Three Covers: The Small-Town Artist Who Conquered the New Yorker
The New Yorker magazine is known the world over for its iconic cover illustrations. Three of this year's were done by an artist from a tiny village in northern Germany. Birgit Schössow shared her incredible story with SPIEGEL ONLINE.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The New Yorker is one of the most respected magazines in the world, and every week an illustration adorns the cover. This year your name has already appeared three times. How did this happen?
Schössow: In 2012, Françoise Mouly, art director of the New Yorker, published the book "Blown Covers." It's about the cover ideas that have been rejected and the reasons for it -- maybe because a joke didn't work or an idea was too politically precarious. On a website about the book she asked for sketches for cover topics.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: For the New Yorker?
Schössow: No, not directly. The website had become a little playground. Every week, Françoise Mouly would suggest a topic. For a while I was just an onlooker. After three weeks I thought, "You idiot! You can send something in too."
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How many illustrators participated?
Schössow: About 50. Every week, Mouly selected what she thought were the three best images and published them with all the other works that were submitted to the site. They had to do with the beginning of summer, fashion week, starting school, current events. All the topics that the New Yorker also covers.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did you get a response?
Schössow: One day there was an email in my inbox: "We are holding onto one of your suggestions. It is being considered for the cover of the New Yorker." That one was turned down! With the next topic I received another one of these emails. I was more and more motivated and I thought, "Now I want this."
SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the beginning of February, the New Yorker finally featured one of your illustrations: A skier coming down a slope as it seems to tear open behind him, revealing text underneath. How did you come up with such an image?
Schössow: After a while, the "Blown Covers" site was taken down, and I received an email requesting that I continue to send ideas, this time for the New Yorker. Attached was an overview of planned topics and key points for the coming year. On New Year's Eve I sat at my desk trying to come up with a winter-themed idea. Then the idea of the torn magazine came to me. A week later the image had made the shortlist, and finally came the call from Françoise Mouly that the editor-in-chief also liked it. I just stood there, trying in my broken English to come up with any words other than "thank you" and "fantastic."
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Such a call is like a knightly accolade, right?
Schössow: Yeah, it feels that way.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You now join the ranks of famous painters and artists like David Hockney and Jean-Jacques Sempé who worked for the New Yorker before you. So far, not many Germans have made it to the cover
Schössow: Christoph Niemann! He lived in New York for a long time, but comes, as far as I know, from Baden-Württemberg. I called him because I needed some information -- a very nice colleague.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You primarily design covers of books for children and young adults. How is designing a New Yorker cover different?
Schössow: It is a completely new challenge and it has greatly inspired my work overall. As with all illustrations, it's about coming up with something that is new and that creatively addresses a topic.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: A woman with a big hat appears on your second cover illustration
Schössow: I had the idea to turn the "o" in "Yorker" into a hat, so I looked up whether that's been done in all the years since 1925, and I didn't find anything.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What makes an illustration cover-worthy?
Schössow: Sometimes I think that every illustration looks good when the words "New Yorker" are printed over it. No, I'm exaggerating a little, of course. But the magazine does have a kind of magic. There's just so much history there, which seems to ennoble a drawing. I used to skim through New Yorker cover collections during my studies, when the idea of creating one myself was still a distant dream.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The magazine recently published your third cover image, this time with a film noir theme. Do you have something like a regular cover gig now?
Schössow: Yes, of course -- I can just send them anything at all and they'll publish it! No, but seriously, we are now in contact and I submit a draft when I have an idea. The rest is hard work and a lot of fun. Sure, I have received a lot of encouragement and congratulations, but there are really a lot of people in Germany who couldn't care less.
Interview conducted by Peter Wagner, a Munich-based freelance journalist and publisher of Das Buch als Magazin.
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