happy being ‘just’ illustrators. They’d much rather have a gallery show and sell their art and not have to deal with art directors and space content and other restrictions. It’s just to them being an illustrator is a means to ultimately becoming accepted as a true artist. But I’m definitely not like that. I’m completely happy being an illustrator and I could easily see doing it for the rest of my life without having any regrets or in any way feeling like a 2nd league fine artist.

I’ve see you (or others) refer to you as an ‘illustrator, animator, graphic designer, conceptual artist’, etc. Looking at this slightly differently: how would you argue (if at all) with someone who might challenge you and say ‘your work is not design!’?
This would be a discussion I would gladly take on. When I first started school in Stuttgart, they had just renamed the studies I was going to be doing from ‘graphic design’ to ‘visual communication’. And we all made fun of it, we just thought it was ridiculous and so pretentious.

Ultimately, I think visual communication is actually a good way to describe what I do. For me, illustration is a part of design. For example, when you do a pixel drawing and at some point you put the red square against the black square and see whether it works out, well, this is pretty much what a designer does. And so many of the choices that I make every day – when I draw or when I come up with my other stuff – are design choices. It’s about finding the right line weight, it’s about finding the right colors, it’s even about finding the right color balance. You’re picking images that fit together. And so much of that is so similar to what I did when I was doing magazine design or packaging.

How has your work changed in the last years and how do you see it evolving?
When I was studying, I was doing working a lot more ‘experimentally’ than after I first started working as an illustrator. Back then I always tried to use lots of different styles and I definitely feel I did much, much crazier things. But when I work now as an illustrator, I am completely obsessed about working very predictably because again, I know the other side. I know when somebody calls you and they need the drawing in 5 hours, they need the drawing in 5 hours! The pressure simply limits everyone’s taste for surprises. On the other hand, you cut out a certain amount of chance, of ambiguity and maybe poetic force if you work too professionally.

I know for the work that I do, you can’t substitute for professionalism. Still, I would be curious to see what happens if I loosen up a little bit more. That’s definitely something I want to see in the long run. While I would love to still do editorial illustrations on assignment for the next 50 years, I just don’t think that kind of thing will be around as much as it is today. I think it’s just the normal and natural thing to find other ways of creating images for your own stories rather than for the ones that people give you, which will also allow for more experimental executions.

Have you thought about illustrating for movies or doing more high end animation?
I’ve done a couple more animations recently and it’s always fun. The problem with animation is that it’s such a time-consuming thing. There is such an intense amount of labor involved that a 5 minute film is automatically a 3 month project.

Another problem is that I love to work by myself rather than having an assistant that collects cells and fills in frames, etc.. So I don’t really see myself doing that much animation, at least for now. What I could imagine though is writing a screenplay – not right now or in 2 years but perhaps maybe in 5 years. It would be something where I could say here’s what it looks like and we have an image of a person walking from here to there. But again, right now I’m too obsessed with doing every little aspect of it.

I do see that what I’m doing with the Times blog and with the children’s books is helping because I’m trying to think in terms of expressing myself over more than one panel. Now I’m thinking more about stories, about drawing up a little world rather than just one angle that fits in with an assignment. But there’s plenty of challenges right now in my life and I want to explore these first before taking the next big steps.

Your imagery about Asia seems to be somewhat mixed to me. There are playful images either from your book or even other pictures compared to such images as the ‘Panda’ that addresses sending emails to China that may include political content. What is your attraction to Asian art and how has this influenced various works in your collection?
Well, I was never too crazy about manga and that aspect. That was never a big thing for me. It was more the ancient Chinese and Japanese woodcuts and paintings which I think are absolutely stunningly beautiful.

As far as these pieces – really as all of my illustration works go – I don’t have aspirations of creating a new style, rather I want to use what’s already out there. I want to be able to use them to communicate certain ideas. That’s why I love 20th century advertising graphics, that’s why I love Renaissance painting. I was at an opening here recently where they had the most amazing Egyptian hieroglyphics painted in orange on blue. It looked absolutely gorgeous. I’m not keen on learning what they mean but graphically they were just stunning. So for me the whole world is full of these beautiful styles that can be used to tell certain stories.

