Online magazine Freunde von Freunden has just added Christoph Niemann to its extensive list of interviews with inspiring creative people. Here, we feature an extract from Liv Siddall‘s conversation with the Berlin-based illustrator as he reflects on how social media has changed the way he works and the importance of inefficiency…
If you ever wander down Schröderstrasse in Mitte [Berlin’s central borough], keep your eyes peeled for a little ground floor window with a small frame within it, writes Siddall, whose interview with Niemann can be read in full on FvF, here. All photography by Robbie Lawrence.
Every now and again, cartoonist Christoph Niemann places a small item of curiosity in this frame that he exhibits for the public’s viewing pleasure. Inside the building is his studio, from which he grins at passers by as they stop and blink at the window, examining the artefact he’s chosen to display.
With high-end commissions predominantly from across the Atlantic – including editorial work for The New York Times Magazine and covers for The New Yorker – Christoph may appear to be masquerading as an American.
In fact, he was born in Stuttgart, spending 11 years in New York before moving to Berlin with his family. This is where he works today, churning out cartoons, magazine covers and witty illustrations in his shiny, cosy studio which backs right on to his house. Pots of ink, jars of pencils and brushes, an ever-changing gallery wall and an enormous archive of prints surround Christoph as he works: everything is neat as a pin and in its correct place.
As a quick-witted cartoonist, he’s something of a rare beast in this day and age. But that’s what’s so magical about him: he’s a master of his craft, creating ink drawings with a flick of the hand and a deft movement of his brush. And even though he’s slightly bewildered at the sudden introduction of social media to the world of illustration, he’s riding the wave happily.
Liv Siddall: When do you tend to work best?
Christoph Niemann: Definitely the morning. There’s something about the freshness of 8:30. I don’t know if it’s age or having a system, but I run out of steam. I realise when I do six or eight hours, there’s nothing left. That’s when you start ruining drawings and making bad decisions.
LS: When you were looking for a house, were you looking for one that had a built in studio?
CN: No, not at all. I’ve had about five different studios in Berlin since living here. Once I had a studio that was a lot of fun in the official press building of the federal government, right on the river. I could see trains and ships and it was across the river from the Chancery. After that, there was a building full of artists and architects just a few blocks from here, and I moved three or four times within that building.
The main problem was not having enough space – I don’t know if it’s changed with me or the world at large, but I felt when I started out that it was all about the work. Your career is something that happens in the printed piece, and you, your opinion, your environment and your sketches play no role. Nowadays there’s social media, and I feel it’s almost impossible to leave yourself out of it.
With most assignments I get now – not all – people want a video, too, so you spend two days doing the drawing and then spend four days doing a how-to interview to accompany it. And of course, it has to be in your studio, so I realised there was value in having a good place to show where your work happens. It used to be that my studio was a total mess, and it didn’t matter because I could work there.
Eventually, I realised that curators and collectors come to look at drawings and you need to be able to make a statement with your environment. It’s something I didn’t want, but I realised I had to make up for the lack of that with even more work, and even more drawings. I realised when I had this place that it’s actually fun to have a space where you can hang things on the wall, and where I can have a big table where I can sit down and draw. It’s so much easier. You don’t have to compensate so much.
LS: Many of your projects, such as your work for The New Yorker, are commissioned regularly. How much do you rely on that, and what’s the process of submitting that sort of work?
CN: Actually, I do much less than I used to. I do a small piece for The New York Times Book Review and I also do a piece for Wired. Those are my regular pieces, and I do almost exclusively editorial.
Then once in a while, I will do a cover for The New Yorker [March 28 2011 cover, shown below]. I send in sketches, and then there’s a lot of discussion and back-and-forth. You have to get the illustration past Francoise Mouly, and then you have to get it past David Remnick. The cover is an illustration with no text, so they put a lot of trust on the shoulders of the drawing – it makes sense that they put a lot of scrutiny into it.
There’s a lot of pressure from me, from them, and also it’s an open competition. I have done enough covers now that I tend to get a response when I send one, which makes it a lot easier – I am very fortunate that I am not just throwing things into the ether with no idea if it does or doesn’t make it.
Do you ever go straight in [to a new piece of work] with paint or ink?
Sometimes, yes. I use inks for the Sunday Sketches that I‘ve been doing. The unusual thing about that series is it was really unplanned. I wanted to do something on Instagram and I’m sketching all the time anyway, so I thought, I may as well post these things. I started about a year and a half ago and I found it was actually a lot of fun.
I take whatever – an object or piece of paper – and I look at it until I see something. And what I see is totally unplannable. It’s completely unpredictable and that’s why I don’t want to offer it to anyone as work – it’s something that just happens and that’s the charm of it.
Do you ever make decisions, sleep on them and then go back and change your mind?
All the time. Sometimes you look at something, and you think, that is awesome, and then the next day you look at it and you are horrified. Sometimes I do something three times over and think, this is terrible, and then I go back and find there’s some strength in there. You need the second day to realise the strength in something.
On the one hand, I wish I didn’t waste so much time, but on the other, I really try and savour the inefficiency. I can be efficient with my work day 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.