Christoph Niemann is perhaps the best illustrator working today.
He’s also dryly hilarious. Mindboggingly brilliant. Creatively tortured by design; on the page his work seems playful, simple, creative with confidence and ease. It’s anything but—and there’s a great reminder in that.
While we usually reserve quote collections for the live episodes of Design Matters, some creatives are best left to speak for themselves. In their words, the raw materials of their output can be found.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
“As a schoolboy, I had one big problem: I had fantastic handwriting but it came in 10 completely different versions. And it changed every five lines. From loose and flowery to sloping. I always got into trouble over my handwriting.”
“You start not by creating things but by looking at art. And when you read that book, or when you look at a drawing or listen to that music and something lights up in you and explains the entire world … this is such an incredible thrill that you think, if experiencing art is so fantastic, how great must it be to actually make art? And that’s how they lure you into art school.”
“I think the most important difference between a person who is successful in art and a person who is not successful is how much frustration a person can take without losing this childish enthusiasm.”
“If someone approaches me with a fixed idea, the conversation is pretty much over. Not because their ideas are bad, but if you already know what you want to do, there are better people out there to execute it to your liking. The reputation that brought me assignments was: ‘We can call him when we don’t know what to do.’ I was a bit like the fire department.”
“I found that what I enjoyed most was connecting with the reader through the poetry and absurdity of our common experiences.”
“I am a designer by education, and my approach to styles in illustration is similar to a designer and his typefaces. There are styles that are fashionable, and sometimes I find myself trying to find a venue for a spiffy pencil drawing, but ultimately it is always the idea that dictates what style I must use. Every idea needs a pretty exact amount of realism/abstraction, certain emotional warmth or cold graphic objectivity. I try to constantly broaden my range, and adapt new ways of solving problems, not out of vanity, but because it’s essential to my approach.”
“Editing, editing, editing. I always want to make something so that at the end it feels like that was the only possible solution. Inevitability.”
“‘I’m not good enough!’ This is something I think a lot of people can relate to. I hear a lot about that in talks and conferences. And the consensus is, ‘relax, don’t be so hard on yourself.’ I absolutely disagree. I think the solution is practice and become better. It’s writing, it’s drawing, it’s taking photographs, it’s coding.”
“I absolutely think of myself as a problem solver! Any assignment, whether self-generated or from a client, needs to be broken down into a set of problems that I then try to solve—a process that is a lot less sexy than one would think. I always thought this would feel like playing ping pong with ballet moves, but it’s more like doing math while lifting weights. You must never forget, though, that nobody enjoys looking at something that feels like it was created through lifting weights while doing math. It is crucial that once you have solved the problem, you spend just as much time making things look like you just came up with it as you were sitting in a pretty café, dreamily slurping your macchiato.”
“The only path to success leads through mountains of killed ideas.”
“I can say that the steps that lead to my finished drawings are very unspectacular. It’s more like with a sculpture, where I chip away piece by piece from a stone and slowly get closer to the final form—to hopefully have an elegant form where the reader is in any kind of way emotionally touched.”
“It’s not about having a goal but instead about thinking, Where does that object take me? I could take a photo of that chair and probably turn it into a reasonably good giraffe. But that is of course predictable. We have these stock images of life in our head, and only when you start looking at real life and the imperfections do things start to become fun.”
“Drawing is an amazing exercise in feeling and in looking.”
“Whether for assignments or free works, the most important currency is the principle trust that people put in you. You have to earn it.”
“I can be efficient with my workday and technology and everything, but one thing you must not—and cannot—be efficient with is creating. Once you start thinking about what works faster or better, you start ruling out mistakes, and that’s really awful. So I really try to be as inefficient as possible.”
“On the one hand, my work is my greatest reason for being afraid of going insane. On the other hand, I think that it’s the single thing that has kept me from going insane.”
“Imagine you’re a doctor who specializes in difficult surgeries. You excel 500, even 1,000 times. Everyone’s happy that you do this one thing perfectly well every time. If you’re a soccer pro and you score every penalty—happy days! However, in our world, if you scored a perfect penalty, you can never kick it the same way. If you’ve written a novel, the next one has to be different. Even if it’s slightly similar, they’ll say you’ve run out of ideas. The great thing about our job is, you can do new things all the time. The curse is, you have to do new things all the time.”
“In the end, with this combination of frustration, resistance and enthusiasm, I hope I will have gained a little more soul.”
“What I try to do with my work is enter your space. Basically, I want you to stay where you are and give you things that redefine everything around you. I can’t take you to faraway places and show you dramatic stories. I’m always limited by our shared experience.”
“For me, illustration is closest to writing. When I say ‘I love you,’ with ‘I’ I take this entire universe of all my facets, hopes and dreams. With ‘you’ I do the same for you. And ‘love’ can designate a million things. You take all this meaning and then you put it into three words. It’s so simple, but if said in the right way, it can mean everything. In an ideal world, this is something drawing can do. It’s the incredible power of abstraction.”
“I try to squeeze as many animals as I can into business illustrations … like when I do the financial page for The New Yorker. I think animals are always—whether for kids or grown-ups—a fantastic tool for telling stories.”
“Nobody needs an illustration. It is not a necessity. We can ask whether we need newspapers, but let’s say that if I want to see what the weather will be like or learn who won the election, the newspaper tells me what and who and why. Illustration, however, has to create its own relevance.”
“Among my colleagues, I would say, probably a majority would rather be acknowledged as an artist in a museum or a gallery. I’m pretty glad I’m not. It probably makes me a more content and happy illustrator. But also, I care so much about magazines and newspapers and books. This is the world that I live in as a consumer, and that’s why I really care about contributing to this world.”
“At lifestyle magazines you would think the art director is more important than the editor since two thirds [of the pages] are covered in images. It is not the case. I do not necessarily think this is horrible and we have to change it, but it is a curious fact. We live in a visual world still run by language.”
“Frankly, everybody who is not an illustrator, I pity you!”
“When all is said and done, nothing beats the sexiness of black ink on a crisp white drawing pad.”
Debbie Millman: His work is frequently on the covers of the New York Times magazine and the New Yorker, and he created the New Yorker's First Augmented Reality Cover. His illustrations and artwork had been featured in museums and galleries. He's authored many books and he has a column for the New York Times magazine called Abstract Sunday. He's also co created a few children's apps. His clients include Amaze, Google, and the Museum of Modern Art. If that weren't enough he wants, ran the New York City marathon while sketching it. He is Christoph Niemann, and he joins me to talk about his singular career as an artistic superhero. Christoph, you can hang your cape up over there and welcome to Design Matters.
Christoph Niemann: It's fantastic to be back.
Debbie: Christoph, what's up with your interest in Tom Selleck and Magnum PI?
Christoph: It's not even an interest. I grew up with that. That was one of the things you never questioned. I was on TV. There was a character that just not a friend, but it was just something that's part of my culture or vernacular even though I grew up in Germany.