When I came up with the idea for the book on Chinese characters, I was excited to study older Chinese art in order to come up with a style that somehow incorporated the historic aspect of Chinese art, but still felt modern and helped me tell my story. I wanted to make a mix of computer images but also use what I think is an amazing blend of gradients and colors inspired again by the woodcuts. They have these fantastically smooth backgrounds and smooth shadings but yet these very precise drawings in between, which is something that I think is just visually so great.

In terms of your blog: how did you get such a fantastic gig? Was it your idea or were you approached to do this by the NYT staff?
It was kind of both. The NYT was the 1st place I really started working for when I came to NY and I worked a lot for the Op-Ed page. I’ve worked with a lot of their art directors fairly closely. And I’ve even built relationships with some of the editors.

When I decided to move back to Berlin I felt I was ready to try something a little larger in scope that the things I had done for them before. I had seen what
Maira Kalman and Jeff Scher had done with this format and was inspired to try it out for myself. This leap of faith into story telling was very scary: like this is your story and there’s no excuse of ‘oh it’s just an assignment, I wouldn’t have picked this topic’.

Then I talked to the art director at that time for the Op-Ed page, Brian Rea (the blog is part of the Op-Ed page) and we talked to his editor whom I also knew. And then they called back and said they’d love to do it. So I initiated it but they were very receptive to it.

Also, it seems that for so many viewers the main attraction is that the blog works on so many levels (meaning = we get it!). The illustrations have both a child-like innocence and simplicity to them, yet they are creative enough to draw in a large fan-base and keep the adults in the audience laughing as well. How do you balance the almost Disney-esque stylization of keeping ‘all’ ages interested, for example, with your recent piece using Lego blocks to illustrate scenes in the area of NYC?
That could be but I think the
Lego piece is more of a grown-up thing. I showed it to my boys who liked it for the Lego part of it. But ultimately it’s more for grown-ups because it’s about New York culture, architecture and pop reference, rather than about abstraction per se.

But even when dealing with just ‘grown-ups’, that still leaves you with a huge span of people. And I try very consciously to keep it as wide as possible, especially for the blog. I try to keep things in there that are challenging even for somebody whom I would consider very much visually literate. I want start a bit less complex, to give the reader the chance to acquaint himself with the concept. When I introduce a new way of visualizing a story I think it has to start a little slower before you go all crazy.

An example with the Lego chapter: one of the first frames includes ‘No Smoking’ and ‘Union Square.’ A good friend of mind said these were a little lame, they were so obvious. I just felt that the 1st two or three (images) were necessary to kind of establish the rules, then I could start messing with it and come up with metaphors like NYC’s worst building. I knew that only a few people would understand which one I was referring to, but I felt in the context of a blog that’s actually fun. Because you have the comments section – and if it comes up there, someone else will comment what it actually is. It makes it a little bit like a riddle, it makes it more fun.

I once saw a lecture on design, called something like ‘what makes good design’ given by
Alexander Gelman, the famous Russian designer who lived in New York for a long time and has been in Tokyo for the last ten years. As an example, he took a glass of water and moved it around the table. He showed that you can put it on the left or you can put it on the right of the table, and said ‘this is what a designer does.’. But then he put it on the edge of the table, literally like where 51% of the glass was on the table and 49% was hanging over the edge. And he pointed out that it’s when your audience wants to jump up and grab it, when they think oh god it’s going to fall down: then that’s good design!

And I thought that was such a great metaphor. Having this thing that’s still thrilling, where you want to be challenged. After all, you don’t want a crossword that’s too easy to solve, it’s no fun. But if you have one that can’t be solved, that’s no fun either. So it was the same with the Lego pieces. I wanted to have a couple of pieces where everybody could feel like they were just challenged enough. And then they would have the great thrill of solving something. But it has to be a little bit of a struggle before you actually get all of it.

