'That's How' Illustrator Christoph Niemann Explains It All Illustrator Christoph Niemann's work ranges from whimsical children's books to poignant cover art for The New Yorker, but he's not interested in ending up in a museum. "I get a much bigger kick out of having my image seen like a million times for like 20 seconds," he says.
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'That's How' Christoph Niemann Explains It All

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'That's How' Christoph Niemann Explains It All

'That's How' Christoph Niemann Explains It All

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Even if you don't know the name of my guest Christoph Niemann, you've probably seen his work. He's an illustrator and graphic designer who's done covers for The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Newsweek.

On his New York Times Sunday Magazine blog, "Abstract Sunday," Niemann has rendered scenes of New York City in Legos, detailed his sleepless nights -we'll talk to him about that one - and showed how he tiled his children's bathroom to look like the New York City subway map. They love the subway.

Christoph Niemann also writes children's books; one of them is about the subway. His new children's book is called "That's How."

Neimann is German. He lived in New York for 11 years, but recently returned to Germany, where he lives in Berlin.

Christoph Niemann, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we get to your children's books, let's start with an example of your adult work. This is one of my favorites. It's called "Good Night and Tough Luck." And you write: Getting a good night's sleep is actually a lot more complicated than one would think.

I must agree with that statement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I want you to describe the bar graph that you created showing how complicated it really is to sleep.

Mr. CHRISTOPH NIEMANN (Author/Artist): Well, there's a bar graph and essentially the bar graph is a visual explanation of that phrase: it's much harder to get a good night's sleep than you would think. And the reason I made this kind of bar graph, that it just duplicates what I say below it, is that this idea of sleep, or especially a lack of sleep, is just something that stays with you the entire day. And I guess especially parents of young children will be able to relate. It's something that at some point kind of like infiltrates every thought of your day and it becomes this gigantic issue in your life and you start kind of like having all these philosophies of how you could probably ever sleep again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: And that's what kind of started this whole kind of train of thought.

GROSS: And then the, kind of, strip goes on and it says: Usually the trouble starts with my having to use the bathroom. Even though I am 38 years old, I still find myself hoping the urge will just pass, which it doesn't. And there's this illustration of somebody in bed. It's just a little like outline illustration and it's 2:03 in the morning and in the next frame it's 2:07, and the next frame it's 2:16, and in the frame after that it's 2:33, and it's 2:41. And then finally, the person gets up to use the bathroom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: Now it's - what I thought about that, which was really kind of frustrating, I shared a room with my brother when I was a kid. And I remember us talking about that, how it would be fun to kind of trade and say OK, I'm going to give you my candy tomorrow and therefore, kind of like you go to the bathroom on my behalf. And how that's impossible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: And how I still like haven't come to grasp that, you know, this won't go away and there's no way of kind of like negotiating your way out of this.

GROSS: OK. So, next frame: Another terrible nuisance: midnight hypochondria. In the light of darkness, I have diagnosed many a sore throat as some dreadful disease that will soon turn my wife into a widow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And there's - you want to describe the illustration?

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, the illustration is how I like sit there in the bed and all of a sudden this little pimplish thing turns into this gigantic amorphous monster that's hovering over my head. And again, the lack of sleep is one thing. But also I feel when you wake up in the middle of the night you just cannot think straight. And all the sudden you're, like a little itching into your back turns into this monster.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: And you're afraid that, you know, you might die tomorrow. And you wake up the next morning and you realize you're perfectly fine and, you know, and just a little lotion and you're all set. And that is again something, I've lived through that so often, especially when you have a cold and you think just like go back to sleep. Everything will be good. And even though I know it's been kind of like the same year after year whenever you have a little, a little cold or a little something, it ruins the night not only because you're cold but also because you're in this kind of weird psychic mode.

GROSS: OK. So next few frames in this series about the difficulty of sleeping is a visitor from the kids' room. They all start sweet and cuddly, but their little bodies become more brazen by the minute. Describe the images.

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, the first is, which we still have, we have three small kids, so like the older ones they're kind of taken care of. But the younger one, every night at some point he stands in front of our bed and you feel sorry for them. They're sweet and small and they just cuddle onto you and you think, you know, how could anybody have any problem with that? And they start snoring quietly. Everybody goes back to sleep. But then in the next image you see how a child slowly starts rotating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: We like to call it the helicopter mode. And then like half an hour later, you wake up with a foot kind of punched into your jaw and then you try to turn them back and then they kind of keep rotating. And at some point you realize it's five in the morning and you haven't really slept for the last three hours.

