“It’s like you’re a doctor in an emergency room. It’s high pressure”
Christoph Niemann in conversation with It’s Nice That
As you head into the bathroom in Christoph Niemann’s studio in Berlin, the act of shutting the door behind you causes the radio to turn on, faintly playing music in the corner. It’s a design flair that is brilliantly unnecessary. It is literally the last thing most would think of when putting together such a functional room. But in Christoph’s studio it symbolises a unique level of care, a foresight to think: this is a situation which might be uncomfortable for someone, but I can do a small thing to make it actually enjoyable. It’s a level of foresight that over the course of our conversation is clear in everything he does, creative or otherwise.
Growing up in the west of Germany and studying graphic design, Christoph’s creative capabilities gained recognition when he moved to New York in the late 90s. Shortly afterwards, he became a staple artist adorning the pages of the city’s namesake magazines, known for his vast stylistic sensibilities and quick-witted illustrative hand.
Ever since, he’s been a consistent figure creatives turn to for all manner of reasons: from great work that is always evolving to kind advice via an attitude towards creativity that makes you want to join in. In fact, on a recent evening following a talk of his, Christoph, one of the busiest illustrators in the business, could be found in the corner of an East London pub, chatting to a bunch of young creatives about their work.
Joining him in the studio on a balmy evening in the German capital earlier this year, we caught up with Christoph to discuss the frustration and sheer joy of creative work.
INT: I was reading how you treat this place like an office or shop with opening and closing hours. Are you strict with yourself on these rules?
CN: I try to be. I am very conscious of getting the most out of my time. My kids are a little older now so we’re trying to have time with them. Every once in a while, I’ll write an email, finish something over the weekend, or work on something that’s floating around my head, I really try to have this rhythm of eight hours a day, five days a week. I feel it’s a good rhythm to inhale and exhale because you need the time in between.
INT: How old are your children now?
CN: 11, 14 and 17.
INT: How do they perceive what you do?
CN: Belligerent ignorance. No, they like what I do. They’ve grown up with it, it’s something they’re completely used to. At one point my eldest son was in France and was like “My buddies saw that Virgil Abloh is following you on Instagram” – it was this freakout moment. I don’t know if he still does, but it was something they’d seen and he was genuinely proud. But actually my youngest likes to draw and we sit down and do that. He likes to do it, but it’s not like he would say “I was on your website and saw you have a new project, tell me about it.” That wouldn’t happen, and I think that’s a good thing.
INT: What has been on your website recently then?
CN: What have I been doing… I’ve been doing a lot of prints and I’ve been going on some trips. Travel trips where I go places and draw, some on assignment and some self-initiated. And I have some talks coming up too.
INT: How do you find that process? Being on assignment gives you something to do of course, but is there a certain pressure?
CN: Oh it’s huge! Very roughly, for the first ten years of my career, I only did editorial and that’s freaky in another kind of way because of the pressure to deliver in a few hours. I think it took me a few years to get to used to it but then I actually loved it. I always felt it’s a little bit like you’re a doctor in an emergency room. It’s high pressure. You cannot fuck up. But it’s also about stopping the bleeding, getting decent work done, just making sure the person is still alive. Then, the next day you’ll have another person come in. It’s a crazy rhythm but it’s a rhythm.
It’s when you leave your desk things become less predictable. Come to me and say, “I need a drawing on the difference in interest rates for government bonds between Germany and Greece,” I know I can deliver something OK. If you say, “Go to Madrid and be inspired,” I don’t know what’s going to happen. In a way, even though it’s much more open, it’s much more stressful. I can’t resort to routine and the first thing you have to do – which I hate – is actually sit there and make things happen. My instinct is to start drawing right away and say, OK, how can I turn this into something. And you can’t, you have to just be there. That’s really difficult!
INT: Has it altered the way you feel when you’re on holiday?
CN:: Not so much, it’s really more that the way I travel has become part of my work. Drawings I do for these travel pieces are completely different from the other work. It’s almost like I’ve started a new professional life, and that life started through Instagram.
INT: How so?
CN: At some point I was on a vacation and I did the drawings that I always did, watercolours of a tree or a mountain. I thought, oh god, I need to post something, so I posted these things that I did purely for myself. I never pitched these, it really came from an editor at Die Zeit who said let’s do a story. It’s also work that I couldn’t pitch, I couldn’t defend it like my other work. National Geographic stories I have done also came from the editor seeing it on Instagram.
