The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Abstract City: Christoph Niemann’s Visual Essays

Since 2008, Christoph NiemannLEGO-lover, imagination instigator, metaphorical chicken-chaser — has been delighting us with his visual blog for The New York Times, in which he has explored everything from his love-hate relationship with coffee to the fall of the Berlin Wall to his obsession with maps to the familiar drudgery of red-eye flights. Abstract City gathers sixteen of his visual essays, infused with his signature blend of humor, thoughtfulness, and exquisite conceptual freshness. An additional chapter on his creative process, echoing his excellent Creative Mornings talk on the same subject, presents the ultimate cherry on top.

‘Our building in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn had no buzzer, and I would have to run downstairs to let friends in, accept deliveries, etc. After some training — and thanks to my six four height — I perfected a maneuver I like to refer to as ‘the Northside Eagle’: Place your left foot in the middle of the vestibule, lower your upper body to precisely 90 degrees until you reach the front door, while sticking out your right foot to keep the vestibule door from closing shut.’
‘One of the most frustrating things in New York is that everything is always much more expensive than (a) you think and (b) what the price tag says. One way to come up with a reliable budget is to use the following Price-vs.-What-You-Actually-End-Up-Paying-Ratios.
Digital camera: Add 30 percent. (Because the particular model you picked is out of stock, and the one that’s left is more expensive. Plus sales tax.)
Burger and beer: Add 60 percent. (Tax and tip for you and for that friend from Europe who left early and ‘didn’t know’ that you have to pay tax and tip.)
Phone plans: Add 130 percent. (To cover F.C.C., U.S.F., T.R.S., A.B.C., C.I.A. and LOL.)’
‘I must have been 5 when I first discovered the taste of coffee, when I was accidentally given a scoop of coffee ice cream. I was inconsolable: how could grown-ups ruin something as wonderful as ice cream with something as disgusting as coffee?
A few years later I was similarly devastated when my parents announced that for our big summer vacation we would go . . . hiking.’
‘Here’s a chart that shows my coffee bias over the years.
For good measure I have added my bagel preferences over the same period. (1) Drip coffee, (2) Starbucks, (3) blueberry bagels, (4) sesame bagels, (5) poppy-seed bagels, (6) everything bagels
Please don’t hold my brief affair with blueberry bagels against me. I cured myself of this aberration.’
‘On the evening of November 9, 1989, I was watching TV. The Berlin Wall was coming down, and I was flabbergasted.’
‘From my 18-year-old perspective, the wall had always been there, and I had no reason to doubt that it would remain there forever. The news of the wall coming down was like somebody telling me that the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates had reversed course overnight, and that from now on you could stroll from Hamburg to Boston.’
‘While I try to get in touch with history through museums, books and TV, 20 years ago history was actually being made, just a few blocks east in the church communities of the Prenzlauer Berg district. People risked losing their jobs, ruining their children’s prospects and even being taken to one of the notorious Stasi prisons, yet they still worked in opposition groups for years. Like similar groups in Leipzig, they began organizing open demonstrations in the fall of 1989. Within weeks, these grew from a few dozen brave men and women to hundreds of thousands across the country, ultimately leading to the collapse of the socialist regime.’
Germany, with a history so full of iron-fisted terror, war and wanton violence, had finally experienced a revolution without a single bullet being fired.

‘Getting a good night’s sleep is actually a lot more complicated than one would think.’

‘To describe different phenomena, physicists use various units.
PASCALS, for example, measure the pressure applied to a certain area.
COULOMBS measure electric charge (that can occur if said area is a synthetic carpet)
DECIBELS measure the intensity of the trouble the physicist gets into because he didn’t take off his shoes first.’

Entertaining and enlightening, Abstract City is an exquisite feat of visual storytelling, at once endlessly refreshing and endlessly familiar in the universality of the human condition at the heart of Niemann’s illustrations.

BONUS: If you’re in New York this month, I’m moderating an AIGA talk with Christoph on April 18, exploring the evolution of illustration in the Information Age — join us!

Published April 3, 2012




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