Illustrator Christoph Niemann is a man with a charming breed of very clever humor. He sketches for newspapers and magazines in Europe and the United States, he develops delightful apps for children and adults – and never takes himself too seriously. High time to pay a visit to his studio in Berlin.
In the morning, when the kids have trotted off to school, bags bulging with packed lunches, their father moves to the front house. This is where his small studio is, in a former shop in the Mitte district of Berlin; it is his realm and he shares it with no-one. This is where he thinks, contemplates. Hopes that inspiration will strike. Tries something, scrunches it up and tosses it in the bin, gets annoyed. It’s not like he’s sitting here waiting to be kissed by his muse – he has never considered himself a genius, more a hard worker.
The fruits of his labors – from a simple sketch, a series of travel reminiscences executed in watercolors, a bells-and-whistles app for inquisitive kids or a humorous picture blog – are phenomenal, says his audience. Oh please, it is too flattering – but who is he to disagree? Christoph Niemann has faith in his discipline. “I work from 9 to 6; time and time again, I’m struck by how close my profession is to playing a sport: training, condition, concentration, competitive situations. A major proportion of what I do is sitting around and thinking, and honing and improving my artistry and craftsmanship. Because when inspiration strikes and I have a really great idea, my craft has to perform so that I can turn the idea into reality as best possible.” Indeed, it would be a tragedy if, at that all-important moment, he had forgotten how to handle a pencil.
Whatever you do, avoid lumping him in a corner with preconceptions of art, with garret romance. “All the artists I know are super disciplined,” says Niemann. “No-one clatters around their studio in the morning, getting drunk or still sozzled from the evening before, tossing brush-strokes of genius at the canvas between swigs from a bottle of absinthe.” However, the real world is just as important. “I can’t lock myself away and expect to be able to recreate the world.”
Christoph Niemann was born in 1970 in Waiblingen in Swabia, a region where people have a bit of a reputation for paying close attention to detail. His role models are Roland Topor, Sempé, Albert Uderzo, Chaval and Tomi Ungerer, but also the dearly departed MAD Magazine. After studying communication design in Stuttgart, he took the plunge and left for the United States, in 1997, fizzing with the joy of discovering a new life, without a trace of inferiority. Back then, he “only” illustrated: Please draw a picture to go with that text.
Niemann is not afraid to fail; “I throw most of what I do away, and that’s the way it should be.” First, he leaves it lying around for a while, “because you always hope that at second or third glance you will suddenly realize just how brilliant and completely ahead of game you were…” Niemann’s great talent – and one reason for his staggering success – is that he focuses on the bizarreness of mundane things, not just the big topics.
He explores the drama in the detail, is an idealist with a brushstroke, a man for the small but irresistible gags, a comedian who can spark a grin of acknowledgement. “The audience is the intelligent part that brings my work to life,” he says. “My work is like a switch that triggers an experience in the viewer.” And that is essence of Niemann’s super-smart, very straightforward art: The first glimpse turns the viewer into the recipient of a gift, into an accomplice.
Until I was 23 or 24, I didn’t have a single piece of clothing without at least one splash of colored paint, acrylic, watercolor or whatever.
Initially, he was astonished that anyone could find his work funny. “The classic situation is that I create an expectation in the viewer or reader which I then subvert in an unexpected way. For this to work, my thought processes have to mirror those of the reader exactly; I have to maneuver him into that position; this is the essence of total communication. The joke comes to life in the mind of the reader, and not so much on the page – which only provides a guideline. This is a completely different approach than if I were creating a gigantic ceiling painting, a piece which aims to make the viewer feel small, intimidate him and leave him standing open-mouthed.”
So what happened in New York, how does one go about reaching the upper echelons of illustrating, how does one get commissions for the front pages of The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, how do you become visual columnist for The New York Times? Do you just rock up with some examples of your work? Does one have to apply? Or does it help to know someone who knows someone?