“A drawing is like when you describe something to a reader in three sentences.”
INT: It’s really exciting that if you do something just for you, people can relate to it – especially with a magazine like National Geographic. It’s rare to see illustrations in that publication that aren’t technical too.
CN: They’ve started doing more of that. I also knew National Geographic as a very photographic magazine – of course, it is largely defined by that. I think maybe it’s to do with the fact that photographs have become so good. I watch these BBC documentaries, the Attenborough ones, with my youngest son. I love them, but you feel that when you’ve seen a lion shot from a drone with every hair on its nose visible, how can you go out as a traveller and be amazed by something visually? That’s where I feel drawing, which I think is much closer to writing in a lot of ways, is great because you edit. A photo often has too much information and a drawing is like when you describe something to a reader in three sentences. I leave so much out that it gives you an entryway as a reader.
INT: And I guess once you start working in a certain field more people come to you?
CN: Yes, it was a huge fortune for me that, when I started, I found art directors who trusted me on not having one style. It was uncommon to have an art director assign you without thinking “you’re the watercolour animal guy” or “you’re the vector drawing portrait illustrator”. For me, my different styles were always extremely important.
INT: A question we often get asked is whether a creative should have one style or will having a range gain more work. I still don’t think I fully know the correct answer.
CN: I guess for me styles are concepts. When you’re art directing a magazine you can’t just let the illustrator do anything, but there are people who will always come to me for concepts which is why I think my stuff works well for politics, economics and cultural themes – things that are difficult to photograph. I would use style like it was a typeface, but the thing that holds it together is the concept.
INT: Maybe it’s just that if you’re commissioned for a specific type of work it’s easy to think this is just what people want?
CN: Another thing, and this is something I can’t take a definite stance on, but I feel that when illustration is taught as illustration, usually the focus is the execution of it, the stylistic aspect. Whereas I studied graphic design and I feel concept work is seen as a natural part of that but not in illustration, which is baffling to me.
INT: Do you ever wonder what your career may have turned out like if you had studied illustration?
CN: In retrospect, I am super happy. I got to study photography, animation, type and layout, all these things that at the time frankly seemed like a distraction. Even though now I’m not nearly on a professional level with these things, I still feel they have informed everything I have been doing since. I am very happy and it’s difficult to make predictions but I think that the days where you could have a design or illustration career for 40 years based on one style is over. So, I think whether you decide to have a portfolio in one style is one question, but in education, in terms of developing your work and so on, it would be very dangerous to stick with a style.
INT: Do you think that, in having so many alternate styles, people have different perceptions or misconceptions about what you do?
CN: Sometimes people see a certain thing you do and they’re just surprised that you might be doing something else. I know it’s easier if you’re the person who does such and such but I know I wouldn’t want that, I would be bored too quickly. But also, you shouldn’t base your career on what people want from you because usually they only want what they know.
I really think that you have to keep that whole art school thing alive, where you have the chutzpah to invent and reinvent everything. I’m not going to compare myself to Ford, but, if Ford had listened to clients he would have made faster horses because that’s what people wanted.
INT: Is it about going against what people expect then?
CN: I don’t think it’s purposefully going against it because I like clients. They’re great, they’re people who support you and so much work is about trust. I think that in a design or publishing world, you can’t mess with people. They’re under too much pressure for you to throw in curveballs. I think it’s really something you have to do for you, where at some point you might just have to say no to something. Where you can afford it, take time off, develop a new thing and bring that out there.
“If somebody comes to me with smart advice about my painting, I’m not going to listen.”
INT: You’ve become this really key voice for advice on working in the creative world. How does it make you feel to be a person creatives turn to?
CN: I spend a lot of time working and thinking about this, but maybe most of the stuff I do in that realm has developed from talks. I’ve always had this huge disadvantage because I started giving talks in English. Now I’m perfectly fine, I’m aware of my accent and it’s never going to be my first language, but I don’t have to retranslate anymore. That is dramatically different from when I started out.
When I would give a talk I would really prepare every single slide and every single note with that slide. That’s when I started thinking about the narrative of how I present my work and I realised that, in terms of how a drawing evolves, there’s very little to talk about. But there’s the stuff in-between drawing where you think about why you go in a certain direction – that’s more interesting. That’s not what’s usually done; usually, you’re asked to do talks when you’re successful and you talk about your success. Of course, you don’t want to put up a drawing and say “this is shit”, but there was a time where I felt I had stumbled into talking about work that I’m very proud of, which is made through a process I’m extremely uneasy with.
