Illustrator Christoph Niemann Talks About Creativity and ‘the Wisdom of the 9-to-5 Routine’
September 20, 2017 by Greg Herbowy
A male scratching a table
city, building, giant, walk, black, water,
Photo-drawing for the Blueprint co-working space in Hong Kong, 2014.

This fall, SVA will honor author, graphic designer and illustrator Christoph Niemann with its 29th Masters Series award and exhibition. Established in 1988 by SVA founder Silas H. Rhodes as a way to honor the great visual communicators of our time, the Masters Series brings greater exposure to those whose influence has been felt strongly and by many, but whose names often go unrecognized by the public.

Over his three-decade career, Niemann has worked with a range of publications and corporations, building a prolific body of work distinguished by its visual humor and inventiveness. Niemann has illustrated the New York City Marathon—while running it—for The New York Times. He has animated his drawings for Google Doodles (temporary reinventions of the logo on the search engine’s homepage) and created animated and interactive digital versions of his cover illustrations for The New Yorker. He has created two apps: Petting Zoo, which allow users to distort, augment and animate his drawings, and Chomp, which offers 52 animated scenes into which users can incorporate their own videos. And he has written and/or illustrated more than a dozen books, most recently Sunday Sketching (Abrams, 2016), which features select work from throughout his career and serves as an in-depth look at his creative process and philosophy.

In advance of his exhibition, which opens on September 30 at the SVA Chelsea Gallery, the Visual Arts Journal asked Niemann to select and talk about some of his work.

Cartoon toothbrush and toothpaste hugging.

Cover for American Illustration XX (HarperCollins, 2001)

When American Illustration asked Niemann to illustrate the cover of its 20th anthology, they invited him “to do whatever I wanted,” he says. Then accustomed to working mostly on assignments with specific subjects, he found the freedom “terrifying. I was sitting there for two, three weeks, absolutely desperate.” Eventually, the organization suggested “something pornographic”—a play on the XX in the publication’s title. “When you have a topic, you can run through different visual metaphors that represent the idea and try to mess with them,” Niemann says. “So sex or hugging or a close encounter between lovers—what are two things that also have a close relationship and complement each other?”

scratching blank paper

Creative Process, 2012, three-color silk screen, edition of 50

Niemann originally drew this image as part of a visual essay about the “tricky, slow” work of coming up with ideas, a subject he returns to often in his work and writes about at length in Sunday Sketching. Though he offers no magic solution, he has found that treating his job like, well, a job helps. “I keep fairly strict hours,” he says. “An all-nighter seems like a good idea and the ‘tough’ thing to do, but you always pay the price of three days of subpar work afterward. . . . There’s surprising wisdom in the whole 9-to-5 routine.”

An illustration of a blindfolded man assembling a gun into a teapot.

Design and Violence, 2014, two-color silk screen, edition of 100

In 2013, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, introduced “Design and Violence,” an online project about the role of design in violence (and vice versa) organized in part by faculty member Paola Antonelli, the museum’s senior curator of architecture and design. Niemann created two animations for the project, both of which he later adapted into silk screens. MoMA added this silk screen, in which a soldier builds an espresso maker out of machine-gun parts, last year. “I’ve always loved the idea of soldiers who can assemble their guns blindfolded,” Niemann says. “It’s the idea of the military defining itself through skill and competition, rather than through violence.”

Ape headphones

Image from “Sunday Sketches,” 2014 – 2015, mixed media

For about a year and a half beginning in 2014, Niemann pursued a weekly “exercise in seeing” he called “Sunday Sketches.” “I would take an everyday object, without any idea of what I could turn it into, and really stare at it to train my eye to see unexpected things,” he says. An avocado half became a baseball player’s glove, with the pit standing in for the ball; a pair of iPhone earbuds stood in for a mosquito’s compound eyes, with the tangled cord its body and the plug its stinger; an upside-down poppy-seed roll turned into a man’s stubbly chin. After “completing the thought” with a drawing, Niemann would post the image to his Instagram account, @abstractsunday. Many of these illustrations appear in Sunday Sketching.

Cover illustrations for the October 6, 2014 (left), and March 23, 2015, issues of The New Yorker

Niemann has illustrated for The New Yorker for 20 years. In that time, he has created some 25 covers for the weekly magazine, and drawn hundreds of cartoons for its Financial Page column. Ideas for covers are usually the illustrator’s, and tied to some seasonal or topical theme. For the Financial Page, Niemann is told the subject three or four days in advance, a time frame he finds fairly generous for such jobs. “For the first five to 10 years of my career, I did a lot of work for The New York Times editorial page,” he says. “Very often I would get the assignment only two or three hours before the deadline. The fastest one was 45 minutes. It would completely freak me out, but in retrospect it was the best training one could possibly have.”

Recently, Niemann has been developing “augmented” digital versions of his covers: animating the illustrations or creating 360-degree versions of them. Niemann’s Abstract episode shows him at work on a 2016 animated cover, depicting New York City’s skyline. In the online edition of the cover at left, raindrops streak down the car windshield.

Image of bird sculpture.

Photo-drawing from Niemann′s personal collection

“Sometimes I have a photo that just sits there,” Niemann says. “It’s like 80 percent there, but something is missing, and I’ll find a drawing to complement it.” Begun, as with “Sunday Sketches,” as a creative-thinking exercise, Niemann’s photo-drawings have found their way into some of his assignments, including illustrated reported pieces he wrote for The New York Times on Brazil’s 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2011 Venice Biennale.

In Sunday Sketching, Niemann compares his “silly” experimental work, to which he tries to dedicate one day per week, to Google’s famous policy of allowing its employees regular time to pursue whimsical personal projects—both practices are “a license to look for interesting solutions without worrying about what kinds of problems they might solve,” he writes. “Most of my experiments are fun. . . . But each one increases the chance of finding a direction that might save my butt in the distant future.”

“The Masters Series: Christoph Niemann” will be on view from September 30 through November 4 at the SVA Chelsea Gallery, 601 West 26th Street, 15th floor. A reception will be held at the gallery on Tuesday, October 3, from 6:00 to 8:00pm. Niemann will discuss his work at an artist talk on Monday, October 2, from 7:00 to 9:00pm at the SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd Street. All events will be free and open to the public. For more information, click here.

A version of this article appears in the spring 2017 issue of the Visual Arts Journal.