April 2, 2009

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

An Interview with Illustrator and Graphic Designer Christoph Niemann
(Part 1 of 2, link to Part 2)
Note: all pictures may be enlarged by clicking on them.
For some reason I think Christoph Niemann, the talented German artist now living in Berlin after a long stop-over in New York, wants us to think that he’s a little insecure. One review of a presentation of his even indicated that he stays up at night, tossing and turning, restlessly wondering if we’ll all ‘get it’ in terms of his pieces.

Well, for that reason, I’ve chosen the title above that I did. I personally very much get Christoph’s work or at least I’ve convinced myself of that (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). If anything then, I think he comes across as much more humble than necessarily scared, as he would lead us to believe. Especially after interviewing him as well as reading countless Internet inputs from fans of his work, enjoying
his blog in the NY Times myself for several months and even reading on-line reviews of his children’s books, my only conclusion is that Herr Niemann is indeed a very personable, quite articulate and perhaps a somewhat quiet fellow ... but I say that noting that we didn’t have the chance to discuss evil in a local pub (keep reading). Instead, Christoph strikes me as someone who is in fact very comfortable with what he’s doing and how well he does it. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Christoph’s images bring out the best in graphic design and illustration. He does more than incorporate a given style that someone might interpret and say ‘oh that’s it!’ in terms of his influences. Instead, if you look close enough, you’ll get a sampling of different flavorings from not only the Western world but other climes as well. And even if you have to look back at a piece twice – perhaps because your brain is screaming at you subconsciously, for example, that the other bathroom door is marked for ‘Scotsmen’ – then that’s okay, too. So sit back, enjoy, and perhaps even get a bit challenged once or twice along the way. Just don’t be scared, you’ll get it:

Christoph, why did you decide to move to New York?
Well, I had done some internships there while I was in college. You see, I studied at the Stuttgart Academy of Fine Arts, which is only about 20 kilometers away from my hometown. It was the perfect University for me. I realized though that a part of studying is that you should also get a sense of the world and even separate yourself a little bit more from your background.

For the last 2 summers while I was in school, I went to New York and that’s when I realized that it was a great city for me. After graduating – having gotten to know the city a little bit – I felt it was the right time to move there, since I had nothing to lose. I had absolutely no sense of luxury, I had no sense of giving anything up, because I’d just dissolved my student apartment and I could go with a suitcase and try it out. If it didn’t work out after a year then I could just come back to Europe.

Why have you decided recently to return to Germany with your family and settle in Berlin?
Ultimately, I found that the things that make NY great – the energy and the sense of inspiration and the drive that’s in the air – can make it a little difficult to start new things. In my case, I felt like it hindered me from making mistakes and I feel in order to advance yourself, making mistakes is crucial.

There’s something about NY where you have an idea and you make it happen without looking left or right. There’s no margin of error not only economically but also emotionally. And looking at the whole industry, I just feel that now is the time to really think about what you’re going to do in the long run and how you’re going to react to changes that are definitely coming, before these actually become real problems. Berlin seems to be a better place to explore and to start new things because the emotional and economic pressure isn’t remotely as tough as it is in New York. But in Berlin, you also have a big city and you’re surrounded by a lot of inspiration. And I am an urban person, I need to be in the middle of big cities. So that seemed like a good trade.

And there’s of course other personal reasons. Even though it was a lot of fun with the kids in New York, we were also thinking about our families in Europe, too (my wife is also German, even though we met in NY). Plus, taking a 6-year-old on holiday to Germany was no problem. But once they’re 14, you don’t say ‘come on, let’s go visit Grandma in Germany’. They’d be like ‘yeah sure, call me when you’re back.’ But if you tell a 14-year-old ‘hey let’s go to NY for a month’ they’ll say ‘I’m there!’ We wanted them to have both cultures, so it seemed easier to have our base here in Germany, with visiting America as an option rather than the other way around.