Debbie: And so it's not a particular admiration you have for Tom Selleck or his mustache?
Christoph: Not at all. No. It's really ... There's something when you grow up with sesame street or with certain kinds of music that's usually the culture I'm most interested in. Something that you don't pick or that you don't particularly like, but it's just around you.
Debbie: I was surprised by that. In any case, Christoph, you haven't been on Design Matters since my second season back in 2006. In your recent appearance on the Netflix Original Series Abstract, you posed a very specific question I'd like to ask you. You asked yourself. If you were to meet your 2006 self now, who would beat who in a bar fight and I was wondering, thinking back to the experience we had back in 2006 then and now, if you were to meet in this studio, who would win in that bar fight?
Christoph: We have to specify. It's a great of bar fight like a real bar fight, I think-
Debbie: You're pretty tall, so-
Christoph: ... to 2006 when ... I think I'm faster. I've been running a lot more so I could run very faster from 2006 version. Creatively, I've absolutely no idea. It was a different world. I was doing such different work. I think in terms of the fast deadline driven editorial work, I think I was probably as good as I could be at that time in my life and now the world has changed in my work has changed. I think watercolor wise, I would take myself from back then on these days.
Debbie: It's interesting. I was reading the transcript of our interview from back then and you had just published 100% evil with Nicholas Blechman and I thought, "Well, that would still resonate today, maybe even more so."
Christoph: It's true. This book series was so fantastic and in a way we did this because it was fun and because we love books and doing books. In a way, it really feels when I think back that seems like something I would do today.
Christoph: It's something I would do without any goal, but that's why it seems so valid. When I hold that book ... I talked with Nicholas about this, like we have to do more of that or reprint this.
Debbie: Absolutely. Back in 2006, I wasn't conducting my interviews quite in the same way I do now, so you never really got the full on Design Matters deep dive. So, you're okay with doing that now?
Debbie: You were born in Waiblingen, West Germany. Is it true that your favorite childhood memory is riding the train with your dad?
Debbie: What about it was so special for you?
Christoph: Was this idea of traveling, of being in a different space, being with my father, but there was something with with trains where it's not about the place you go, but maybe there's like being in transition, like a train being a system, but also being possibilities that you're in a train, the train could go anywhere. Technically, the train tracks you could take them from Vladivostok to the south of Spain anywhere and that's me trying to interpret something and it's just a fascination. Some people love soccer or certain kind of music and for me there was something I was just absolutely in awe of and it's something that when I take a train today, I still love it and I can totally draw a straight line from back then.
Debbie: Given your love of the New York City subway system, and your book on the subway, and Lego, and the tile pattern in your bathroom in Berlin, I'm assuming that your children might also say the same thing one day when they're grown up about their favorite memories with you.
Christoph: When they were small and they were growing up here and we're tuned for children, you'd think you control them, but they turn out to be their own people. That you realize after a month that they control you if anything and not the other way around. I never assumed that I could take my obsessions and my love for certain things and say like, "Oh kids, why don't we try this?" It really happened naturally that when I would take them to a museum that they said, "We'd rather stay on the train actually and then just like do loops for the entire weekend." I was like, "Okay, I'm fine with that." My wife would never ever ride the subway for fun for like four or five hours, but I was perfectly happy.
Debbie: When did you first begin to draw in your life? You were a very little boy?
Christoph: I asked my mom once and she said I was three or four. Apparently, I asked for pencils and then my brother ... He's a year old, that's why we almost grew up as twins. He just took the pencils and it was much better than I was, but we hit this ongoing fun competition all the way. But yeah, I drew since I can think ... There was not a time where I didn't draw out in my memory.
Debbie: Given that he thought he was better-
Christoph: No, he was better. He didn't think he was better, he was. I look at the drawings and mine were very straightforward. You draw the grass, and then you draw the sky, and then you draw the sun in the corner. My brother, he would break out of that system. He would really be much more creative in terms of how we would approach things and I was very much like how it was supposed to be done, how I saw it with other kids or maybe the kindergarten teachers and I tried to emulate that.
Debbie: When did you or your parents or your family or your brother realize that you did have exceptional talent?
Christoph: No. My parents ... they didn't have an artistic background, but they never forced us one way or another to say like, "Oh, this is an insane career professional." Definitely at the time it was not. Today when you say, "I want to be a designer," it seems like a fairly straightforward professional choice, which back then it wasn't. They never said, "Oh, you should not do that." My brother ended up doing special effects in movies and that was even a crazier career choice in the late 90s. But for me, there was never a question. I would not do some sort of illustration drawing professional. That's what I did.
Debbie: You studied graphic design at the State Academy of Fine Arts and design because at that time it wasn't possible to study illustration.
Christoph: I think it still isn't.
Debbie: How come?
Christoph: Illustration is seen as part of what they call visual communication and so he spent the first two years doing life drawing, typography, animation, and photography and all these things are the foundation then after the fifth semester, go into illustration, editorial design, graphic design, so forth. In retrospect, I'm so happy that I wasn't allowed to just spend my time drawing but get a peak and all these other different fields which really informed the way I work so deeply.
Debbie: Michael Bierut has said that he sometimes wishes he studied anything but graphic design, so he'd have a more robust background. Not that he needs anything more robust about his background but-
Christoph: That would be scary.
Debbie: ... it put me to shame anyway. One of your teachers that stood guard was Heinz Edelman, who you've described as someone who didn't teach by encouragement. His idea of a compliment with stating that he didn't have a problem with something. You've described his critiques as something like this, "No, no, no, no, no, no. This one is okay. No, no, no." Was that hard for you?
Christoph: It was incredibly hard. But I will have to say that really makes him sound just harsh and evil. He was really one of the nicest, most charming people I know. Apart from a lot of other things, I have to credit him not only with me. I know that really counts for a lot of other students of his really introducing me to literature to modern art, to a lot of concepts of what visuals can do and he would do that by just telling stories, showing us books. The mid 90s, he was the one who introduced us to Chris Weir.
Debbie: Oh, wow.
Christoph: That's really embarrassing. We were like 20 something students and he comes in. He's like, "I just found this guy." That was really very early on. He was like, "You should look at this guy. He's really good." We're all just sitting there our draws on the floor. It was from that to literature to landscape painting, renaissance, he would bring in all these stuff and it was just-
Debbie: He brought the world to life.
Christoph: He really brought the world to life, which maybe we should have done by ourselves, but we didn't. It was just really ... When it came to the actual work, that was this philosophy. He says like, "The job is so hard. Nobody's waiting for you.." If you need somebody else to say, "Oh, it'll be great." That's awesome even though you're not going to last.
Debbie: He also told you that you will be surprised at how many problems can be solved by hard work and have you found that to be true?