Niemann smiles modestly. Which is, in fact, something he does fairly often, and is possibly something that he, who is at first glance neither a superstar nor a revolutionary, cultivates deliberately so that he doesn’t stand out on account of his sheer success.
The danger – which one senses he would love to erase – is that one automatically assumes that he is an industrious model student, a real crammer, even. And this is an assumption that leads one straight into a trap. Because Niemann is a cunning expert, an artist who adores picking seemingly harmless things apart with a few strokes of his deadly paintbrush.
Where were we? Ah, in New York. So did he spend months cold-calling editorial offices? Nope, replies Niemann. “It’s gigantic machine that needs to produce a constant flow of new things,” is his succinct description of the U.S. media landscape. “They have to be open for new ideas, otherwise they end up lagging behind. The basic attitude is the following: ‘We should look at this portfolio because if we don’t then someone else will and they’ll publish. And if it’s a success then how can we justify our lack of vision?’ If they look at it, like what they see and give you the go-ahead, you just have to deliver. This is not a good moment to play the capricious artist, demanding to be mollycoddled.”
Niemann always delivered, always with an unexpected twist. The readers were delighted, they let the editors know success was just around the corner. Niemann looks back: “Before social networks became quite so powerful, if you had published in The New York Times Magazine, Time or Rolling Stone, everyone knew you because everyone had seen your work.”
After eleven years in the United States, the Niemann family – comprised of Weltkunst editor-in-chief Lisa Zeitz and the couple’s three sons – were ready to return home. In 2008, they moved to Berlin. Christoph Niemann, confident in his skills and with a strong reputation, decided to branch out. He started telling more personal stories. Relocating was the shock that made him decide to conclude one phase of his creative work and move to the next level.
“It is difficult to remain in one place, in your familiar environment, and then do something completely different. But if your entire system of coordinates is juggled around, like when you move to a different country, it becomes easier to take a fresh look at yourself and your work. The column for The New York Times was a serious commission, and I no longer had an excuse not to do it.”
As a personal farewell gesture, he recreated everyday life in New York in minimalist Lego, arranged carefully dried leaves, devoted himself to physics – with a series titled “Unpopular Science” – and dived deep into bathroom design, with a little help from art history.
He knows that you can’t force a stroke of genius, but that you can prepare for it. “There is a quotation by Paul Rand: Art is not an intention. Good work is an intention. Art happens when you’re lucky. And I think that is exactly what it’s about, about patient trying. I sit there, sketch something. Push it a centimeter to the left. Aha. Push it a centimeter to the right. What happens if I take a pear instead of an apple? If the pear is five times bigger? If I take a cat instead of a dog? If I replace one adjective with another? Is it better, more powerful? And sometimes things take on a life of their own and you suddenly realize that you’ve hit a nerve and that the impact of the work goes way beyond what you could have planned intellectually.”
And sometimes you dare to try something completely different. For years, Niemann had a huge respect for flat, saturated colors, “they were always a problem for me; throughout my youth, I never managed to get flat colors to work. Then I bought an airbrush only so that I could produce flat backgrounds. In contrast, I could do perfect, ready-to-print drawings with a brush and paint by the time I was eight. Then came computers, and suddenly you could do red on white. That really bowled me over; all you had to do was click and you’d get a perfect area of yellow – wow!”
Niemann, the gifted illustrator, is not a dreamer with his head in the clouds; he’s a man who tries things out until he is satisfied with what he sees. But there is always an element of wonder. “Being able to get someone to laugh or cry without physically tickling or hurting them is amazing, it’s crazy and wonderful in equal measure. The fact that we can trigger real emotions with such abstract things as a sequence of words or sounds. For me, it is like a game: how much can I remove and still get the message across?” It’s a game Niemann keeps playing.
And success, has he earned it? That modest little smile appears again. “Well, it does help if people know your work, like it and approach you with a certain amount of respect,” he says, “but I don’t sense any form of divine inspiration. Quite the opposite: If I find myself feeling anything magical while working, I usually know it’s rubbish.”