How has the return to Germany affected your work, if at all?
I’m certain it has but I was imagining that I’d be sitting here comparing my life in NY to the one I have here. That I’d be saying ‘Oh, here this and this is different.’ But life has been so dynamic lately with what has happened economically in the last year, even what’s happened in the industry only in the last 12 months. So many things have changed in terms of what I’ve done with my work that I can’t really go back and say ‘Oh, I did that kind of thing 2 years ago and I’m doing this thing now ... and that’s because of the move.’ Because I feel that I’ve started so many other things like the books and the blog and these have really changed my work.

On the other hand, I have to say I couldn’t imagine doing the blog in NY. I just don’t think I’d have the patience to sit down and work on something so elaborate and so complex. At least not repeatedly; like once, definitely, twice maybe, but not 3, 4, 5, or 6 times in a row. This morning, for example, I was actually preparing some work for a children’s book and just space-wise that would not have been possible in NY. Because I’m painting and even though the formats aren’t huge, here I’m able to put like 18 pieces of paper dripping with ink all around me on the floor. That would not have been an option in NY.

Do you find now living in the relative calm of Berlin that the pace of life in New York was too crazy?
No, not really. I was never even remotely sick of NY in the sense that it was too fast or that there was too much going on. I absolutely loved it, I still love it and I go there a lot. I’m still a huge fan of life there. Maybe later, because I’ve only been gone 6 or 7 months, when I’m there again I’ll think ‘oh this is insane.’

However, I do like the contemplation that you see around here in Berlin. People try things a little slower, things are done with a little bit more thought and patience. And I feel in the long run that’s a good thing – and that was another part of our thought process of coming back to Berlin. I think that when you are 25, there’s just nothing better than NY. But the idea of me doing the same fast-paced game when I am 55 or 65, seems ... odd. It seems a little out of place. It’s not that you can’t keep up but it’s like you want to think in a different mode almost. And then the short breath way of doing things in NY – at some point it just wasn’t compatible with what I imagined myself doing long-term.

Do you feel, for example, that you’ve had enough exposure in New York to continue to get assignments from your clientele there?
So far I’ve kept the exactly the same client list. I just don’t want to change things right now. I’m trying a couple of other things but I have no interest in reaching out too much and only working here, like limiting my work only to Europe. Of course, all the new technologies make it easier, too, and make a huge difference. For example, I’ve got a new Internet phone service which is so much improved over the 1st generation of services. It’s so much more convenient. Plus so much of my work involves email exchange so that has certainly helped.

But no one has called and said ‘oh, you’re in Germany, no no no, I won’t give you that assignment’. Of course, I don’t know if I’ve missed anything fantastic just because I’m here. I’ve done advertising jobs, I’ve done editorial jobs – even ones on very short notice – and so far I think it’s worked out pretty nicely.

Can you explain more about your influences in terms of ‘art’ in general?
Like most graphic designers, I spent a lot of time drawing when I was young. My friends in school and I would also draw extremely realistically. It was kind of about proving with every drawing how well you could draw or how well you could depict something really crazy or really gross, but in a very realistic way. In school though, I was very fortunate to have a very good and well-known teacher named
Heinz Edelmann – who was very strict but an excellent instructor – and he introduced me and all my student friends to the idea of a graphic design approach to illustration. This taught us that you certainly need drawing skills but then just as a designer would chose a certain typeface or a certain level of abstraction or realism to make or prove a point – you would use the same approach with illustration.

We worked within a variety of styles but it wasn’t that we went through the styles just for the sake of trying different styles. You would instead evaluate the situation and if the piece required a really cartoonish look in order to be funny, you used a cartoonish look, or instead you perhaps needed the style to be absolutely deadpan and so on. It was about coming up with the idea but then picking an appropriate style based on conveying the message in the right way. And that was something I only learned in school. Before I went to the Academy, I had absolutely no sense of that whatsoever. My approach prior to that was simply that I thought if I could paint more precisely, then that was better.