And I think again, like this is something that probably most young parents are rather unfortunately familiar with. And then yeah, that's when the moment for the search starts, how to get these kids out of the bedroom again as quickly as possible.

GROSS: So in your series about the difficulty of actually sleeping, you do battle with a mosquito. And then you write: The opposite of a mosquito is spooning: mosquitoes are awful, whereas spooning is super. The one thing I haven't really figured out is where the person in the back is supposed to put that bottom arm.

So true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You want to describe the illustration?

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, the illustration again, is a rather scientific chart of two people spooning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: And then like the three different options of kind of like trying to squeeze the lower arm by your ear or kind of like folded on your back like the, like you're being arrested by the police, or sometimes kind of like squeezing it down where the mattress is, which again, is uncomfortable for both people. And I know that there is some way to actually make it a pleasant experience, but that's something that I keep thinking about more or less every night and I have not come to a proper conclusion.

A lot of people have commented on that and there was no really conclusive answer to this riddle.

GROSS: Do you do this equation of, is this lovely position worth it if my arm is going to hurt a lot in the morning?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: No. No. We - no, I do not do this kind of thing where you try to fall asleep or that you're waiting for your partner to fall asleep and then you quickly kind of like release yourself and turn yourself to the other side.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: So it kind of has to be comfortable for both parties involved.


GROSS: So Christoph Niemann, we have proven I think that you are terrific at doing adult graphic humor. Tell us why you turned to children's books as well.

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, initially I remember when I was studying I always felt I'm never going to do children's books. And then eventually we had children and it was actually a story, like it was like trying to get the kids to sleep by boring them to sleep. And I kept rearranging certain words, and all the sudden they started making sense. And I turned this into my first kid's book and it was more like really that story came as an accident.

So I had this book, it was called "The Police Cloud," and really enjoyed the idea of all of a sudden having a real book that I could kind of like bring as gifts to all these birthday parties we were invited to.

And the second thing that also happened when I had this book is, you know, like three kids are in school. You're invited as a father to kind of participate in school life. So as soon as the school found out oh, he's an illustrator and author, let's invite him in. And so I'm supposed to come there for 30 minutes.

The problem with children's books is you read them for five minutes and then you're done. What I started doing is I asked for an easel and markers, and more or less out of desperation, you know, started drawing and just make up stories and talk to the kids about what's, you know, what happens if you draw a dog this way with really long legs or with kind of like two heads. And I was really amazed - and it was not that I had doubted it before, but the visual literacy of children is really fantastic. And I was flabbergasted to see how much they follow and how much they can really kind of like follow stories that are entirely visual. And even when you make very subtle changes to a picture, they completely get it.

GROSS: Yes. So describe the premise of "That's How," your latest children's book.

Mr. NIEMANN: In "That's How," we have a little boy and a little girl. The boy is a little larger, so let's say he's the older brother and there's the little sister. And they're walking around and they're seeing all sorts of things that move. They see a truck. They see a train. They see a freighter ship. And the little girl always asks: how does a truck work?

And then you turn the page and you see kind of what's happening inside the truck. And it's always some utter bogus explanation of usually animals that do some crazy thing to actually make the truck work. So like in the truck there's this gigantic lion sitting there on these tiny pedals and he's pedaling like crazy. Or in the - with the freighter ship there's a huge whale and an octopus just spins the tail of the whale in order to get the ship moving.

And the girl is always like wow, that's really amazing. And then, you know, it goes on and the explanations become crazier and crazier.

And at the very end they see a little bicycle and then the girl asks how does the bicycle work? And the boy thinks and doesn't really come - have any idea. And then the girl says oh, I know how a bike works. And then sits on the bike and actually rides the bike.

So it's also about this idea of like these kind of like leaps of kind of like intelligence that kids have so amazingly, how they can think in like all these different meta-levels. And I was really - I was trying to do a celebration of that.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting to me that so many children's books have animals in it. Like your book has a lion, an elephant, a pelican, a whale. And these are all animals that children will probably never see unless they go to a zoo. And yet, children seem to be so visually literate when it comes to animals. And I guess I can't figure out exactly why that is, since I don't see these animals on the street or in their home except for in children's books.

