Abstract City: A Picture Book for Grown-Ups

Geek Culture

Abstract City by Christpoh NiemannAbstract City by Christpoh NiemannA couple years ago, illustrator Christopher Niemann published a series of Lego abstractions of NYC, which were later collected into the book I Lego N.Y. He did illustrations for the New York Times magazine (collected online as his “Abstract City” visual essays) for several years, and then moved to Berlin last year. But having lived in New York City for over a decade, Niemann’s connection to the City That Never Sleeps is strong, and his observations of life in the city are really funny.

The original sixteen essays have now been collected in a gorgeous hardcover published by Abrams, Abstract City. Each essay has a different theme and consists of a series of illustrations or photographs accompanied by short captions. Aside from the “I Lego N.Y.” piece, there’s one about coffee that is illustrated on napkins using (apparently) coffee. His piece “The Boys and the Subway” is all about his two sons who, at ages three and five, were completely obsessed with the New York Subway system, and it’s absolutely adorable. There’s also a new chapter at the end about Niemann’s creative process.

He has essays illustrated with voodoo dolls, cookie dough, maps reminiscent of Google Maps, interwoven strips of paper, and carefully modified tree leaves. An essay titled “Unpopular Science” illustrates various alternate meanings of scientific laws on a chalkboard, including a few that parents would especially sympathize with:

Unpopular science.Unpopular science.

From "Unpopular Science": Based on supercomplicated physical observations, Einstein concluded that two objects may perceive time differently. Based on simple life experience, I have concluded that this is true.

The Afterword, about his creative process, is terrific and will be appreciated by nearly anyone who does creative work. It’s about the hard work that goes into making something look easy, the effort that goes into a good idea, and the instinct to second-guess yourself.

Although you can still read some of these essays online (and a few that don’t appear in the book), they work really well as a book that you can just pick up and flip through. The book is printed on glossy paper that really shows off the illustrations (and also makes the hardcover about twice as heavy as a regular book of the same size).

My kids were really interested in the book as well, and I ended up reading much of it to them, like a picture book. Sure, there are some things they don’t get because we don’t live in NYC, or because they don’t drink coffee, but the essays are more or less kid-safe. For me, I love seeing the different ways Niemann can illustrate his ideas, the way he combines various media for his illustrations. I think New Yorkers would find the book particularly appealing, but you don’t have to live there to get most of the jokes.

If you love picture books for your kids, Abstract City is like a picture book for adults — it’s one you’ll find yourself picking up just to re-read the essays when you need a little laugh.

Disclosure: Abrams Books provided a review copy for GeekDad.

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