• Art
  • Christoph Niemann: “Berlin meant the end of excuses”


Christoph Niemann: “Berlin meant the end of excuses”

Famous for his New Yorker covers and New York Times Magazine Sunday sketches, Christoph Niemann is a graphic art superhero. We spoke to him in his Berlin studio.

Photo: Gianluca Quaranta

So, it’s the late 1990s and you’re a young design graduate from Stuttgart who just shows up in NYC with your portfolio under your arm?

I arrived in New York, JFK, with my portfolio: essentially a series of books and animations from my diploma. And then I called The Times and said: “Okay, remember, I did three drawings for you a few years ago during my internship?” I got an interview with art director Steve Heller and also with Time Magazine. And I got a job with both of them! And then someone at the magazine said: “There’s this young art director on the op-ed page, you should meet him.” And they sent me two floors up, and there was Nicholas Beckman, who would become a very close friend. He is now the creative director of The New Yorker. We talked and he said: “Why don’t you come out to Williamsburg and have a beer tonight?” And it was amazing to have somebody who’s a pro but who is also my age. Everybody else was always older or much more established. He was super established but totally relatable. And that’s how The New York Times really became my home, emotionally. It still is.

Working for The New York Times must have been like… instant recognition! Especially back then, when most people read print magazines?

My absolute favourite thing is the S-Bahn between Friedrichstraße and Hackescher Markt

In retrospect one really has to say, it was a golden age. Everybody read The Times and the op-ed page. If you had a drawing in there, people would notice, not just your peers but normal people on the street! I remember being on the subway. And especially in the morning, people read the politics section, and I would see my drawing five or six times in one subway car. It’s not that people would stare at the drawing and go “Gee, this is brilliant”, but you just felt it was really part of the culture now. You’d see people physically engaging with your work…

Do you think your career could have taken off so fast in Germany?

I hadn’t worked enough here that I could really say, but I had the hunch that in Germany, usually you would start low and then work your way up. Whereas there it was just like “Do it! We’ll give you a chance”. If you screw up, then you’re out. But there wasn’t this whole idea of having to pay your dues. Of course, as a German in the States, you’d get those comments: “Oh you’re pretty funny for a German,” but that’s a small price to pay.

What was it like to be a German in NYC?

In the design context, German design students had a very good reputation, especially those from the Stuttgart Academy. The thing that was really surprising to me, and it was something I had never thought about, was that I essentially grew up with American pop culture. For me, Sesame Street or The Muppet Show or Magnum P.I., they weren’t American TV series. It was just television. But I wouldn’t know a single French TV show, or even a British one. I would know Monty Python, but other than that, I wouldn’t know any other big things, in terms of pop culture. So when I came to the States, I realised that there was no gap to bridge. Everything was very natural. Also, my portfolio: I had this one book with little metaphorical portraits, and they were Stevie Wonder and Batman and Jerry Ewing, they were all American!

And then you settled happily there, with three kids and a very successful career ….Why did you leave again?

I still love New York, and I had no reason to leave really. But my sense was that it’s not a very good place to grow old. You feel you have to perpetually win the lottery. And even if you do that, it’s not that much fun. I remember going there when I was 24 and feeling like: wow, there’s crazy people with a crazy life, doing crazy parties, doing crazy projects. After having lived there for 10 or 12 years, I felt that what everybody actually lives is a very similar life, in a very privileged bubble. But it’s like – oh, the ones who can afford it, they try to escape to Upstate or Long Island on the weekend and then everybody is trying to beat the traffic on the way there and back. Everybody is kind of trying to work on their whatever, 401ks, and sending their kids to college. It felt like there was exactly one way to live your life. And the pressure, it was relentless and gigantic.

And why Berlin? Your wife is from Frankfurt, you’re from Stuttgart …

We found a fantastic place here in Berlin.

Just like that?

In New York, real estate is a complete madhouse. When you have kids, wherever you move is too small and, as the kids grow older, it becomes insanely too small. I learned that essentially you have to look all the time to know what’s going on and then find one tiny little crack in the door where you can find something, and it turned into this obsession. (laughs) At some point, I just started looking at apartments in Berlin – just for the fun of it – on the internet.

Because Berlin real estate was still so affordable in the 2000s?

Yes, it was so inexpensive. We’d call it ‘real estate porn’ because there were just grand old apartments for probably 10 percent of what they are now. One summer, just for fun, we looked at some places and we saw this one unfinished, fun place in Mitte and we just put in a crazy offer and never heard back. But then half a year later, they said: “Okay, we can make this work.” And then it was: “Honey, we’re moving to Berlin!”

There is one quote by Goethe when he writes to a friend and says: “Sorry for the long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one”.

How did Berlin feel back then, in the mid 2000s?

It was right after the World Cup, so although it was a terribly rainy summer, it felt very inspiring. Kind of messy and crazy. I really felt that in Berlin, there were a lot of people doing – from a New York perspective – really messed up things, like running businesses that made absolutely no sense whatsoever, because they liked it for some reason. I found that really refreshing.