Your selection of books including both solo works and from collaborations seem to be somewhat broad in their variety. What inspired you for example to produce two such ‘innocent’ children’s books as ‘
The Pet Dragon’ and ‘The Police Cloud’ in comparison to working on a book titled ‘100% Evil’?
Well, definitely having kids and becoming a parent helped. Before I was very reluctant to do something like children’s books just because it seemed so predictable: ‘oh I’m an illustrator so I’ll do children’s books.’ It seemed just to be the easy thing to do on top of your career, so I always stayed away from that. Still, I always take new media extremely seriously and I think there’s a lot more to book illustration than just drawing a simple story. It’s definitely not ‘oh it’s for kids so everyone can do it.’

But ‘The Police Cloud’ was kind of an accident. It was a good night story that I shared with my boys, that started making sense after several telling’s and I just wrote it down. There was something that I really enjoyed as well, namely, the format of a book which I absolutely love because all my other work is so temporary. With an editorial assignment, you draw something and it’s basically in the paper for a couple of hours. After that, it’s being thrown out and they’re already working on the next one. So having something as ‘physical’ as a book is a great treat.

But ‘100% Evil’ and these kids books have absolutely nothing to do with each other. The one is a story for kids and the other is more personal. ‘100% Evil’ isn’t even a story for grown-ups, it’s really more like a personal project that we found a publisher for. We –
Nicholas Blechman and I – had done other editions on like maps and architecture and even sincerity. And we initially always made only 100 copies; but then we felt there were too many people interested and we didn’t like to be so stingy with our few copies, so we decided we had to get a publisher.

What is actually more related is my work with the kids books and the blog. In both cases, it’s really about trying to find a story that transports a certain thought to as wide an audience as possible.

What is the major difference for you when you work either alone or in collaborations?
For me, there are two kinds of collaborations. There’s one collaboration that I’m not very good at and apart from working with Nicholas, I’ve rarely enjoyed it. That’s the one where it’s a real creative collaboration where kind of two people are holding the same brush and you’re trying your best to paint a picture together. The other kind of collaboration – where you’ve basically got a team of people including an art director and an editor, all of whom give you advice, direction, and who clear stuff even – that’s something I need for everything, whether it’s a book or an editorial piece.

And when you have thing’s like the ‘100% Evil’ book, that’s something where I sat there with Nicholas, we drew and we met in the bar and talked about each drawing. It was really a true artistic collaboration whereas the others are more – I don’t want to say administrative collaborations because there’s of course a lot of creative input flowing in all directions – but I would say that this situation is more like being on a tennis player. It’s like I’m the player and I have a great coach and a great nutritionist and a great tactician getting me ready and helping me. And we collectively discuss how we should go about this problem and that problem – but obviously it’s me trying to score the point.

Can you explain a bit more about your self-professed ‘addiction to clarity’?
I don’t want to psychoanalyze myself too much. But I would take a wild guess and say that a lot of people who start drawing when they are young try to compensate for social insecurity. Maybe it’s a way to prove that even though I may not be a good talker, I can still do something else really well.

Drawing was always something I wanted to show other people and I really wanted them to appreciate it. I know there are other artists out there that do stuff and they couldn’t care less whether people get it or like it. But for me, the art really lives by the audience, it’s something I always do for an audience. Whether it’s a very selective audience or whether it’s a targeted advertising audience or whether it’s everybody, there’s still always somebody out there that I’m doing it for. And if that person doesn‘t laugh, it’s not funny, full stop. Even if I think it’s the most hilarious thing in the world but everybody else looks at it and doesn’t get it, well, I’m not happy.

And maybe it’s for this reason that I’m so addicted to clarity. I like having people react exactly as I’ve planned. I may like ambiguity as a consumer of design but as a designer I’ve found that I want to design my message so that everyone gets it in a very particular way and understands the joke exactly because I put it at a certain point. For example, with my blog, I spend a lot of time to try and plan out the pacing. I want you come to this conclusion at this point, then I want to give you this piece of additional information which together adds to x and so forth. I try to predict how you’ll read and react to my visual story.

