Christoph Niemann is an award winning, Berlin-based artist/illustrator with a plethora of high-profile covers and editorial pieces (including for Wired, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly) to his credit. Conveying his ongoing fascination with the sights and sounds of New York City (Niemann lived and worked in NYC from 1997 to 2009) through his Abstract City Blog (which recently became Abstract Sunday), Christoph has delighted and enlightened New York Times readers with his remarkable insight, singular wit and superior illustrating skills on a regular basis since 2008. His most recently released books include “The Pet Dragon”, a book created to acquaint kids with Chinese characters, and the NYC-centric “I LEGO N.Y.” and “Subway.” His latest children’s book, “That’s How!,” comes out next month. Christoph’s Web site is the best place to keep up-to-date on his latest projects, and you can also follow him on Twitter. After you read the interview, check out Christoph’s “Vanilla to Pomegranate” list.
Listgeeks: You’ve recently worked with a very wide range of materials – paint, pencil/paper, legos, fabric, coffee, computers, tile on the NYTimes blog . . . Is it hard to decide which projects are destined for which materials? Does the material you’re working with frequently lead you into new or unexpected concepts?
Christoph Niemann: Usually I start with the concepts and then think of the appropriate way to execute the ideas. With the 3D objects I have been doing for my blog, there are obviously a few unexpected things that happen, mostly due to my impatience and clumsiness. But since I usually develop the concepts with pencil and paper and only start building the items once the whole project is figured out, there are relatively few surprises.
CN: Not really. Obviously life with the kids is a pretty rich source for strange mementos that can be abused for my visual essays, but I am very wary of focusing on my kids too much. As a reader, the last thing I want to read about is how interesting or peculiar the life of the author is. I am keen on finding stories that a reader can relate to by finding experiences we all share. As for the Lego series, the kids are less of an inspiration but rather an excuse for me to spend hours each weekend playing with what is still my favorite toy.
LG: How did the Abstract City Blog come about? You started that with the NYTimes in the summer of 2008, right?
CN: Yes, at that point I had been working as an editorial illustrator for about 12 years, which I still consider the most important part of what I do. But I also felt that in order to stay fresh, I had to force myself out of my comfort zone and try out projects that were scary and that would involve a greater amount of mistakes and dead ends. It’s not that I don’t mess things up in my editorial work, but after a while one becomes rather smart in avoiding disasters by (more or less consciously) avoiding risk. Coming up with my own stories and relying on handmade art goes so absolutely against my instinct that it seemed like the perfect way to shake things up.
LG: I’m curious about the differences between projects for which you’re required to generate a concept of your own/on your own vs. projects for which there’s a more clearly defined, explicit goal (or something very specific to illustrate). Do you find one way of working easier than another? Is it sometimes helpful to have restrictions in place?
CN: I am infinitely more comfortable with the restrictions of a normal assignment. Part of it may have to do that I have much more routine with these kind of assignments, but a tight framework gives you a lot of good angles to start. If there are rules you can think about how to break them (or at least get close to breaking them). The self-generated work is much harder, because instead of just creating a solution, you have to create a problem first. And things don’t work out, I am never sure if I didn’t try hard enough with the drawings and the copy, or whether the overall concept is so wrongheaded that failure is inevitable.
LG: Finally, you have a well-documented bond with NYC. After a few years of being in Berlin, how has your perspective on New York changed? Do you see yourself moving back at some point?
CN: I can absolutely imagine moving back there at some point (probably not before the kids are out of school though). I still go to New York five times a year and enjoy every minute of it. In a perfect world I would split my time 50/50, enjoying the possibilities and creative freedom of Berlin AND taking advantage of the energy, speed and determination that come from living in NY.