Christoph: I got to say, he said a couple of these smart clips, but I was probably one of the best ones and it's also a good one to remind yourself when you're stuck in something that the one way out of a ditch is really just working and that somehow always solves things.
Debbie: I don't think that anything can replace a strong work ethic no matter how much talent you have in the long run.
Christoph: I think even the short run.
Christoph: I think the talent really is what brings ... Let's say you're eight and you're talented. That usually means that you can keep up with an 11 year old and so forth. But very, very quickly, you come to a level where no talent in the world. It's too hard because so much of what we do is about consistency. It's not about the luckiest shot. The lucky shot you can probably do with talent, but our job is to do it everyday and do it consistent and to promise things which I think is the most difficult part about what we do.
Promising something and delivering on something you cannot do with talent. You need craft and you need the experience and just doing it over and over again.
Debbie: While you were in school, you were working initially in a very realistic manner. When and how did that change?
Christoph: That was absolutely Edelman's credit. In the first of four semesters, I was trying, I was so happy that I could for once in my life to spend all my time drawing. We did new drawings, portraits, caricatures, I did all that. For once, I could really dive in there. I've always probably internally like doing very realistic stuff better than any time in my life. I would come to this other class. It was like a different part of town and there's all these kind of older students and they're doing work that seemed exciting, but I didn't really get it because for me, really, drawing meant realistic as many highlights as possible, impressing people with your drawing craft and I just didn't get it. I remember him going through my portfolio and got really just, "Oh, one of those again."
Debbie: I'm sorry.
Christoph: This is one of the few things I can really say I'm proud of that I really felt, "Okay, I can give this a year and then it can still change classes and do something else. I have absolutely no idea what he's talking about." I didn't really get when he literally showed something, I didn't really know why it was supposed to be good and that was really ... When I started doing these exercises he would give us a certain topic and then I would just do stacks and stacks of papers and he would just go through it as you described earlier. The weird thing, it was not only difficult that he only picked one in 30, but I had no idea why he picked that one. I didn't know why.
Debbie: Did you ask him?
Christoph: Yeah, kind of. You cannot ask somebody about a drawing. You have to get it, and it was really six months, seven months, eight months when very slowly, I understood this whole idea that a drawing communicates something other than that you can draw, that it's about an idea and that the craft, the drawing, the line is something that is the supporting cast for an idea, for a joke or for something serious, for twists that happens with the viewer. This whole idea was completely foreign to me.
Debbie: While you were in school, you had two summer internships in the United States. One was with illustrator, Paul Davis and the other was with Paula Scher, the legendary designer who was already a legend when you became an intern at Pentagram. What was it like working for the two of them?
Christoph: It was absolutely magic. With Paul he had a studio in Soho by West Fourth Street. It was like more of a family situation was a smaller studio with just like four or five people and they were just so nice like Myrna and his wife and then Paul. They would bring me to art directors, club lunches. All of a sudden, I get to meet Fred Woodward and-
Debbie: That was going to be my next question. How did you get the first illustration after the Rolling Stone?
Christoph: That was just so ... It was really them taking me under their wing like a foreign student, which I was. Then at Pentagram, there was of course then the year after it was a totally different world where all of a sudden you just walk to the coffee machine, it's Woody Pirtle and Michael Bierut and you can't believe that all of a sudden you sit next to them during lunchtime. I was absolutely mind blowing.
Debbie: What kind of work did you do with Paula?
Christoph: Design work. I even worked on some public theater posters. I did of course the thing that you do as an intern when you have a fundraiser and then at the back you have to put all the sponsors, starts with 100 names and at some point it's like there's more and more names. At some point, you have to put five and a half point in, get more and more column squeezed in there. We did quite a bit of that too.
Debbie: Oh, I wish that something like that was on your website. During those internships, you started to get your first illustration jobs obviously with Fred Woodward at Rolling Stone and also the New York Times Book Review. How were you getting those first commissions?
Christoph: Well, Paula introduced me at an art directors club thing and then I think he had said, "Oh why don't you ask him whether you can bring by your portfolio?" I went there to Rolling Stone when I was six and a half years with my book and it was of course incredibly nervous with the Rolling Stone and his incredible reputation for ... We did cutting edge illustration every week and he looked at the book and he was very nice and kind and then I left. Two days before I left, the phone rang and it was Fred on the phone and I didn't ... My English was so bad, I didn't really understand anything he said except for I knew one is a drawing of some sorts and did he would send a fax. I was just so scared. My concern was less with the drawing but rather with just clink screwing everything up and ruining my career before it even started by not being up to the task.
Debbie: What was the drawing?
Christoph: Was a band called Alice in Chains-
Christoph: ... and the new album and the whole point of the strongest record review. But the album I bought it and it was just great Rock and Roll, but it was nothing conceptual. SI did some sort of conceptual drawing of the face of the singer being cut up in puzzle pieces and then those rearranged. I was so afraid. This is a big thing with illustration that you do a sketch and then the final isn't up to the sketch. This is like the biggest curse for illustrators. I was aware of that so I made a final to make sure it can actually pull off a farmer, but then I thought, "I can send in the final." I did a rough sketch of the final and send that in to make sure it can be delivered. Then they accepted it to my amazement. Then I did another final. Of course, needed to be better, but it was just like ... I think it was like 30% work and 70% trying to manage my nervousness.
Debbie: Is that the way your life goes Christoph?
Christoph: No, because they would be just not sustainable. When I started coming here and then working for the Times Op Ed Page, one hour deadline is kind of your daily job. You cannot live like that for longer than a month even when you're in your mid 20s and you're mentally of other things. There was a great experience to realize that even that is crafted, even that is learnable.
Debbie: In 1997, immediately after you graduated, you moved to New York City and Steve Heller, the great art director, design critic, and educators said this about his first meeting with you. I recall the first time I saw his work, a booklet of Satiric Computer Icons created while he was a student. These were not just fast cyl puns, but seen as a whole, a veritable satire on the computer revolution. His keen ability to go beyond the one off pictorial gag into a realm of visual profundity convinced me to assign him what became dozens of illustrations for the New York Times Book Review. He never let me down either. With few exceptions, his myriad solutions were as smart as the scores of articles he illustrated. Occasionally, they conveyed much more. What was it like to first meet Steve, such a young illustrator with such a revered and yet another legend and him assigning and giving you work?
Christoph: It was great. I learned about New York Design Scene through books, through yearbooks, like the Graffiti American illustration, so forth. Then of course you start seeing that Steve Heller, and Fred Woodward, and Nicholas, their names are under basically 90% of all the drawings at the time and Steve with this incredible history of first at the Op Ed Page. Then at a book review, he was just like one of the ... I didn't even have an opinion. He was just like one of these gods where you feel like he ruled the world, which he does.
Debbie: Still does.
Christoph: The incredible thing was that he would see almost anybody who would call him and the meeting often was at 6:30 and it was I learned there was a running gag like, "You will get an interview with Steve Heller, but it might be a crazy time of the day."