In your process, do you have a kind of mechanism built in that helps you to be more clear or concise?
My pieces often end up being simple in an editorial context. They very often have to. On the other hand, I’ve done some really complicated and messy things – if I felt that’s what was needed. In theory, at least, I try to find the right tone and the right degree of simplicity.

I did do this one piece of a Greek statue for the New Yorker and his hair and his beard included all these warriors doing battle with each other. That’s one case where I felt it needed a certain amount of chaos. Still, overall the structure and colors are very simple. But there it needed a lot more detail, more than you could grasp with one glance. It needed to move a little slower. For me it’s not so much about simplicity or clarity but more about readability. And in order to convey this, well, it’s kind of like with music: sometimes you need the whole orchestra and sometimes you need just one tone or voice.

Some of your images bring to mind the propaganda images of Germany or even Russia in various periods of the last century (or China or the US, etc. etc.). Do you see that as well?
I’m absolutely a huge fan of early 20th century graphics of all kinds. I’m certainly aware of the political problems associated with this but I try to treat it simply as a vocabulary for certain visual problems.

It can be tricky though: take for example
Ludwig Hohlwein*, who worked in Germany in the 1920’s through to the 40’s. He did all this terrific work in the 20’s and 30’s, great advertising work and beautiful ad campaigns for clothing and beer. And then all of a sudden he does this dreadful stuff for the Nazis. He was an incredible draftsman and he had this amazing way of reducing colors and shapes, but as appealing as his art is, it always has a very bitter aftertaste. (*ZN: for a more thorough sampling of Hohlwein’s works, including the good and the ugly, see here)

Even today, when I look at for example some of the major shoe company ads, sometimes I get shivers, because I feel they use the same tricks that
Leni Riefenstahl used to glorify the Olympic Games of 1936 in Berlin. I just feel like they current ads can be so Fascist in their tone, yet they’re just trying to sell sneakers. But it works! That kind of stuff works for a reason because it’s designed to speak to all of us on such a basic human emotional level. So of course the question is: do you use it to sell sneakers or do you use it for a completely sick and horrible campaign of fascism and hate?

While we’re on the topic of Fascists (ahem): I wanted to ask about the process of working with, for example, the art directors at the New York Times or at different magazines: do they call and tell you exactly what they want or are you left some (or all) artistic freedom in terms of interpretation or how does that work exactly?
I usually get calls when people want my ideas. The execution is certainly a big part of it but usually they know that they’re calling for the concept and the execution. I rarely get calls from people that are saying they want a drawing of x, y or z. But I think if they did, they’d be calling the wrong guy. Other people are better at that and I have anyway too much of an urge to put my 2 cents in that it usually doesn’t work out nicely.

I see that there’s a need for collaboration and I try to be unpretentious about the whole thing. I’ve also learned by working with art directors – and I’ve worked as an art director as well – how this whole thing works. You have this process that’s extremely complex and with a lot of pressure involved. You’re working with a writer, with an editor with deadlines, etc.. And if everybody is an ‘artiste’ and acts as if they’re a precious little fragile egg about the creative process, then you’re not going to go anywhere.

And I definitely believe in the back and forth that’s involved. The editors know the magazine, they know where they’re going with a story. And ultimately, if something doesn’t work, the editor has a real problem, not me. So I understand why people sometimes kill stuff. The back and forth, the dialogue I have with an editor and an art director is a necessary part of what makes a piece good.

With collaborations, for me it’s sitting there together and yes, I come up with something but then I discuss it with them. And then you start tweaking, you start exchanging and modifying ideas. And ultimately that’s what makes a piece stronger. And very often I talk a lot of politics and content with people. When I do a piece for the financial page for the New Yorker for example, a lot of the discussions are about which part of the story to illustrate. Like if its an article about taxes, are we talking about the problem the consumer has or the problems the IRS has or is the message ‘the Government is greedy’ or what is it exactly. It’s really something that goes to the context and in these discussions a lot of good things come out. Ultimately, I think you need to have this dialogue with the team to make work that’s understood by a million people. That said: I can’t pretend I don’t complain if an idea I am very fond of gets shot down.

Continued in
Part 2

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