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, I have to say that I try to squeeze as many animals as I can kind of into business illustrations for, like when I do the financial page for The New Yorker. So I think animals are always, whether for kids or grown-ups, fantastic tools for telling stories.

And I guess one of the reasons they work so well is on the one hand they're like humans. They have hand and feet. They can touch things. They can look in a certain way, have expressions. But on the other hand, they're also not like us.

So we can just, you know, give them one certain characteristic. And, you know, the elephant is big and strong. When I draw a big and strong person, I -immediately it's a man or a woman, or it, you know, it's being - he or she is being dressed this way or that way. An elephant is just big and strong and nothing else so it really I think helps you establish a story and make a very simple point by cutting out all these other things that you would have to give as an attribution to a human being.

GROSS: Now you also have a children's book called "Subway." And it's about kids who just like love being on the New York City subway. You lived in New York for several years. You're German. You live in Berlin now. But from - tell me the years again that you were in New York?

Mr. NIEMANN: From '97 to 2008.

GROSS: OK. So your kids apparently really loved the subway when you lived there. Why do they love it so much?

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, the first thing is, of course, that I absolutely adore any kind of subway, but in particular, the New York City subway. It's huge but it's also very simple. And I always like, from the very first day that I came to New York, I greatly enjoyed riding the subway.

And so as we started having kids, there's always this problem in New York, you live in a tiny place and eventually it's winter and you have to do something with those kids. And, you know, if you try to go to the Museum of Natural History there is like 5,000 other people. So eventually, I just started riding the subway and I realized all they cared about was not where we were going but just the ride itself. And it's a fantastic way to kill three, four, five hours.

And even when our middle son was only two years old, he would not last in front of the television for more than 15 minutes. But in the subway, he would just sit there and look out the window and eventually he would know the stations. And I think there was the - maybe the repetition, but also it's big, it's loud. But on the other hand, it's very predictable. It has letters and colors. It's a very child-friendly system.

And so eventually it turned into this ritual of like every Sunday at least five, six hours, just going to Coney Island, not even leaving the subway car, and just coming right back to Brooklyn or back to Manhattan. And it's something that, you know, I've done at great length. But the good thing is I enjoy every second of it. My wife would not have lasted at that for more than 15 minutes probably.

GROSS: Now, you seem to love the New York City subway map. Especially, you know, in the New York - there's a lot of lines in the New York City subway, and each line on a map has a different color so that you can follow the route of that line. And what - just graphically, what do you love about the New York City subway map?

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, it's really the idea that every - that you can find your way just by saying oh, I'm going to take the red to the green to the blue to the yellow. And it really - it's such a simple system. It doesn't make the, every train has just one letter or one number. And in London I love the names of the underground lines. But the simplicity of the New York City subway and the, like on the one hand the visual simplicity that is representing something so complex and big and heavy is, the dichotomy is something that I find really fascinating.

GROSS: Did you really tile your children's bathroom with tiles that would replicate the map of the New York City subway?

Mr. NIEMANN: No. I absolutely did that and it was surprisingly easy to do and rather inexpensive. The one problem that I ran into is - so we did this when we renovated the bathroom here in Berlin and then eventually the kids came over for the first time and I was really expecting, especially oldest one to just come in and, you know, like fall to his knees and say Daddy, you're the greatest person ever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: And he just took one look at it and then he saw that the Brown lines, the J, M and Z lines were missing. And I couldn't fit them in because there were no brown tiles. But also because of the grid, it just didn't fit in there. So all he saw, he looked at it and said oh, JMZ trains are missing. Turned around and left. And, you know, speaking of bad clients or tough clients, that was probably the hardest experience I had so far.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: But ultimately, I have to say they seem to like it a lot and its, you know, again, it's colorful and happy, so I enjoy being in there and, you know, we spend a lot of time like with them in there and with the evening baths and I think they like being there.


GROSS: Let's talk about, I think a pretty famous New Yorker cover that you recently did, and this was the cover after the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdowns. When you were given the assignment to do a cover for that edition, what were you told?

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, at that time when I got the assignment, I think it was Monday or Tuesday. And since it's, you know, such a tight deadline, I knew I was not the only one who was given the topic. It was more like a kind of call for submissions to a group of I guess regular New Yorker artists. So I knew like everybody's now trying to come up with, you know, the one image that illustrates the story. And ultimately, the assignment was about, something about the earthquake, something about, you know, like this moment of, you know, disbelief at the size and the intensity of the disaster. And then ultimately, it was more or less up to the artist to make sense of that and come up with an image that captures the event.