Debbie: 6:30 in the morning.
Christoph: That's because he-
Debbie: He wakes up and he doesn't sleep.
Christoph: He doesn't sleep and then he writes a book until 5:00 and then he start seeing people. Of course, he has seen everything, so he was very friendly and he was always very friendly. He's a friend, so he's like-
Debbie: He's the most generous person on the planet.
Christoph: Such a generous person. But was really amazing in all the time that we worked. He was always like, "Oh, that's nice. Oh, thank you." He was almost, "Do you think ... Oh, he just nice and he just accepts what you do. But then whenever there was a weakness in a drawing, which is like, "Yeah, but this thing here on the left," or like, "This idea doesn't really doesn't really work." We totally see everything and you could not cheat. Not that I wanted to cheat but he would just find the weakness in everything.
Debbie: He's a great director.
Christoph: He's a great art director. We would find ways to, to fix it.
Debbie: I understand that early on in your stay in New York you lived and worked in some very uncomfortable circumstances as it's been written and at one point you ended up in Beth Israel Hospital for nearly two weeks. What happened?
Christoph: There were exciting places to live in the East village between C and D and Seventh. It was was a great place and then I lived on Broadway and a shared place with a couple of other people and it was in a railroad apartment in the back of the railroad, was something we'd looked like the unabomber hot. It was a little wooden cage a with a little window out into the living room and the people are nice, but they had a band and there were dogs, never television. There was always a lot of action and that's where I got my first job so we had to focus and I had a small drawing despite my computer. I didn't have space for the computer and my drawings so the computer was sitting on a chest.
When I worked in a computer, I had to have my knees to the left and have my whole body twisted.
Debbie: Given how tall you are. Were you six exactly?
Christoph: Six four.
Debbie: Six four.
Christoph: When you do that for 20 minutes, it's fine. When you do that continuously for a couple of weeks, it's not good and there was like ... At the very end of the year, I knew I had a new place and so after that ... I think it was the moment where the pressure went off, but I just started feeling queasy and I ended up in the hospital with a slipped disc and it was ... There was a moment of me we did sitting in my underpants on Broadway being carried down by an ambulance.
Debbie: Oh, I'm sorry.
Christoph: It was like not great, but on the other hand you know what other people go through. I survived and after two weeks I came back and just wanted to pick up my stuff. The one thing I remember there was my portfolio and it was just shoved behind the closet. I was like, "What's my portfolio doing there?" I pulled it out and it wasn't going to comic strip. The dog had eaten my portfolio and eaten out chunks. It was really like a comic, but there were these little half circles for the teeth chunks missing of my portfolio and it was just like this moment of utter defeat because I felt so weak and beaten and [inaudible 00:24:31] the dog ate my portfolio. It was such a ridiculous joke.
Debbie: It is funny now but then-
Christoph: No. bIt was funny then even because it was so over the top. Then I had a month break and I was begging. My mom nursed me back and then I came back and it was terrific.
Debbie: Despite these obstacles, you've stated it was surprising how easy you found working in an American context that 98% of the images that you created, not thinking about eventually showing them in the United States worked one to one in the US. People seem to understand the metaphors, the jokes, the responses were almost identical. Do you still think that's the case now that you're back in Berlin and working really globally?
Christoph: Probably much more so back then.
Debbie: Oh, really?
Christoph: Yeah. I mean, I did three where the whole magnum pie comes in high and-
Debbie: I knew we'd get back there. I'm sorry.
Christoph: I grew up in West Germany where American culture was so prominent in everything from television, movies, music. If I would have tried to do the same thing in France, which is an hour and a half from where I grew up, I couldn't give you a single French TV show from the '70s or 80s. Not even England or Italy or all the surrounding countries. Much of what we do is based on a shared cultural experience. Of course, now through Instagram anT twitter, I'm in a whole new cycle. It's a very English based culture that we all share. I could still not give you a Greek Indian or Chinese TV show, but since ... The English culture is like the dominant one. There is now a global language. You can wear, whether it's a meme or even like a certain visual language that's being shared globally. That actually makes it even easier today than it ever was
Debbie: When you first came to New York ... I would imagine it was your second portfolio after the dog incident. I read that your original portfolio didn't showcase one specific visual style or technique and I understand you had everything in there from vector graphics to pixel drawings, but the common denominator was that the centerpiece of all your work has an idea. So much so that you stated that if someone approached you with a fixed idea about what they wanted, the conversation was pretty much over. Why ?
Christoph: Frankly because I knew they had the wrong person and it would tell them often and not in a confrontational way like, "Oh, I would never execute your drawing, but it feel there isn't a lot of incredible crafts people out there. If you have a concept and you need to execute it in watercolor oil or Wooden's culture, there's people for that." My talents would be more coming up with a concept and then trying to find a style within my limitations to make it come alive.
Debbie: What limitations?
Christoph: Limitations are good there. I mean, I still struggle with my limitations and you're like ... There's any kind of drawing once you want to draw as with anything, you're constantly aware of the stuff that you cannot do. On the other hand, you know that often in that limitation, interesting stuff happens because what makes a drawing or a concept interesting is that something unexpected is happening. If I was able to take what's in my head and put it on paper, really one to one, it would be pouring. Often, it's 90% correct, but 10%. Often, this 10% where your hand does something that your mind didn't think of. That's why you sometimes open a door into something that's really surprising.
Debbie: Let's go back to your history and then we're going to go deeply into the way you work. 2001 was a big year for you. You had your first New Yorker cover and you met and married your wife Lisa. Since that time, you've had three children, you've illustrated nearly 30 covers for the New Yorker, I counted them last night as well as several columns for the New York Times, covers for the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, and Wired Illustrations for the Museum of Modern Art, National Geographic, and so forth.
You've published 13 books, numerous apps and frankly that's the shortlist, Christoph. After your internships with Paul and Paula, you were never officially employed full time again.
Christoph: It's true.
Debbie: Talk about your first New Yorker cover. What was the process like? How did you feel when you were assigned to cover? How does it work?
Christoph: No, you're never assigned to cover. It's an open contest. Basically, anybody can send to the sketch. But of course, it's so much about trust and they want to know that you can actually execute it. If you know her, if you're in the system a little bit, which you get by sending and stuff. I had worked for in New York before we talked. July fourth was ... That's a recurrent theme, something about fireworks or barbecue. Then I just started sending in work and I think there was not even the first one. I think I worked on some Martin Luther King holiday ones before and it just didn't work out because these chances are pretty slim.
Debbie: How many covers would they get for a specific issue?
Christoph: Oh, you don't want to know. It's a lot.
Debbie: So it's just illustrators all over the world sending in work because they-
Christoph: Yeah, sketches.
