In celebration of the New Year we’re starting a new series, and as January is the best time to think about beginnings, we’ve decided to speak to some of our favorite designers about their own humble beginnings and the first projects they ever worked on.
We’ll be looking at the most memorable or significant first commissions, first magazine covers, first logo designs, and first typefaces from designers, illustrators, art directors, and typographer. Some of the first stories we’ve been collecting shine light on how a designer’s career kicked off (offering clues and gems of advice to young designers), while other stories are hilarious reminders of the modest beginnings and awkwardness of finding your way.
Up first, we hear from the brilliant artist, illustrator, and author Christoph Niemann about his first ever commission—a drawing that accompanied a review of Alice in Chains for a mid-’90s issue of Rolling Stone. Now, Niemann’s illustrations are a regular amongst the pages of the New York Times and The New Yorker, and it’s not uncommon to see them hanging up in MoMA alongside iconic artworks and prints, either. Recently, while on a subway in New York, Niemann realized that it had been 10 years since his first crucial commission, so he typed the story up on his phone as he recalled the anxiety of waiting for his first-ever feedback:
“Don’t worry, it’s okay,” Geraldine said.
“Thank you… bye,” I said. I hung up the pay phone and boarded the bus to JFK to return to Stuttgart, Germany where I was completing my studies.
A few months before, I was finishing up my summer internship at Paul Davis’ studio. I’d been doing some design work, but mostly I just helped Chalkley Calderwood, the studio manager, organize slides and file Paul’s great artwork. One day the phone rung and—for the first time—the call was for me.
It was Fred Woodward the already legendary design director of Rolling Stone. Paul had introduced me to Fred after an ADC lecture, and I’d been invited to show him my portfolio. I assumed it was solely out of courtesy that he agreed to look at my work.
I was on the phone with one of the most terrifyingly important art directors in the world, and I was so nervous that I only understood approximately 30% of what he was saying. I detected the words “illustration” and “section,” and rightly concluded that I was getting an actual assignment. A fax (yes, it was that long ago) confirmed this: my job was to create an opening illustration for the record review section, and the subject of the drawing was Alice in Chains’ first record.
I hadn’t heard of the band before. They sent me the CD and I then had to bust my entire budget on a Sony discman so I could listen to it. I hoped to glean some creative guidance from the music and lyrics, which I remember as a kind of melodic grunge rock. The grand theme of the lyrics was “yeah, yeah baby, yeah,” which was sung with various shades of despair, longing, and anger, and it failed to provide me with tangible inspiration for an image.
Doodling desperately, I eventually decided that the only solution was to create some sort of interesting visual pun out of the face of the band’s front man, and I settled on the idea of his facial features rearranged like a messed-up jigsaw puzzle. I felt okay about the idea, but was nervous that (as often happens) it might only work as a sketch and not as a final drawing. I decided to execute the image fully, and once I knew that it was okay, I traced it with searching, thin lines and faxed the sketch to Rolling Stone.
After sending off the sketch, I just sat there and stared at the phone for hours, dreaming up a plethora of reasons why they would reject the concept. I only had two days left before my flight back to Germany, and I knew any back-and-forth would definitely kill the project (working across the Atlantic was unthinkable back then). By 5 p.m. that evening, I mustered up all my strength and called the Rolling Stone art department to find out what they thought. Gail Collins, the wonderful art director at the time, picked up.
After stammering a convoluted introduction, I asked if they got my sketch, to which Gail replied something like “Sure, it’s nice.” Aha… She was so nonchalant about the most dramatic moment of my brief career that I was convinced they had assigned the piece to another artist and that they’d let me go through the motions of finalizing it out of pity. Nonetheless, I redid the final I already had two more times (yes, it did get better), scanned and colored it, and then sent it to their office a few hours before my flight before rushing home to pack my bags.
All of my calls to make sure that they’d received the final illustration went to voicemail, until my last attempt at the bus stop on Park Avenue. I got through to Geraldine Hessler, a junior designer at the time (who later went on to become design director of EW and Glamour). She was the first person in the whole process who sympathized with my anxiety. “Don’t worry, it’s okay,” she said soothingly.
Although I felt better after speaking with Geraldine, I still didn’t quite trust that they were really going to print my piece. For the next few months in Germany, I would regularly loiter in the international newsstand in Stuttgart’s main station, nervously checking if they had the latest issue of Rolling Stone. Then, one Thursday in the fall of 1995, I spotted an issue with Lenny Kravitz on the cover, and peeling back the pages, I saw my illustration inside. I was exhilarated, but didn’t tell anybody but my girlfriend.