New Yorker illustrator Christoph Niemann on art directors, illustration work and life in New York City

Yesterday I uploaded the latest article in the Artist’s Market Online Remembers series, “Christoph Niemann: The Thinking Man’s (and Woman’s) Illustrator” by design writer Steven Heller. German-born Niemann moved to New York City in 1997, and has become a popular illustrator, providing cover and interior images for top newspapers and magazines such as The New Yorker. You can read the entire Christoph Niemann Q&A here, or keep reading for an excerpt below.

I’m getting ready to head to England on vacation, so things will be pretty quiet around here for the next couple of weeks. But I’ll be back in October with more creative business news and tips.

Until then, keep creating and good luck!




New Yorker cover with Christoff Niemann illustration

Christoph Niemann’s work is regularly showcased on the cover of The New Yorker. There’s a lot going on in Niemann’s witty turn on his own ode to a Grecian urn. The idea alone is enough to cause a double take, but it’s details like the pretzels, peanuts and beer decorative borders that say “this has got to be a Christoph Niemann cover!”

Since moving to New York City eight years ago from Ludwigsburg, Germany, Christoph Niemann has become one of the chief go-to illustrators for art directors seeking to clarify the complexities inherent in subjects such as gun control, trade deficits, and black holes. Niemann’s wit, irony, and minimalist style have made him a favorite with such major magazines and newspapers such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Men’s Health, Esquire, Popular Science and international publications such as the German business weekly, WirtschaftsWoche.

Niemann’s brain seems to be wired for thinking metaphorically. In Niemann’s world, donuts explain black holes  and pink toothpaste succinctly sums up romantic obsession.

Every solution begins as a series of doodles Niemann comes up with on the subway ride from his Brooklyn home into Manhattan. He likes to have a couple backups (or 10), just to prove he’s nailed the problem. He also maintains bulging binders of rejected sketches every bit as smart as those that make it to print. “The good stuff never comes easy—it’s like weightlifting,” says Niemann, who confesses he draws everyday because it feels good to look at a new pile of work.

As one of the art directors who calls on him regularly for tricky assignments, I recently had the opportunity to quiz him about his work. Here, Niemann speaks on his process, his clients, and avoiding distraction.

When and why did you decide to become an illustrator?

As far as I remember I knew I wanted to be an illustrator when I was maybe 13 or 14. Thinking illustration would be an insane career choice, I briefly considered becoming an architect. But my dad told me that this would involve building little models. I happen to be the most inept man on the face of the earth when it comes to building little models of anything, so I decided to abandon that idea very quickly.

Why did you decide to immigrate to America from Germany? Wasn’t there enough work to keep you going? Didn’t you like the beer and schnitzel?

When I was a student I spent two consecutive summers as an intern in New York (with Paul Davis in ’95 and with Paula Scher at Pentagram in ’96), so I was already infected with the New York virus. When I finished my degree in ’97 I decided to just give it a shot for a year to see whether it works, knowing that once I would have settled in Berlin or Hamburg it would have been much harder to leave everything behind and do such a crazy move. So I have never really tried to work in Germany (though I have a lot of clients here who I enjoy working for a lot). On top of that, you can actually find very decent schnitzel here in New York.

Let’s talk struggle. Did you ever? Did you ever have to sell yourself? Or did America just open its wide arms and take you in like so many cheap computer chips?

When I came here I was only worried about whether I would get enough jobs, but luckily I pretty much had enough work right from the start.

The struggles happened at other fronts. For about six months I was living and working in a loft on lower Broadway that I shared with three other people. My roommates were nice and easy going (one of them started smoking his first gigantic joint at 8 in the morning). My desk was a little chest with drawers, so I had to basically work sitting sideways. On top of two Multiplex-style television sets that were acoustically competing with two insane dogs, an Irish folk-band was rehearsing about five feet from me rather frequently. I concluded my stay at this joint being carried out on a stretcher followed by a bumpy ride in an ambulance to Beth Israel, were I got treated for a slipped disc and a wicked blood infection. When I came back to pick up my stuff the dogs had eaten my portfolio.

Have you ever attempted to create a more American style with American art directors in mind? Do you think of your work as American?

Other than some strange metaphors that I had to learn first (e.g. golden nest eggs), I never felt I had to adjust. Since I spent almost my entire professional career here my work probably qualifies as American (to the degree that New York qualifies as American…)

Why don’t you like to listen to music while you work? Did you overturn a bottle of ink while dancing to Shakira?

Music or no music, I think I spill about a half gallon of ink per year.

I simply can’t focus enough if music is playing the background. Thinking of ideas and especially drawing require so much concentration that I have to minimize any sensual distraction.

Art directors—especially editorial ones like me—rely on you for ideas we couldn’t think of in a hundred years. That makes you an invaluable commodity. What does it mean to you?

I like—and thrive on—the collaboration with art directors, but that doesn’t make me any less insecure about people (especially readers) actually getting my jokes. Once I have finished a drawing I feel pretty confident, but in the work process, that doesn’t help me much because until I have that idea that does get approved, I do feel like this will be the job that will simply not work out.

Is illustration a satisfying enough endeavor for you?

It is, and especially when you look at the giants like Steinberg, Chwast, Holland or Heinz Edelmann you can see that you can spend a lifetime doing it without ceasing to reinvent yourself and keeping things interesting. The question is if the way I do illustrations today remains a viable profession, or whether it will morph into a less “artistic” and isolated field. If there are no more 4×4 spot illustrations to be done I will have to use my skills differently and I am young and stupid enough to hope that I will enjoy whatever that may be as much as what I am doing now.


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