Christoph: Yeah, it's a conversation starter and then you can start to mold that idea into something and it's a back and forth. First one is a great art right there. She has such a great sensibility of what the cover does and also like the long narrative. No, you're the only one cover, but we did the cover week after week, so all these things are taken into consideration.
Debbie: If you have an idea, Barry Blitt might have an idea and Paul Sarah might have an idea, and everybody's sending in their ideas and then Francoise picks the ideas that she likes best. Is that how it works?
Christoph: There's also David Remnick.
Debbie: [inaudible 00:30:21] the editor in chief.
Christoph: It really has to do a lot with luck. It's just-
Debbie: That's a troubling word for me.
Christoph: Well, you can increase luck by just trying a lot and that will increase your chances for luck to work out, but I just know that a lot of people send them incredible ideas and that there's no scale of brilliance. Then if you hit above 17 or if you have the most brilliant cover this weak, it will end up on the cover. For that, it's too much of a human subjective process and it's a good thing. But I can see how this process can be incredibly frustrating. It's been frustrating for me. I was lucky a lot of times. It's still frustrating when you have an idea where you think, "Oh, come on that would be so good and so right." It's a system I have not figured out, let's say.
Debbie: Well, with nearly 30 covers something must be working. In one of your 13 books, the monograph titled Sunday Sketching, you state that for anything decent you've ever done, you distinctly remember being in a tense and grumpy mood. Even worse, you get suspicious when you're having too good of a time working since you know, this doesn't bode well for the outcome. Why?
Christoph: I got to say that the book was based a little bit on that sentiment and me trying to figure out why that is because I realized it was actually bearing down on my work and it was making me unhappy. I want to make fun work, I want to make a work that inspires or makes you think, in general, "Can I create some sort of like a positive or emotional experience?" I think a common, a natural mistake is, did you think that the emotion that you want to convey in the drawing you would have as you created? Let's say you do a surprising idea that the idea happens in a surprising, but you sit there and go [inaudible 00:32:15] just like it sits on the page and that's just not the case. That's frustrating.
I think when you feel too kinda chanted by your own process and by your drawing, it distracts you from what you're trying to do. What you're trying to do is really ... You have an idea, you put it on paper, you judge it as you draw it, you put it back through your eyes into your head and then your hand does a second iteration, so it's a circular process and this process is a huge amount almost physical effort. It's a mental effort, but it feels like physical effort. When you run or when you do any kind of physical exercise, like usually when you're putting in your full effort your tents and ... And so I think tension is a good thing. It shouldn't turn it into outright depression, but I think it's ... I love this job, but just because the end result might be funny, the process isn't funny.
Debbie: You've actually said that the more playful something looks, the more gruesome the process is for all. Is that still the case?
Christoph: Yes. Usually, it's a gruesome. Makes it sound terrible. But let's say a drawing that has a very swift feel, you cannot certain brush stroke. You cannot slow that down. It really has to, "Can I come in one swoop?" When you have five or six brush strokes, that means the sixth one might ruin the whole drawing, and so it's a very tense situation just like this fear of messing things up. Of course, it weighs on you.
Debbie: You're grumpy mood has very little to do with the creative challenge in front of you. It seems to be more of a cloud of generic fears that included the following and I'm quoting from your book. One, I'm not good enough. Two, my work is irrelevant and soon I'll be broke. Three, I'm out of ideas. That actually doesn't just apply to Christoph. I think there's not one creative person I've ever interviewed except maybe [inaudible 00:34:15] DeLeon, Milton Glaser who don't suffer from those things and I think the only reason those guys have entered it into is because when I interviewed them, they were in their 80s. So really those things plagued you? I can't even imagine how you, Christoph Niemann, one of the greatest illustrators of our time is plagued by those fears. You're not good enough, your work is irrelevant, and you'll be broken, you're out of ideas.
Christoph: Frankly, I think if they wouldn't plague me, I would be in big trouble because how can you work creatively if you don't worry about this things? Again, worry is a relative term, but one of our curses and the most wonderful thing about our professionals is that we cannot repeat ourselves. Everything that we do that's great means we can never do it again.
Debbie: But can't you rely on yourself to be able to continue to hit it out of the ballpark?
Christoph: No, because I guess when you're a heart surgeon and you do an operation 100 times, I guess you get a better feel for texture for your hands You feel like, okay, you've been in tough situations and your chance to connect to a good job will increase. But for us, it's really you do something great and you cannot repeat it because that thing is off limits. It must be even worse for writers and editors. The curse of the second book, we've done a book and then it's great and you sit there and you know everybody will even measure you. You just want to be a new writer again who's allowed to write a first book which are not.
Debbie: Same thing with musicians and their second album, Joni Mitchell once joked that nobody ever asked Van Gogh to play a story night again.
Christoph: Of course, it's great and this is how we get to work because we get to reinvent and we do that. I think in general, just questioning yourself and not being able to rest on your laurels is extremely important. But I found that since what I do is it's sitting at your desk so you're there with your thoughts and with your tools. There's a lot of thinking going on. The thinking should be about what's happening on the page. I think it's important to think about relevance. I think it's very important for us to think about where our industry goes and where's our place in that in to observe what's happening, what's happening in technology, in media, and language, in communication.
But the moment I sit there to do a drawing, I shouldn't be thinking about that. Then I just have to think about what I do and I'm very aware of my shortcomings in terms of drawing. When I was at the met yesterday, looking at the exhibition and that's really putting the bar insanely high, but you just look at these drawings in. There's a long way to go to artistic excellence. Then again, when I sit down to draw, I only have what I have so there is absolutely pointless to beat myself up about or I should have spent more time drawing feet. I have to do with what I got.
Debbie: You outline these fears in Sunday Sketching and talk about what sometimes we tell ourselves about these tropes and sometimes what we should do instead. I wanted to touch a little bit about all three because I think there are such interesting stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and what is good or isn't good. How do you get out of the, "I'm not good enough trope?"
Christoph: Well, the thing with all of these, they're relevant. "I'm not good enough," it's just true And you practice, you work. What I thought was fascinating with our professional, especially compared to musicians or athletes, we go to art school and when I went to art school, I sat down everyday with all the students. You do something, you critique it, you go back and you feel, "Oh, I have to improve this. You make a printmaking course. Then you have a teacher tells you how to do it and you do it again and you realize how you're getting better at it or you're avoiding mistakes. Each year you realize you're getting better at it. The moment you're done, you make your portfolio, you work all the time and hopefully you're getting better. But basically, you spend all your time performing.
You never sit down and say, "Oh, I should rethink how I drop hats." Everything's done on assignment, and I think that's dangerous because you basically ... Of course, people only ask you to do the thing that you're already good at, so it's kind of a self fulfilling prophecy in terms of the direction your work is going and when you practice, you find new directions.