Did you feel emboldened to experiment with new ways of working?

Yes, because the surroundings basically said: it’s okay to try new things. To be honest, I don’t
think that even if I could have afforded it, I would have had the guts to experiment with new ways of doing work in NY, where everyone is so fast and production driven. You don’t just say: “Hey guys. I’m gonna do pottery now.” (laughs) It was great but it was also like Berlin meant the end of excuses. In New York, if you say, I want to do metal sculptures (I don’t, but let’s just say that), you can always say:
“Oh, well, I don’t have the space, it’s too expensive…”. So you can always put it off. In Berlin though, there are always ways, so if you end up not doing it, the only reason is that you didn’t really want it. You really have to ask yourself: “Why am I doing the work that I’m doing? I can’t blame it on the clients or on the high rents or on something else.”

You said it many times: in NYC you were thriving on this high-intensity, competitive energy, filled with constant assignments, deadlines and the pressure to deliver. In Berlin, you started doing your own work, publishing books. How much does the new atmosphere here account for this new professional direction?

The dangerous thing when you try to compare places, is that you’re often mixing up different plans. When I compare New York to Berlin, I’m also comparing myself at 50 to myself at 25 or 30. I’ve changed dramatically. Both places have changed dramatically. On top of this, the profession has also changed dramatically. If I compare the editorial insanity back then to the world today, they have nothing to do with each other. When I came here, I felt I wanted to do something different, I didn’t really know what it was. And then, basically self-generated work just coincided – probably not totally randomly – with a change in the industry. So it wasn’t only my personal artistic decision to say: “I want to do different kinds of work.”

Did Berlin have an influence?

Moving to a new country rearranges everything in your head. It’s like taking your whole system and whacking it with a sledgehammer, which is great if you want to do something different. And for me, again, this is maybe a personality thing, but to do something different while sit- ting at the same desk, being in the same environment? It doesn’t work for me. A dramatic change makes it easier, especially a geographic or a cultural change… You start looking at everything differently. And then you can really say:, “Okay, what am I doing here? How do I want to do things differently?”

Did you engage with the city, professionally, when you moved here?

I completely ignored it at the beginning. I had my 212 New York phone number, essentially, it was like moving to Mallorca. It’s like a beautiful place, but in terms of business, it’s completely irrelevant. I really like being here. I like to go to a restaurant, but my work just had absolutely no connection to the city. Interestingly, the problem kind of took care of itself with social media. I’d make drawings about Berlin, and I became more present.

Form follows function. It’s about the concept, it’s about an idea. And then finding the perfect style to bring the idea to life.

And by 2018, you already covered the walls of one Deutsche Bahn station, Wannsee, with your pixel art!

This is probably my favourite Berlin project ever. I love train stations. To be able to connect pixel art to a tiled train station – that is absolutely a dream come true. You know it’s a 40-metre tunnel, it’s a pretty huge pixel drawing made out of 18,700 square tiles, over two walls – and amazingly it happened so fast: I think it was seven months, from first call to the whole thing being finished. So much for Berlin inefficiencies. (laughs)

Your versatility is astounding. You were basically an illustrator doing print editorial work. And then you started doing mixed media, digital media and, even augmented reality, with your Petting Zoo app… Are you getting bored of doing the same thing? Scared of not keeping up with the times?

I came into art school with this idea, I want to prove to everybody how well I can draw, kind of realistically, like these exaggerated caricatures with a lot of highlights. And what I learned was that essentially, form follows function. It’s about the concept, it’s about an idea. And then finding the perfect style to bring the idea to life. Take some music compositions – you need a whole orchestra. And for some songs, you need a bad voice and a guitar that’s out of tune. I see my job as coming up with the concepts, and then saying: “Okay, bring me 50 violins, or bring me one broken trumpet.” For me, the different styles are not so much to do with boredom, but more with trying to see what something needs. Then it turns into a generic curiosity about new media, film or animation because you can go a different way with a certain medium.

You even sketched while running a marathon, while live tweeting it, right? That’s pretty extreme!

Yes, I live tweeted making drawings while running the marathon. Yeah. It’s pretty extreme. (laughs) It was a year of preparation!

Why constantly challenge yourself? Is there also some fear there of slacking off, of becoming irrelevant?

Maybe the fear of people saying: “Oh, he did this one okay thing and now he’s just trying to milk it to the end.” So I’m sure a part of it is that, but I hope that another part of it is really that you’re changing, the world is changing. I feel every new time needs new images, and that’s why I think it’s perfectly fine if, in the year 2022, you paint a sunset in oil on canvas, even though we have enough beautiful sunsets in oil on canvas in museums. But at the same time, of course, there’s this new medium, so there’s new tools. So maybe there’s a sunset being done in another media.

What makes that particular sunset worthwhile/relevant though, what makes it a piece of art?

Art is something which explains the world, where you feel there’s something bigger, where you just feel like, I get more, I get the world right now.

