Regulars / Nicer Tuesdays

Christoph Niemann on the mammoth task of designing a mural with 20,000 tiles

Joining us from Germany for the last Nicer Tuesdays talk of 2018 was the renowned illustrator, Christoph Niemann. An illustrator celebrated for his endlessly-brilliant portfolio of books and spot illustrations for publications, Christoph joined us to talk through a larger project: a mural.

Back in January 2018, Christoph received an email from a curator who wrote, “Christoph I have a great project for you,” he told the audience. When people lead with this kind of phrase it’s usually a moment where he cringes, “it’s nice when people come to us with great projects, but usually my experience has been a great project in the mind of a curator is when they have their own ideas and they want you to execute it.”

But this proposal wasn’t like that at all. The curator came to Christoph with the proposal that he redesign a walkway tunnel nestled between the train station and lakeside in Wannsee, a southwest region of Berlin.

Rather than a more detailed illustrative mural, Christoph opted for something simple but with a deep narrative. He chose to use tiles as opposed to traditional illustration tools, an approach he knew was possible after redesigning his family home’s bathroom to be a fold out New York subway map when the Niemann’s relocated from New York to Berlin. Working with pixels was also one of Christoph’s first ever projects for a book he published “right out of school” of artists illustrated as icons. “It’s about making something as simple as possible,” he pointed out, “this is something where pixelation and abstraction are perfect.”

With the tools and aesthetic decided, Christoph then turned his attention to the references the mural would portray. Due to its location, the tunnel is one that juxtaposes two contexts; one historically-dark and one joyful. The first is that Wannsee is largely known as a wealthy area, a part of town filled with “fancy mansions” but with a dark background as this where the Wannsee Conference, a significant Nazi gathering, was held. It’s a “moral low point,” Christoph describes, “cold and brutal, and this really happened there.” On the other side of the spectrum, Wannsee is also the lakeside Berliners head to as it has a beach, where residents go for “a jolly good time”.

Christoph didn’t want either of these contexts to cancel each other out and, instead, presented them in tandem with each other, replicating the way that Berlin recognises its own history: good and bad. “There are so many chapters of history in Berlin but it’s also a vibrant and fantastic city.”

From there, the illustrator embarked on a mammoth organisational and illustrational journey with 20,000 tiles ordered and installed. Now, just 10 months after that initial email, Christoph’s mural in Wannsee is on display for all to see.

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