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Features / Illustration

A visit to Christoph Niemann’s studio, where he’s “making imperfections fun”

Photography:

Maxime Ballesteros

I visit Christoph at his Berlin studio on a hot summer day in August, and most of our conversation is half-spoken and half-sketched. When my questions become too specific, he runs across the room and gets a thick pad of paper and he begins to draw with a black felt tip pen – I’ll try my best to translate the day into writing.

For Christoph, drawing is about “having a 2D view of the world.” He sketches a square on the squeaky, smooth paper and asks “Is this square the top of a box?” he adds lines accordingly and suddenly I’m looking at a cube. “Or… is it the top of a two mile sky-scraper?” he extends the lines so that it becomes a towering building. Part of Christoph’s allure is his almost magician-like ability to transform the way we look at the world around us with nothing other than a pen and a page. With just a few lines Christoph can turn one thing into something else completely – he uses drawing to capture the joy and transformative potential of the imagination.

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Maxime Ballesteros: Christoph Niemann

We’re in Christoph’s studio in the heart of the coffee shop-lined district of Mitte – it’s an open, light and spacious room with big glass windows that overlook the street on one side and a customary Berlin courtyard on the other. Despite being German and living in Berlin, his illustrations are very much associated with New York, the city where Christoph lived and worked for ten years and made his name.

“I moved to Berlin for the same reason I first moved to New York,” Christoph says. “I came here for work.” As soon as he arrived in Berlin, the strangeness of being in a new place shocked him into creating more personal work. “That’s when I began my visual blog for The New York Times, Abstract City. If I stayed in New York, I wouldn’t have had the guts to do it.”

“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.”

Christoph Niemann

In his Berlin studio, a coffee machine hums in the background (anyone who knows Christoph’s work will know how much he loves coffee), colourful pens and brushes are neatly placed in transparent stationery holders, and there’s a well-stocked fridge. This is the place where the cartoonist brings his ideas to life: everything from his New Yorker and Wired covers to his apps, art, children’s books, MoMA commissions and recent Kraftwerk drawings, as well as his New York Times column and political cartoons. You’ll have seen the studio in the background of many of Christoph’s Instagram photos, particularly his Sunday Sketches – a series for which he takes ordinary objects and brings them to life in surprising and whimsical ways.

The Sunday Sketches are an important exercise that keeps Christoph on his toes. These drawings will take something ordinary like a pair of headphones and turn them into a gorilla’s face, highlighters will become lightsabers, and a credit card will become the trunk of a chopped tree. “For me, it’s not about having a goal but instead about thinking: ‘Where does that object take me?’” says Christoph, pointing at a chair with his pen, “I could take a photo of that chair and probably turn it into a reasonably good giraffe [he extends his pen upwards to gesture a giraffe’s head]. 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.”

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Maxime Ballesteros: Christoph Niemann

It’s an “exercise in looking,” one that appears effortless but actually takes a lot of time, thought, planning and patience. “The drawings are a bit like actors: if you see how many times I’ve tried and erased and planned, it’s boring,” he says.

Much of Christoph’s work can be characterised by its seeming effortlessness. In 2011, Christoph ran the New York Marathon and documented the excursion through a series of drawings sketched and photographed along the way: most documented his concerns for a depleting iPhone battery and his regret at not having taken a banana offered to him by a passer-by. The drawings in their entirety are hilarious, brilliantly of-the-moment and also oddly poignant. Despite the wonderfully spontaneous appearance of a lot of Christoph’s work, each of his ideas comes from a chaotic myriad of thoughts, which are whittled down until something fits. “For the real good stuff, it’s never that an idea just pops into being: there is this long, crazy plan, a tree with five hundred branches,” he explains. “When I look at these branches, it’s about finding the perfect three. I have to chop the other branches down and that takes time.”

“I was always so plot orientated, laser-beaming towards the big ‘a-ha’ moment. Then I started to think: ‘What if I just start with the elements and see what happens?’”

Christoph Niemann

As part of a series for MoMA exploring “Commoditised Warfare,” Christoph created a bold animation where you first think a soldier will put together a rifle, but then he makes a coffee percolator instead. This element of surprise is key to Christoph’s thinking – and for him it’s not only about surprising the viewer, but also about surprising himself. The technique is one that he first started to consider when reading Stephen King’s literary manual, On Writing.

“King wrote that there are two ways to write a book: you either start with your outcome and everything is geared towards that ending, or you come up with a situation that has tension and see what happens. You let the characters go …I was always so plot orientated, laser-beaming towards the big ‘a-ha’ moment. Then I started to think: ‘What if I just start with the elements and see what happens?’” Christoph might start with a sock and end with a dinosaur, or he might start with a rifle and transform it into something unexpectedly domesticated like coffee. The MoMA animations are surreal visual statements that distil complex, provocative and political opinions into a set of four brief and bold drawings.

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Maxime Ballesteros: Christoph Niemann

“For me, illustration is closest to writing,” says Christoph. “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.”

Once I’ve left the studio, I peer one more time through the big glass windows that looks in from the street, and I see Christoph sit back down at his tidy, organised desk. He picks up an ink brush and then he makes a quick, thoughtful gesture with it in the air: it’s almost as if he is chopping down a branch, trimming the tree that will become his next shining idea.

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Maxime Ballesteros: Christoph Niemann

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Maxime Ballesteros: Christoph Niemann

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Maxime Ballesteros: Christoph Niemann

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Maxime Ballesteros: Christoph Niemann