GROSS: And describe the image you came up with.

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, first of all, like the obvious thing to do at the time was the tsunami. And overnight the whole situation at Fukushima had gotten totally out of hand, and it was obvious that this was in a way maybe not bigger and louder at this point, but probably the disaster that had the much larger and more long-term consequences. And I felt probably that's really more of the kind of story that I want to kind of like comment on.

And then the other aspect was also where I was just stuck. When I thought about the tsunami, I cannot have an opinion on the tsunami. And The New Yorker cover is really about a statement, when an artist says there's something that happened and here's my take on it. And what can you say about like this force of nature that's just purely terrible and absolutely random in its destruction? And I felt even at this point it was hard to make any sense out of the situation at Fukushima.

I felt at least there's something, we're humans. It was a human decision to put a nuclear power plant there and now a disaster of unprecedented scale happened and now these two things of human action and natural disaster are coming together. And I really felt there is a story there that enables me to really make a visual comment. And that's when I had the idea of, you know, showing an image of a very very quiet cherry blossom branch where like the little petals are just floating away in the air, and instead of these cherry blossoms, it's actually these nuclear - the radiation signs.

GROSS: And also it was spring. And so you have the cherry tree. But what's being spread around the spring is toxic.

Mr. NIEMANN: Yes. Yeah. And again, some people didn't like it because they felt oh, it's too much of an important image in Japanese culture. And that's, you know, something I take seriously. I...

GROSS: What is too important an image?

Mr. NIEMANN: The idea of the cherry blossoms. There's a holiday apparently, really built around this. And it's, I know that culturally, the cherry blossom season is something that's so important as this kind of like, as the most beautiful moment of the year. And kind of like taking that as a leaping pad for a visual pun, which ultimately it is, was, you know, it's something I didn't do lightly. But I really felt that there's something that, you know, especially with all of these events happening in the spring, that I gather that this year the whole celebrations definitely were not, kind of like joyous, or kind of like, as happy as they would be other years.

GROSS: You're an illustrator. And for a lot of artists illustration is an almost pejorative word. A lot of artists would say I'm not an illustrator, I'm an artist. But it seems to me that although a lot of artists aspire toward like having their work in galleries and museums, more people really are going to see your work if it's on the cover of a magazine, or even if it's an ad, because those are the images that are just all over and you're going to see them whether or not you make a special effort to go to a gallery or a museum.

I'm wondering what your thoughts are on that and if you ever aspired to have your work in a museum as opposed to on a magazine cover.

Mr. NIEMANN: Well, it's definitely, among my colleagues, I would say, probably a majority would rather be acknowledged as an artist in a museum or a gallery. I'm pretty glad I'm not. It probably makes me a more content and happy illustrator. But also, I care so much about magazines and newspapers and books. This is the world that I live in as a consumer and that's why I really care about contributing to this world. And I get a much bigger kick out of having my image seen like million times for like 20 seconds and then it ends up in the trash bin rather than having my image on somebody - like over somebody's sofa for 20 years.

GROSS: Now we started off talking about the difficulty of sleeping. And of staying asleep, because you did a really, really funny series of illustrations and captions about that. So I want to ask you, when you're lying awake at night and having trouble sleeping, for whatever reason - whether it's the mosquito or the kid, you know, your son in bed who's sleeping in a position that's making it impossible for you to get into a comfortable position, your fear of, that you have a terminal illness, when it's just like a pimple or something - so all of that that keeps you awake. When you are awake, do you think of ideas? Do you try to use that time productively, or is it a waste of time to even try?

Mr. NIEMANN: No, I have to say that was something I probably started in the last three or four years, where I've tried to start thinking of ideas without actually having a pencil and paper in my hand. I don't know how ultimately productive it is. But I've done that thing where I said okay, it's 5 o'clock, I'm awake, I can't get up, so I'm trying to actually solve, you know, the first three sketches for the next day just in my head. And, of course, the big challenge is to actually remember them when you get up five hours later. And but I, by now I actually have like a pencil and notepad somewhere near me and it happened more than once that I started scribbling things trying to not wake up the kid that kind of just fell asleep next to me.

GROSS: Well, Christoph Niemann, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much. I wish you a good night's sleep.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIEMANN: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: Christoph Niemann's new children's book is called "That's How." You can see a slideshow of his illustrations on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of music)

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