Debbie: You made a comment early on in our interview that I let slide by only knowing I was going to be bringing it back up and that was the notion of talent. You've said that your approach to work is 95% effort and 5% talent and though it's tempting to think as a creative professional, you just sit there and you're creative. Much of it is doing it every day for hours. You work every day from 9:00 to 6:00, you have bankers hours essentially. Talk about this 95% effort, 5% talent because, Christoph, while I'd like to think that's true, given my own level of talent and I mean that in a pejorative way. I can't believe that you're as successful as you are because you work hard. I just don't accept that.
Christoph: I got to say that I've been thinking about that and I think I need to modify that a little bit and not the part with the effort, it's just absolutely true. But working hard makes it sound like we all have the same abilities and we sit down and hear somebody who's going like working away harder. We're chiseling on it.
Debbie: I'd be happy to work 23 hours a day to have your talent. I really would.
Christoph: But the process of what we do is inherently frustrating because when we design, when we draw, when we create anything, when we do a radio show, we have our aspirations and our aspirations is informed by the stuff we love. We see that what we do at the beginning might not be as good as we want it to be or even when I think of a new cover for the New Yorker, it's not that everything I do, I think, "Oh, they should print this." Of course, I sit here and say, "Oh God, I can send this in." The reason is it's just not good enough, so now comes the question, why do I keep going? Because I really want to and I think we need ... That I would say is a talent that I love the idea of something that works so much that I'm able to absorb the frustration.
I think somebody else would give up, not because they don't have this magical ability to do something easily, but it's like with me with cooking, I get frustrated after eight minutes and it's not ... I'm sure my hands would probably be perfectly fine to do some decent cooking, but I'm too easily frustrated and I think real talent is the ability to deal with frustration. There might be some little bit artistic ability in terms of like how you can visualize something, but it's really ... I think I'm absolutely convinced that negligible, but I'm dealing with this moment of the kink. Starting again and again and again and most importantly, not getting bitter about it, but maintaining this like, "Oh, what if it works out next time?" This kind of childlike attitude. This is something you cannot teach. I think you can teach everything, but if somebody doesn't have, there's no point, it's just too difficult.
Debbie: The idea of making something is bigger than your fear of failure?
Christoph: It's just the addiction for that kick. When you look at art or when ... Also, when you do something yourself, sometimes you see something's wrong and sometimes you only see it after two weeks. Sometimes you see like these two big pieces and they're falling into place and something just happens that might be better than others. It's a kick. It's difficult to describe. It's like having that first cup of coffee in the morning. You just realized something good happened and this is super exciting. When that doesn't work, I want more of that and that's why it's never any kind of success you have. It's neither that you're satisfied and you thought, "Oh no, I had a cover. I'm fine with that. Now I've lived that." This is kind of get an ongoing addiction.
Debbie: In regard to the second item on the list, my work is irrelevant and soon I'll be broke trope you suggest focusing on doing good work. You go on to state that even in the absence of talent and inspiration you can through sheer practice become so good at art that you reliably deliver very good work. Now, great work. That's something else. Christoph, how do you get to great work? You said it sometimes takes you two weeks to really understand what you're doing. How do you know when something is good versus great?
Christoph: I don't and probably I'm not even the perfect drudge fruit. I don't work for myself. There's some things I do for myself. Like the travel drawings I do for myself.
Debbie: Well, Sunday Sketching started out as an experiment for yourself.
Christoph: I did it as an experiment for myself, but the drawings are still. You cannot surprise yourself. These are ideas that are supposed to work for other people. When you tell jokes or when you tell sad stories, you don't want to cry or laugh yourself. You want to make an audience cry or laugh. That's the measure. If you do a draw a story and stories, but then all of a sudden everybody breaks out in tears you go, wait a minute. Maybe something interesting was happening there. If you think this was the funniest joke in the world and everybody sits there, stone faced and it's bad.
Debbie: Is it though sometimes people just aren't getting it or is that the failing of the maker that people aren't getting what you think they should be able to get?
Christoph: Well, I think in the end, my goal as an artist mostly is to work for an audience so I can complain. But if my goal can cause an emotional reaction and it doesn't, it doesn't. I can still say, "Oh, I don't care. I believe in so much that I'm keep doing it, but maybe I failed for the next 20 years." Then everybody will realize, "Oh, really it was ahead of its time."
Debbie: That's what I'm hoping for me. Let's talk about social media. You've written this, "Any person who claims to not be flattered when a post receives a lot of likes or who claims to not be flattered when a post receives a lot of likes or who claims to not feel the least bit insecure when a post fails flat is lying. Like anyone whose career proceeds Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, I know how it feels to work with barely any reaction from my audience. I consider social media a fascinating and maybe indispensable opportunity, but you ask that we can easily be manipulated with their own insecurity and vanity if we equate likes and faves with quality." Sometimes you think it's the opposite, so that's sort of the question I was asking. You can be surprised by the quantity of people liking something that you don't think is as good as something that doesn't get as many likes.
I don't know that it's necessarily about people getting it or not getting it. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but I remember talking to Amanda Palmer, the musician who said something very similar, something that she puts a lot of effort in and that she thinks is really important, everybody should pay attention to, doesn't get as much attention as something that's easy and maybe has kittens in it and then suddenly everybody's going crazy for it.
Christoph: No. When I say that ultimately the reaction of an audience is what matters, I still believe that the problem is that social media only covers a tiny fraction or let's say a small fraction of that. Right now, it's what works in three by three inches like this queer. When you do a huge painting, it can be beautiful, but it might not translate on a small screen. When I post that, it might just get a very small reaction and if I do something that's ... Well, just like we're to say I do huge flower, a flower pot with like a 100 flowers or I do one flower. The one flower might get more likes just because it's more recognizable or understandable in a small format, has nothing to do with the quality. It just has something to do with the format of a smartphone and with the way we swipe through our Instagram feed.
There's something that stops you, but something that takes more than two and a half seconds, something that might take also longer. Maybe there's some things that you liked and like a book that you read or a movie you see, you would click that like button, but a week later because it has to work in your brain and it has to put some cogs and motion that you're not even aware of. Instagram, and Twitter, and Facebook are not built for that.
Debbie: After 10 years in New York, you and Lisa and your children moved back to Germany and you now live in Berlin. At the time, you were in your mid 30s, you are working very hard. You described it as fulfilled but exhausted and you go on to state that the road ahead was not unpretty, but for two snags it was depressingly predictable and it required the equivalent of continually winning the lottery for the next 50 years. What do you mean by that?
Christoph: When I came here, I was in my mid 20s and there were all these people that were 35, 40 and they were just crazy. They lived in places, they had lives that I've never seen and I was just, "Oh my God, look at the possibilities." I still love New York, I love being here. I have so many close friends here, but as you can I grow older, I realized okay, you have kids and now it's they're in kindergarten and then the moment you're in kindergarten, did you have to think the kids are in kindergarten? What middle school? It kind of goes all the way to college and then when they're super successful, then it's about getting a house upstate or in the Hamptons. Even if you have the house in the Hamptons, you have to beat the traffic. You start leaving every Friday at six o'clock.
