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‘You just had to look around New York and there were very open secrets.’
Gems in this
Artist, author and storyteller Christoph Niemann needs no introduction — his work regularly captures the imaginations of people around the globe. Born in Germany, he called New York home for more than a decade; now switching between there and Berlin, he still holds NYC close to his heart.
Christoph’s work includes covers of The New Yorker, National Geographic and The New York Times, an episode of Netflix original series Abstract, many popular books, TED talks, drawing live at the Olympic Games, and even sketching the New York Marathon…while running it. We spoke to him about his long relationship with New York, how travel captures his imagination and the joy of discovering the city's open secrets.
On where you grew up
I come from the southwest of Germany, near Stuttgart.
On moving to New York
I interned in New York in ’94 and ’95, first with Paul Davis the illustrator, and the year after with Paula Scher at Pentagram. Being able to observe that whole team and company at Pentagram was pretty incredible. I then went back to Germany to finish my studies, and in 1997, about two weeks after graduation, I moved there and I didn’t really have an expiration date on it. I said, ‘I want to make it for one year no matter what,’ and ended up staying for eleven years. I’m now between New York and Berlin, and in New York as often as I can be, as I love it too much.
On your relationship with New York
New York makes it very easy to make the city your own. It’s one of the few places where you feel that you don’t have to ask permission to be there. You don’t feel like you’re being put under a test from other people — you know, whether you call yourself a ‘New Yorker’ or not. I think that the moment you stop looking up at the skyscrapers, you’re a New Yorker. It’s not about your accent, it’s not about your background. As long as you don’t complain, you’re part of the team. And I know, coming from other cities where it’s very much about the language, or your relatives and how long you’ve been there and knowing it’s your kind of culture — in New York, I felt very welcome. Not in the sense of everyone inviting me or helping me, but in that you really feel free to join and identify with the city, which is something that I have never felt quite like in another place.
On a piece of advice that travels
Something that I learned, especially when I’m on assignments, is that I’m nervous and I feel like I need to deliver. So there’s a tendency to immediately start to take what you see and turn it into a drawing, a photo or piece of writing, and I learned that it’s really necessary to just wait and see first. You need some input before you create output. Especially when I’m on somebody else’s dime, I feel the urge to immediately start producing, but if I take that time, like 24 or 48 hours, to firstly find some inspiration before you start to write it down, it’s always a good thing. So a piece of advice that travels is to have patience, which can be a tricky thing.
‘New York makes it very easy to make the city your own. It’s one of the few places where you feel that you don’t have to ask permission to be there... it’s not about your accent, it’s not about your background. As long as you don’t complain, you’re part of the team.’
On landing as an alien in New York
In terms of pop culture, Germany is so incredibly Americanized. I could easily name ten TV series that I watched as a kid and young adult that are American, but I couldn’t name a single French or Italian one, even though these are countries that are geographically so much closer to Germany. It was surprising how — within my work and also seeing stuff like sports and music — these are all things I was incredibly familiar with. I was surprised how easy it was to immerse myself, or reference things in my work — 95% of the things that came to my mind were translatable, because my culture was Americanized enough before I got there.
On your greatest challenge
The biggest hurdle by far was language. You learn English at school and you feel your English is great (I never felt my English was great when I got to New York). But then, of course, once you’re being put to task and working with a printer, for example, who might not be the most patient if looking for a special technical term, that was really, really challenging. You try to be funny and, of course, come across like a total idiot because you don’t have the words. I think New Yorkers are so used to everybody speaking English, maybe even more than English-speaking people in general, that if you’re not speaking English you seem like a little bit of an idiot. Your jokes don’t come out as quickly, so you’re neither funny nor witty and, of course, it feels terrible when you realise how people look at you. Like, ‘Oh god, I have the thought in my head but it won’t come out in time.’ So that’s a big hurdle.
On connecting with local culture
I moved to New York in my mid 20s, which was an ideal time to do such a move for me, because your pain threshold is incredibly high. Also, it’s a time when you go to see music, you meet friends and go to bars, and this makes it very easy to connect with other people. So your energy level and pain threshold are very high, and when you get your first jobs you can then actually afford a beer. I remember when I went to New York for my first internship, it was always the fear of going to a bar with other people because people buy rounds. I thought, ‘I have money for one beer, so I can’t go to a bar because there are three other people and everyone buys a beer for everyone else, so I have to buy four beers and can’t afford it.’ And the fear of these moments was absolutely crushing. But then, once you can afford your beers, life gets much more manageable. So being at that age made it easier, but also I think New York celebrates different cultures and is very open about it.
On New York’s open secrets
I remember the first year in New York, we did this meal for Thanksgiving — we didn’t know what Thanksgiving was, but it was very easy to find out. I went to the supermarket and looked at everybody’s shopping cart and realised, ‘Okay, that’s the stuff you’re supposed to buy,’ completely improvised and got a big turkey, and it just felt like the right thing to do. We didn’t feel like we were intruding on anybody's culture. It was just like, ‘Okay, it’s Thanksgiving, we’re here, we’re going to do our best,’ and that makes it great. Or the summers when you go to the beach, because everybody goes to the beach. I feel like a lot of the cultural everyday experiences in New York are shared by many people and didn’t feel as fractured as in other cities that I knew, where certain people would do this thing, and certain other people would do another thing. I felt everybody was taking the subway and heading to Jones Beach on the weekend, everybody was trying to get a ticket for the movies in the park. You just had to look around New York and there were very open secrets.
