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'Abstract City': Whimsical Eye Candy For Urbanites

by Lawrence Frascella
Apr 5, 2012

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Christoph Niemann is an award-winning illustrator, designer and children's book author. He lives in Berlin, Germany.

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Imagine a Lego as tuna sushi, or a leaf as a pair of acid-washed jeans, or bathroom tiles made to resemble Warhol's Brillo box. These are only a few of the funny, unexpected, cleverly conceived and realized sights that make up Christoph Niemann's Abstract City, a book culled from the renowned illustrator's popular visual blog for The New York Times.

Niemann's subject matter is the minutiae of life — particularly urban life. For him, his home cities of New York and Berlin are vast bemusement parks. In essence, his topics aren't all that different from those in a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up routine — how to test for muffin freshness, how to survive a subway at rush hour, where to put that extra arm when you're spooning in bed. But what sets these essays apart — way apart — is how Niemann chooses to illustrate them.

Each new subject represents a design/illustration challenge to be solved — which he does with style, wit and a wide mastery of materials. Housework becomes a fight between him and various grime monsters, brought to life by superimposing menacing cartoon eyes on computer keyboards, ballpoint pens and dried macaroni fragments. He conducts a tongue-in-cheek ode to his own ego via sock monkeys. Charmingly, he riffs on his coffee addiction by drawing coffee itself — which isn't the only time he plays with food. He renders the Book of Genesis — or his particular take on Genesis — in cookie dough.

Visual puns abound, as do his cartoons, which often appear when he turns to his adventures in fathering. (His deadpan doodle of his son flying off a playground slide is particularly guffaw-inducing.) Niemann has a particular fondness for maps and graphs; a strong urge to codify; and the ability to chart anything, from subway routes to Price-Versus-What-You-Actually-End-Up-Paying ratios.

Throughout, Abstract City has the airiest feel. It floats above strife on almost every page (except in the surprisingly dark and moving chapter on the Berlin Wall). Gobbling it up too fast can be like watching an entire season of your favorite sitcom in one sitting. You might overshoot your personal whimsy tolerance quotient (which Niemann could surely graph). But this is grousing in the extreme. Niemann's work is cheery and contagious — always the result of his sleek, neatly organized sense of taste and a dizzyingly fertile mind.

To that point, the book's strongest writing comes in its afterword. There, Niemann discusses his creative process — with the help of some charming Thurberesque drawings. The chapter begins with a great Chuck Close quote — "I always thought that inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work" — and proceeds to humorously and sensitively ponder artistic tribulations (writer's block, time allotment, working with and without limits). Suddenly, his book — so consistently imaginative — reveals its essence. It becomes a reflection on the imagination itself.

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