Do you have an example?

Mozart. Also, I remember going to the Gerhard Richter show at MoMA and felt I got it, I felt there was relevance and an urgency… There is something here that I understand on a gut level without any kind of proper art-historical education. It does something with you, it kicks something off. You see something you’ve seen a million other times before, but there’s something urgent there. And so it’s this quest and this obsession that you want to do something that does with other people what other pieces do with you.

Why you are so active on social media? How many followers do you have on Instagram?

A lot.

Come on, say it! (laughs)

On Instagram, it’s over a million.

Many people feel pressured by social media, in your case you seem to have it all under control and be enjoying it!

It is incredibly liberating. We can talk for three hours about the problems of the algorithm and social media pressure, but your work doesn’t exist unless it’s published. These moments when you sit there as an art student or as somebody starting out, thinking that nobody will ever see your good work unless you walk down the street with a sandwich board! Now, there are those amazing illustrators in Kyiv doing work that’s published around the world. This is fantastic. The most talented illustrators in Tel Aviv and Mexico City are showing their work all across the planet via their own channels. I think it’s just great. It’s also overwhelming and scary. There’s so much more competition.

What does a day look like for Christoph Niemann?

I know the moment I sit at the desk and start drawing, I must be efficient. But that also means being willing to waste time on a knucklehead project. Take coding – even though I don’t know how to code, I spent a week coding some ridiculous thing. I’m sitting at some math problem, even though I know the chances of that actually turning into work, into a presentable project are basically zero.

You said once that about 25 percent of what you spend time working on actually cuts the mustard, so you’ve trained yourself to make choices…

Even when I’m publishing my own things, I only publish a tiny fraction, but I know that these 75 percent, even though I don’t show them, are absolutely crucial to the work. As much as I’m trying to be efficient and pay my taxes in time, I know that being inefficient, or metaphysically ineffi- cient, in the creative part is important. A story needs to have some sort of structure, it needs to give an audience an entryway into the art.

And this means sitting at your desk, day after day?

In Berlin, there were a lot of people doing… really messed up things, like running businesses that made absolutely no sense

I think the greatest source of frustration for an artist of any persuasion is how unsexy the experience of creating art is. When you’re at a concert that sets off these fireworks and touches your heart, the reality is that of a pianist who practices his scales from eight every morning, argues with the production company… I know that creating something sexy usually involves unsexy deci- sion-making and repetition. Once you accept that, how many hours can you put into it? Of course, you also need inspiration. But I think these golden moments, they only come if you just spend enough time with yourself. You’ve got to make sure you’re there when that one moment happens! (laughs)

Is it also about refining a work – many writers redraft until it feels right?

There is one quote by Goethe when he writes to a friend and says: “Sorry for the long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one”. And this is important. I think it’s not only the simplification, but it’s also going into different cul-de-sacs, and not knowing where you get out. It’s not about being smarter. In artistic creation, there are no shortcuts.

How does that work with more political cartoon-style work?

Last year, I did a cover for The New Yorker when the US exited Afghanistan. There’s this tank crashing through a maze, and this was something where it’s also about the doing and redoing and reshuffling. The process is very similar: you basically have to create something that feels inevitable at the end. But you have to make it up – so you’re making up the problem and the solution at the same time.

What do you want to elicit from the viewer?

I want to cause an emotional reaction in the viewer. This is the goal that I have. It’s not about me, and it’s not about the artwork, but it is what the artwork does with the viewer. So for me, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether I think it’s funny or if I’m totally enthralled with my creation, it is about an audience getting a kick, whatever that kick is, about the thing. And for that to happen, I need to open a passageway. Things need to be readable, one way or another. And you know, of course, if I draw a watercolour of a tree, there is no joke, so you can’t go in there and go: “Oh, I understood it.” You have to really understand it on a gut level. It’s not a pun that you can write down or explain to somebody. I think a story needs to have some sort of structure, it needs to give an audience an entryway into the art.

What, according to you, is a good Niemann work?

When I feel that for the viewer, there is this connection. Not me telling them what’s what.

How do you know you’ve achieved that?

I don’t. But I guess this is another great thing about social media: you realise how people understand more subtlety than we thought was possible in print. People get it, and they especially get the things that you cannot verbalise. This is fantastic – especially with visual humour or visual storytelling, you can be so much more subtle, multi-layered, than we always thought.

What’s your favourite Berlin thing?

My absolute favourite thing is the S-Bahn between Friedrichstraße and Hackescher Markt, where you actually go over a river through a museum and over a river again. This is unbelievable, that something like that exists. I sometimes purposefully get off one station earlier – just so I can have that.


Stuttgart-born, Christoph Niemann moved to New York aged 26 right after graduation in the late 1990s, having previously interned for two summers and done drawings for Rolling Stone and The New York Times Book Review. Now back in Berlin, Niemann runs marathons, training in Tiergarten and Humboldhain. He calls himself a visual storyteller.