‘We didn’t feel like we were intruding on anybody’s culture. It was just like, ‘okay, it’s Thanksgiving, we’re here, we’re going to do our best,’ and that makes it great...you just had to look around New York and there were very open secrets.’
On how that first Thanksgiving turned out
That might have been one of the better turkeys that we’ve made in our life. The one problem, of course, was that we ate it at three in the morning because we had no idea it would take so long to cook. We had everything together by 9 o’clock and then it took another five-and-a-half hours to get the whole thing done. It was late but definitely worth it.
On creativity across borders and cultures
I think visual language is not so much about an image being necessarily understood everywhere, but it’s a language that transcends the limits of verbal language. If I make a pun on, say, an emoji, it only works when other people know what emojis are, so if you don’t have access to a mobile phone or you don’t live in the web world, you won’t understand it. For example, I did a New Yorker cover about a crazy coffee machine that looks like a whole factory but only produces a few drops of coffee. It’s about a culture where we are obsessed with coffee and you pay eight dollars for a cold-brew something, and you don’t need language to read this image. But, of course, you can only read it if you are part of a certain kind of culture and society that has seen baristas produce an eight-dollar cup of coffee.
America is as much a country as France is a country, except it is not geographically contained to certain areas, this country is spread out all over the world.
On how travel inspires your work
I enjoy moments of familiarity and comfort, but you get a much better perspective when you’re the alien. I get to see fantastic places, but so much of what I do — and what most people in design do — is you take something that feels familiar and you mess it up in a way, to become aware of it again in a completely different way. Like pop music: the topic of 99% of every pop music song is, ‘Baby, I love you’. So the point is to not come up with a new topic but to make it new the way you do it, and make it feel like you’ve never heard that song before. That also means that you, as a human being, have to refresh your view of the world. When you’re in a familiar place — and I love familiar places and love routines, they’re extremely important — when you completely break out of it you start looking at stuff differently. You start looking not necessarily at other people but at yourself again in a different way. When you go to a faraway place, there might be a beautiful temple, food or something you haven’t seen before, but the most interesting element is what happened with you — to question yourself, your identity, your preconceptions, your stereotypes — and this is usually the topic of all the things that I do. I try to somehow get this sentiment over to the reader: to look at something differently and then maybe the next time you travel you also enjoy these moments of friction. I think travelling is much more than just enjoying amazing food and restaurants and so on, but an experience that could change something within you beyond consuming.
On recent projects and meeting David Hockney
There have been two projects in the last six months that I’ve been super happy with. The first one was a book that I did on a trip to Los Angeles. My Swiss publisher has asked if I want to meet David Hockney, and it was the first time I hopped on a plane and flew from Berlin to Los Angeles hoping that this would work out. But then I ended up sitting in a hotel room for six days, walking the city, drawing, waiting for the meeting to take place or not, and so I turned this story into drawings in the book, and that felt really great. The meeting did take place, which was a few hours in David Hockney’s studio, and that was really great. The other recent project was a travel story for National Geographic to SouthEast Asia, to Vietnam and Cambodia, that we turned into an extensive travelogue, which was really unique as a visual and sensory experience. But then, of course, meeting the people was very special.
‘When you go to a faraway place there might be a beautiful temple, food or something you haven’t seen before, but the most interesting element is what happened with you — to question yourself, your identity, your preconceptions, your stereotypes.’
On creative inspiration in New York
The classic for me is walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, especially very early in the morning or when it’s snowing, because both of these times it’s really empty. I’ve done it so often, and the magic of it just doesn’t wear off. The first time I took the bus coming into the city from the airport, the bus dropped us off at 42nd St at Grand Central. That is also very classic, but when you’re inside Grand Central, or when you look up at the Chrysler Building, it doesn’t get much sexier than that. In terms of museums, I think The Met is absolutely fantastic. There is something about when you walk up the stairs at the front. I like sitting there and watching people go in and out; it’s absolutely divine. I like the Museum of Modern Art also; I know people there and have working relationships with MoMA.
On a favorite spot to hang out in New York
Jimmy’s Corner is a bar with all this great boxing memorabilia. It’s at 140 West 44th St, which is near Times Square, and I guess ‘Old Times Square’ was at one time full of these bars. It’s a dark bar with crazy lights and all these great boxer photos; I think it’s the most beautiful place in midtown.
On something to do if passing through NYC
The Staten Island Ferry is a must. The Strand Bookstore also. I know it’s getting crowded, but I also like going to Hudson Yards, walking down The High Line and then going to The Whitney.
On how you use your time while flying
I save certain tasks for flights, like emailing and especially archiving. I think I have sorted my archive out in no other place than a plane for the last 15 years. That’s a classic plane job. I’ve also done a couple of ‘Sunday Sketches’ from inside a plane, in the bathroom and with a tray table in front of me.
On window seat or aisle
Window for day flights, and aisle for night flights. I love to look out the window, but at night I don’t want to be jumping over people and have other people jump over me. Because I’m so tall, getting over other people is basically impossible without waking them up and I always find that cruelly embarrassing.
On New York in one word