INT: If you’re the person creatives turn to for advice, who is the person you turn to?
CN: There’s a couple of books I read which I felt were eye-opening. Usually, books where there is just a little something that feels really relevant to me. Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, for instance, where he describes how he writes a book on DH Lawrence. It’s really a book about literature, but it’s so incredible. Then Stephen King’s On Writing is the single best book on creativity, ever. It’s a textbook so you can really sit down and learn chapter one, chapter three, and then there’s this awesome biography on top of it. It’s often these things. And then, of course, you talk with friends.
INT: Is there anything you’ve particularly been thinking about recently?
CN: One thing that’s kind of currently my, not obsession, but something I think about a lot, is how creativity is like a sport where you have offence and defence. Offence is art, sitting there and drawing. Defence is everything else; how you have one style or how you organise your website, how you price your originals, who you talk to or what you put in your portfolio – all the stuff you can actually discuss with people.
Right now, when I play offence I want to have no rules. I don’t want to think about what’s smart. Every good thing happens when you sit down, create a mess, work hard and use all your brain and your heart to turn it into something good. There’s no way to become intelligent about it. I think it’s actually terrible if you’re trying to become intelligent about this, because it’s gut and heart and full-on energy. So if somebody comes to me with smart advice about my painting, I’m not going to listen to that. Of course, there’s good art direction, but the whole point is that it’s unpredictable, it’s weird and inefficient and strange. There’s possibility when you do something out of artistic instinct, I think going with data and looking at like my last eight Instagram posts is terrible.
INT: No, and it definitely never equates to happiness.
CN: Definitely not happiness! Maybe success, maybe someone will figure that out but I don’t want to know.
INT: You’re right, though – it’s important to have all those details like your website, taxes, management in order to be free with creative work, and use your gut, as you say.
CN: And I usually find that, in that department, the defence, good enough is usually fine. Whereas with my offence it’s not about good enough. If it takes you 100 hours it’s not about “was that worth it?” If it needs to better and different it needs to be better and different. If it’s going to take you ten nights to do that, then so be it. Whereas if you feel eight hours every week is going towards preparing your taxes, you might want to think about getting someone else to do that for you because that’s something that should be efficient. Look, you’re an artist! You shouldn’t spend that much time on that.
INT: I always wonder with your work, in particular the editorially leaning illustrations, about how it features a moment of surprise. An “aha”! When you have that moment and you’re actually creating that moment, do you have a way that you celebrate?
“Accepting that the process of reading is so different from writing is a huge step.”
CN: Not necessarily, because I don’t usually have that moment myself, because you can’t tickle yourself. I mean every once in a while you do something and you’re like “oh wow”, but it’s not usually how it works.
I think that usually you go from A to B and eventually you might find out that walking from A to B is a good way to go. A is a good start and B is a good ending, but the line to get there is very uneven and design work is about making that line interesting. Maybe if it’s a book you hold back that information; you turn the page and then it’s B. Or you do something that takes too long so once you’ve got to B you’ve forgotten about A and have to shorten it. Essentially, you design the reception process of the reader and this has a lot to do with empathy, being the reader yourself. You, the creator, have walked from A to B 100 times. Of course you’re not going to be surprised about where you go. The whole point is that for the reader it feels like, I just walked by A and whoops there was B. It’s about covering your tracks because work is supposed to look spontaneous.
INT: And it does!
CN: This is a huge source of frustration, maybe the biggest source. You think you should have the same joy and excitement creating it, but it’s not as fun to write a book as it is to read a book. I think accepting that the process of reading is so different from writing is a huge step. A lot of the pain comes from that, because after a while you forget, and you look at your own work and actually enjoy it the way a reader does. It’s a bit like moving house, you always forget how painful it is.
INT: I’m not sure if it’s the same for illustration but often when I write a piece I think is particularly good it’s never that well received. It’s the pieces I do which I think are fine that are the ones people love.
CN: That is the very essence of illustration work.
CN: Of course! There are a lot of things where I think that was really smart and cool… And it’s a just a stone that drops into a pond. Sometimes you do something which isn’t terrible but you just did everything right, went over it a few times and just cleaned it up. Then, it causes this emotional magic and I just sit there thinking, I just did what needed to be done and put it in order!
You know what, it’s awesome that we haven’t figured it out yet. We don’t know, and that’s kind of fantastic.