Interview with Christoph Niemann
Everyone has a lost phone story. Some intentional. Others detrimental. I can imagine there are many great lost phone stories considering all the nightclub toilets, ferry rides, subway tracks, and flaming fire pits that just seem to devour any loose, portable devices of communication. Other times though, it’s great to get off-the-radar and disconnect.
Christoph Niemann brilliantly captured this wish several weeks ago on the New Yorker cover titled, “Dropped Call.” If you aren’t already familiar with his work, check out his witty NYTimes column, Abstract City as well as all his irreverent illustrations and children’s books. They’re simple, yet smart and best of all—true. If you’ve never experienced some of these situations or have and cannot live to laugh at yourself, check your pulse. They’re more on point than NPR. Although this cover was originally posted here August 4, it was a delightful surprise to learn more about Niemann’s work:
How did you come up with the concept for “Dropped Call”? Did you recently drown your phone or consider ‘accidentally dropping’ it?
The tricky thing with New Yorker covers is that you have to tell the whole story through an image and have not headline or article to clarify an ambiguous image. That’s why I usually start by thinking of a topic that I obsess about, and that is likely on others people’s minds too. For this image I actually had a lot of different versions (one was more about facebook and privacy), but ultimately this felt like the most clear and direct message.
This cover is something everyone can relate to or feel like they’ve fantasized about. Do you keep pulse on our collective desires and then try to make them visible?
A teacher of mine once said “If you want to make good advertising, you also have to be a good consumer”. I think the same applies to the whole editorial world. I read a lot of magazines and try to stay in touch with what happens in pop culture. I think it is a great asset if you can perfectly identify with your readers. Once you become cynical about the world and your audience, you’re in trouble.
The Abstract City column you did for the NY Times was such an interesting experiment. It reminded me of Jasper John’s dictum: “do something, do something to that, and then do something to that…” I don’t like the term ‘conceptual’ but your work seems to be more about the thought process than a style or signature medium. Do you feel more creative under the constraints of an art director giving you a prompt and a deadline?
The blog has been a wonderful creative challenge, and I am very happy and proud with most of the results, but the process is actually pretty painful, since nobody gives me a topic or restriction apart from the overall format. I find it a lot more enjoyable to work under a tight deadline, since that gives me a much clearer framework to think within. That said, ultimately I tackle all of those assignments in the same fashion: I think about how I can translate a thought into an image, and only after that I play around to see which style is the most appropriate medium to communicate that particular idea.
There’s certainly a difference between acting childlike and childish and even Baudelaire said “genius is childhood recaptured at will.” Does having several kids influence your work?
I am sure that having kids had something to do with me doing kids books. The first one I did was actually an accident. I tried to bore my son to sleep and my hour long rambling about clouds, helicopters and policemen all of a sudden made sense. But other than that, I fear that my process is rather un-childish. I just sit at my desk and stare at a blank piece of paper and grumpily squeeze things out of my head. I would much rather have my ideas while hopping around the park chasing butterflies. Unfortunately this doesn’t work for me.
Which is funnier—a great man on a pony or a fool riding a stallion?
Definitely not the fool!
I have a rule that the “funnier” a given metaphor, the harder it is to actually make people laugh. It’s all but impossible to make a really good joke with naked people, since everybody is so busy giggling about the nakedness, that nobody can focus on the actual joke. The blander the metaphor, the better.