Debbie: Excuse me.
Christoph: But I've realized everybody is doing that and so even the super crazy fantastic people. If Pollock was alive today, he would still have to beat the traffic on the LIE. I've realized that for me, the system here with the weakness of my character, that I have to be inspired by other people that I ... I don't think I have the ball to break out of that. I could just invent a life for myself. But if the system around me is very structured in a certain direction, I have a hard time to say, "Oh, I'm going to be totally different. I'm going to start pottery on the banks of the Hudson River next week and I don't care what other people do."
In Berlin, that seemed a lot more open. People do crazy stuff there and so it's not only a question of the city being cheaper, but it's not as as result oriented, which can be extremely frustrating. But I just felt for me because I'm so result oriented. It was very healthy to go into a place where the horizon was maybe not as quite tall but wider.
Debbie: At the time, you stated being busy is a great excuse for not asking yourself where you are going and that moving to another continent in your 20s, had been hard and expensive and the most inspiring thing you had ever done. Now, it was time to shake things up again. Were you scared?
Christoph: Of course. Not terribly. I felt confident enough in my work that I ... In 2018, everything was like the Internet and everything was well established enough. I realized that at the beginning of my work, you had to be within five miles of Times Square. The other thing, you wouldn't get a job if you were not in a zip code with a one zero or at least one one, and it has changed. I realized that even in the mid two thousands, there were art directors who'd call people from anywhere. They wouldn't even approve emailing. For the first couple of years, I was on the phone all the time that I completely stopped by then.
I was probably more scared about where the work would go and whether I would ... Because I'd promised myself with that move, I know that for freelancing, change doesn't happen. You have to be the agent of your change. No client ever tells you, "Oh, we love what you do. Please do something completely different." You have to be the one who starts that and that's very difficult. Let's say I was very curious whether I would have the balls to do that to break-
Christoph: Yeah. I love my job. I love the deadlines, the whole magazine, newspaper world. I just love everything about that. To step away from that a little bit and start with like self initiated stories, it's difficult especially when you feel there's the other world that lures you in like, you know how to do it, people call you-
Debbie: Your career was at peak at that point-
Debbie: ... and it's still peaking. Everything was really great.
Christoph: Our directors who trust you and then you do something and something doesn't work out, would I have to bother to still pursue it or I'd say, "Oh no, I'll go back to it. Just for editorial."
Debbie: When you moved to Berlin, you started a visual column the New York Times with Brian Ray who was the art director of the opinion page at the time, but you were initially reluctant to take on that column, which I was really surprised to discover. Why is that?
Christoph: Well, the assignment was to come up with my own stories and even though I always try to put in my own point of view in my drawings, it was always based on somebody else's story, on something, on politics or culture or the economy. All of a sudden you have to say, "Here's something interesting, dear reader." I was like, "Do I have interesting stories? Yeah, I spend my time working and just trying to kind of put the kids to bed at night and riding the subway." I didn't see how there wasn't enough material to tell an interesting story and that was a fun learning curve, but there was a reason why I felt like, "What should I write about? I would have to like sail to Hawaii first and come back with a great adventure."
Debbie: It seems like it was the perfect timing and a lot of ways for you wanting to stretch yourself and try something new and then being given this opportunity to do that.
Christoph: It was also a great time in media where the time is very forward thinking with really pushing for this kind of original, very, very subjective content because it's really more conversation with the reader, whereas the classic editorial model, even an opinion writing had been like, you have one center in the million listeners. Like, "Oh hey guys, let me explain you how the world works." This whole format is of course beautiful about weedy, like being an eye level with the reader and not so much telling them a story about your life, but having a conversation that you're sitting at a bar and you're exchanging anecdotes. That's really more the format.
Debbie: That was when ... You did your column, Jeff shared the experimental filmmaker, did his column, Maira Kalman did her column.
Debbie: I mean it was really breaking a whole lot of new ground in editorial and design. In regard to the third item on your list, the "I'm out of ideas trope," you state the following, which I think a lot of our listeners will relate to. You say, "For me, there is very often this feeling of thinking that right at the start I need a big idea. I get to this desperate state where I feel like, how will I ever make it again? For me, I have to make little unspectacular step by step, and then if I'm lucky it won't happen again. No, I don't need a big idea. I need 1000 small steps, 1,000 steps ahead, 500 steps back, 700 steps to the right, and then I will end up somewhere."
Christoph, I think that's one of the most beautiful definitions of the creative process I've ever come across and I think it'll give a lot of people hope to know that it's very rare to have that big idea at the outset and people wait for it and then it keeps you paralyzed.
Christoph: Again, I think it's all based on this confusion of experiencing an idea and creating it. Of course for the reader, you want this moment to connect to the light bulb going off and in the moment of surprise, but the building of the surprise is laying a trap, building a scenario that all of a sudden you end up looking at the right angle, the right moment, and then the sun comes up. Somebody has to plant on Sunday and it's ort of very heavy and you have to put the trees at the right point and this is a lot of work for the reader having this kind of two minutes to second epiphany.
Debbie: In your book, you talk about how you can help make it happen, how you can try to actually create that alchemy or make that alchemy. I mean, you suggest the following, take what you know and expose it to what you don't know and observe what happens. Open your mind as why did you can and check out every connection between any two elements. When does the click happen? Christophe, when do you know that this is something?
Christoph: It's a mix of experience and then having the great luck of having a few people that you trust that you can show it to because it's so ... In the heat of the moment, often you don't know.
Debbie: Your drawing is such a solitary experience.
Christoph: But I have my wife, I have Nicholas Blechman. We email all the time. I send them stuff and just like these weird doodles and often it's just what do you see? Because so much of these ideas are based on having a certain setup. When we tell a joke and we say, "A man walks to a bar," it's beautiful because we have a setup and we have an idea and then we know their joking can start. Often ideas fail because we fail to establish, "A man walks to a bar." We think, "Oh, your narrative DiCaprio walks into a restaurant," which technically is a man walking into a bar, then the reader is totally off.
If you just want to make a joke about going to get the doc still being at home and the reader thinks of an actor or a specific restaurant, then it's all bad. For that, you need somebody else to tell you like, "Look, less specific, more specific." I think having a small group of people that know how to critique you, does a huge asset. I couldn't imagine doing my job without people I can call without apologies and say, "Oh, really could you maybe in the next two days have five minutes for ... And you need somebody, you can just send something and get an answer back in 10 minutes.
Debbie: The painful yet crucial struggle remains new, right. To create in a childlike and openhearted manner, but to be on wistful, and cruel when judging your own work and you stated that in your work you have to perform to opposing roles, artist versus editor. Do you literally have to play the role of each separately or can you weave in and out of artist, editor?