What’s next for Christoph Niemann?
Right now I feel like that with the blog I’m faced with a huge challenge to come up with something again and again. In terms of timing, we had talked about doing one every month which I’m finding is actually incredibly hard. But my editors are nice enough – and smart enough – to know that if I did these in a rush it just wouldn’t work out. It’s a lot effort. I have to come up with a story, I have to come up with a problem and a solution. It’s just so complex that I don’t think it would work on a deadline. I always feel like ‘oh god, I have to stop now, it’s too painful, it’s too hard, it’s impossible.’ Trying to get a couple of new chapters for that out is definitely all I can creatively obsess about right now.

But I love the whole blog experience. The chance to interact with the reader, of actually knowing what people think about what you’re doing, is great. Whereas when you have something in a magazine, you get like 1 angry letter to the Editor a year and that’s about it. Apart from that people might like it but you’ll never find out about it, there’s just no reaction. So I really want to use this experience to my full advantage.


If I could borrow a bit of Christoph’s biography input straight from his blog links at the New York Times – especially as this is one of the few inputs you’ll find on the web that has the latest status on he and his family in terms of living in Berlin with not 2 but now 3 children – plus one or two additional inputs:

Christoph Niemann was born in Waiblingen in the German Southwest in 1970. After his studies at the Stuttgart Academy of Fine Arts with
Heinz Edelmann, he did the whole New York thing we talked about. His illustrations have appeared on the covers of The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone (the magazine, not the band), Entertainment Weekly, BusinessWeek and American Illustration. His work has won numerous awards including from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the Talent of the Year Award from the Art Directors’ Club (ADC)in Germany in 1998, SPD and American Illustration, as well as from the Lead Academy in Germany in 2006 and 2007. He is a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale. He has taught a class on conceptual design at the School on Visual Arts in New York, and lectured widely in the U.S. and Germany, as well as Japan, South Africa, and Mexico.

He is the author of two children's books,
"The Pet Dragon," which teaches Chinese characters to young readers, and "The Police Cloud." He also illustrated the interestingly titled children’s book ‘The Boy with Two Belly Buttons’, written by the, quote, fabulous Stephen Dubner (of Freakonomics fame). In addition, along with co-conspirator Nicholas Blechman, he is the publisher of the artist’s book series 100%, which he describes as presenting “editorial illustration without an editor.” The latest issue, 100% EVIL, was published by Princeton Architectural Press.

After about 11 continuous years in New York, he moved to Berlin with his wife, Lisa, and their sons, Arthur, Gustav and Fritz, which indeed comes to three in the kids department. And he welcomes any and all comments you’d like to send in about his work including his blog. Just maybe drop him a line and tell him ‘I got it!’

For additional links of interest, ZN highly recommends (perhaps even marked earlier):
- A great descriptive about the creation of ‘The Police Cloud’ found
- Also some great examples of Christoph’s illustrations for ‘The Boy With Two Belly Buttons’ can be seen
here (that Director character in the picture above looks oddly familiar);
- A
presentation that Christoph made to the AIGA in 2007. It’s very well done, just don’t let the solo act at the end by the moderator put you off;
- WARNING: unless you’re prone to seizures caused by flashing lights, check out
Christoph’s MySpace page. The fancy effects are a result of his own hacking and trying to see how far he could push the software before the system broke. Oh, and if you’ll notice, one of his ‘Top 6 Friends’ is a famous fellow with the mailing address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue;
- And of course, there’s his collection of
blogs at the NY Times, titled ‘Abstract City’, which can also be accessed here. Whether you’re a fan of NY or not, its worthwhile to visit and let your imagination run wild as you enjoy Christoph’s coffee-based drawings (seriously), an adventure into decorating his bathroom, or even how his boys loved riding the subway.


All pictures used with the express written consent of Christoph Niemann. Remember: he lived in New York for 10 years. I have no idea if that matters or not, but still... If you’d like to see more of his work – or even want to buy a copy of a particular cover or print – please see his home page where he’s put together several really terrific galleries and more.

Portrait photo by Jason Fulford.

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