Genius is not a word often ascribed to those in the contemporary art world; it’s consigned principally to scientists, philosophers, political leaders. Christoph Niemann may prove to be the exception.
His illustrations, though ostensibly simple, elicit profound reactions, leaving more questions than answers in the minds of those who encounter his work. He breathes life into the mundane, injects joy into the ordinary, and bestows insight into day-to-day living with a few strokes of his pen.
It comes as no surprise. Niemann, whose laundry list of titles now includes illustrator, graphic designer, app developer, author, and social media star, tackles his work like an Olympian tackles a sport: relentless hours, complete dedication to his craft, perfection at all costs. And like all greats, he carries a nagging, constant sense of dissatisfaction with everything he does.
You know who Christoph Niemann is. You’ve seen one of his covers of The New Yorker, you’ve liked a Sunday sketch on Instagram, you’ve watched his episode on Netflix’s Abstract: The Art of Design; his work and likeness are ubiquitous. And yet, for Niermann, not much has changed. Every weekday from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM, he’s still at his desk, staring at a blank piece of paper—thinking, designing, and drawing.
What’s the biggest difference between Germans and Americans?
It’s like boys and girls: the differences between some boys and other boys and some girls and other girls are way bigger than the differences between the groups as a whole. Many things we observe as cultural differences are just superficial mannerisms.
But from a personal perspective, there is an enthusiasm in America that I’ve been very addicted to since I first experienced it: the idea of cheering somebody on who’s trying to do something, even if it’s weird or overly audacious. Something I appreciate in Germany is the ability to hold two opposing viewpoints and to do so without drowning this conflict in meta-irony.
For someone unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe your artistic voice? Have you see any patterns or themes over the years?
The magic is supposed to unfold in the mind of the viewer. What happens on the page is really just a means to that end.
You’ve started to integrate animation and augmented reality into your work. How do you feel about the art and illustration world becoming more digitized?
Overall, the advantages outweigh the downsides. The biggest upside is that you can get your work to an audience without a middleman. The greatest challenge is how hard it is to stay relevant. Nobody is able to ride a single trick out for 10 years as they used to. If there is something sexy, the whole world catches on fast. Soon after, we grow tired of it because we’ve seen it too often. Instagram filters are obsolete not because they are bad, but because they’ve been too successful.
You’re quite popular on social media, and you’ve talked about your love-hate relationship with the medium before. How does having that instantaneous feedback—both the good and bad—affect your approach to future work? Does it even?
It’s all but impossible not to be affected by that reaction. It’s a very nifty system that messes with your emotions very effectively.
I find it impossible to predict what works and what doesn’t, and I try not to see it as a judgment on the quality of the post. For example: an announcement for a show or a new book will not nearly garner as many likes as a funny sketch. But reaching the people who want to go see your art in-person is more valuable than a like from somebody who’s just thankful for a quick laugh, so it all evens out.
We’re not accustomed to knowing how our favorite artists look like and act because we’re usually only familiar with their work. How was it like for you to break that barrier through Netflix’s Abstract? Does it feel odd to be so recognizable now?
It’s certainly strange now and then to have people come up to me at the airport or on the street. This is happening on a very manageable level, so I can truly enjoy it—it’s a very nice compliment to the whole production team of the series. But I can report that all that has zero effect on what’s happening when I’m back at my desk. Solving a creative challenge doesn’t become any easier after you’ve gained a bunch of followers on Instagram.
You often mull through various iterations of a piece before it takes its final form. At what point do you realize something isn’t working? When do you know it’s time to throw in the towel and start again?
It’s rather the other way around: “isn’t working” is the natural state of an idea. Then I tweak it and try different things, and eventually, I reach a moment when I sense a click—two things coming together that are bigger than the sum of its parts. Then I have to wait for a day, and see if it’s actually any good. A fresh look at a piece 24 hours later is a ruthless but pretty reliable judge.
This is a digital extract from the print version of THE LATERALS MAGAZINE | Issue 01.
To read the full interview, get a copy here.