Christoph: I actually think the more you separate them, the better it is because the editing needs to be really harsh, but if your attitude is about, "Oh, people won't get that. Oh, this is not drawn well enough, or it's drawn with too much vanity does not how you can work. The work itself has to be flowing, has to be ... I mean, so much is about something unexpected happening and you being alert enough to catch that moment of unexpectedness. You need to exuberant, crazy, unpredictable and also extremely an efficient way of working. But then once you have created something, you need something where you can completely get rid of that artistic persona.
I think if you mix them ... When you work under extreme deadlines, you have to mix them because you don't have the luxury of doing it. You have to evaluate as you think or actually execute in the right amount of time. But in the perfect world, it's almost like, one day this in one day that.
Debbie: All of these ideas and the fears that I've been sharing that you've written about are most apparent in an ongoing project called Sunday Sketching. We've talked about the books Sunday Sketching, but the notion of Sunday Sketching started way before it was a book, can you talk about the origination of the endeavor what made you decide to do this?
Christoph: Well, I had started to really take time apart for experiments. The whole point of an experiment is that it doesn't have a goal that you don't know what the outcome is, you're not trying to prove a thesis, you just like working into the blue and to see if something interesting comes out of it. Then it was really a play just like having objects on my desk and this is something I far from invented it. There's a great Steinberg's and [inaudible 00:58:55] and probably even further back with this idea of taking objects and playing with it. What I try to do is not only taking an object say scissors or cup, but turning the object and really playing with the particular light and the particular angle that's very often not only having kind of collage element, but really the actual object because I feel that we're a little polluted by stock imagery of like, say, when we think of a palm tree, there's a certain kind of palm tree that when you Google palm tree the first five images that come up, that's the one we have in our minds.
When we see a real palm tree or a wheelchair, it actually looks much different than that, especially when we look at it from a specific angle. It always looks off. It's shadows are crazy. But this is really our emotional connection to these objects. I try to play with that, and then add a little drawing, where all of a sudden the shadow the light of this particular moment completely changes the meaning of that object. But because it's so weird, you feel so familiar with this object, but the idea was to create an image that then feel so completely right-
Christoph: ... inevitably right. That was very exciting. I'm critical of social media. But social media is great for a lot of things and that was something I shared instantly on Instagram, and to see that people would get that stuff, even very subtle things or something where I feel like, "Am I the only one who gets that connection?" That was gorgeous to see that in real time. You were an editor like two weeks between the creation and getting some sort of feedback if you ever do. In this case, it was instant.
Debbie: You're genius, Christoph. You are the only one that gets the connection. But as soon as you make it apparent, everybody realizes that it was there all along. That's what is so amazing about your work. You can see a hula dress in a paintbrush, you can see horses' legs in a banana. This is actual stuff I'm referring to. You can see a woman's legs in scissors. It's incredible. I look at your work and I think, "Wouldn't it be amazing if we could just all see the world like this all the time?"
Christoph: It would first of all be terribly exhausting.
Debbie: Oh, it'll be fun.
Christoph: Honestly, I think the creative enjoyment is because readers are so much more visually able than they've been given credit in such a long time.
Debbie: I actually have realized in this conversation that looking at your work makes me feel smarter about myself. That's an amazing thing to be able to do for someone.
Christoph: I think this is ... When we read a book and we cry, it's not because the writer was able to infer their sadness onto us. I think the best thing a writer can do is unlock something that's present in you and I think that's also the beauty of art. I mean, this idea of talent that you love that kicks so much to you. You feel, "I want to do that."
Debbie: Christoph, the last thing I want to talk with you about is your latest project a book and an exhibition titled Hopes and Dreams. Describe the book for us.
Christoph: Well, a year ago my editor and friend in Switzerland Philip K is a great ... really he's like an editor. He's basing my age, but he's from it from a different era, just beautiful and generous and. He called me and said, "I'm going to LA next week to meet David Hockney. We noticed does projects with him. Do you want to join me?" I always dream of just like, "Oh, I'm going to jump on an airplane." That was the first time in my life where I bought a ticket. Four days later, I was on the plane and then was in LA. I spent at least four days drawing. In LA with the jet lag, I tried to put all these thoughts very, very subjectively together, and that's a show now and I turned it into a book because I love books and with all the digital stuff going on, just like having something so incredibly analog in the drawings is very exciting.
Debbie: The cover of the book has no title and no byline. Something you said you couldn't have done if you hadn't published the book yourself. What made you decide to do that?
Christoph: A lot of time.
Debbie: What do you mean?
Christoph: Well, I wanted it now. I wanted it with the show and it just felt now was the time where I wanted to kind of have it out there and it was basically five weeks from-
Christoph: Let's do this too. I have a fantastic designer that I've been working with on Sunday Sketching and she knew-
Debbie: Who's that?
Christoph: Ariane Spanier. She's a fantastic designer working on catalogs and books and she's also had the ones ... I'm always like, "Oh, I worked by myself." But you need somebody who first of all has a different visual angle on something but also technical skills. In hurricane season, I noticed a crazy printer in Sweden who has a new printing technology I wouldn't know and she just pulled these people out of the head who just ... It's a new printing technology and now we're going to take out uncoated paper, but you have deep blacks and this of course-
Debbie: I wish my listeners could see how excited you look at this moment. Why the title, Hopes and Dreams.
Christoph: Well, there is something for me about being in LA where it's all about being a star. Being a star I think has a lot to do with vanity and maybe getting outside validation for what you do. But when I see it in LA, you start thinking, "Hey, what's the point of all this for starting where it almost feels like it becomes its own value, where the work that you do to become a star and something almost takes the second place back to just achieving awards?" What was so incredible about meeting Hockney is that, there's this guy who, I assume, doesn't have to worry about money and fame or anything. but when he talks about painting, he knows that's the thing he loves. The idea of going through all of that, being in this crazy world, and coming out at the other end, and still being excited about that, not having that broken by this whole system and by the search for fame. I guess if there's a life goal, that probably would be it.
Debbie: My last question is this, I know you love to sleep and when you sleep you prefer to do it while spooning. You've been spooning on an almost professional level for close to 20 years, you've stated. But in all this time, you've never figured out what to do with your bottom arm. I'm wondering if you have any tips.
Christoph: The best tip I have is if you have two pillows, a little hard one on the bottom, a softer one on top. If they're slightly off, you can, at least for an hour or two, squeeze your arm in that gap between your wife, pillow, and mine's. I have a spot there. It doesn't ... I should know by now, but it doesn't work everyday. Some days it works.
Debbie: Christoph Niemann, thank you for making the world such a visually really wonderful place and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.
Christoph: Thank you.
Debbie: You can find out more about Christoph Niemann on his website, christophniemann.com. You also must follow him on Instagram at Abstract Sunday. His new show, and exhibit, and book is titled Hopes and Dreams. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we could make a difference or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.