He arrived in New York last September with his wife, their kitten, and two suitcases. The next morning, he reported for work as the new senior designer at Chermayeff & Geismar. That doesn’t happen every day. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Tristan Schmitz, 28, about leaving his home country, Germany, and starting anew here.
Q: Your portfolio is very consistent and shows a strong point of view. How do you like to characterize your work?
A: Two things, I think. One is the use of the grid to reorganize content. The second is reduction in typography. By that I mean having a limited palette of typefaces and using them with discretion: the minimum number of sizes, styles and weights to achieve effective communication.
Do you have a special affinity with Chermayeff & Geismar, or did you interview at several design offices?
The work of Chermayeff & Geismar had always resonated with me. I did not interview anywhere else. They are the ones who design the stuff I really like. Whenever I needed inspiration, I’d take their red, green, yellow and blue “TM” book off the shelf and flip through the pages. That book is a masterpiece because it reveals the intelligence of every symbol without any written description.
Your job might be the dream of hundreds of young designers. How did you land it?
Hannah and I had been taking our vacations in New York for several years. When we were here last April I called Ivan Chermayeff to ask him if I could come in, see the studio, meet him, and if he could take a look at my work. Ivan was very gracious, and he and I ended up talking for two hours. Then he said, “You must meet Tom [Geismar].” After Tom was in the conference room for a while, he said, “You must meet Sagi [Haviv]. We had a great talk, but all three of them kept telling me that they were not looking to hire any designers.
After the interview, Hannah and I enjoyed the last days of our vacation. Just as we were packing to go to the airport I got a call from Sagi asking whether I could come in again, that they’d like to work something out. They told me they were offering me a position as a senior designer and asked if I could start in September.
Did you say ‘yes’ right away?
It is never easy to leave your home country, your family, your friends. It was a hard decision whether to continue to run my own studio in Düsseldorf, which was getting to be successful and recognized, or to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Düsseldorf has a big community of creative people, and Hannah and I had recently moved to a new place with a big studio and a huge kitchen. Hannah studies graphic design like me, but also won “top chef” on TV cooking shows in Germany and combines food and design. It’s difficult to leave all that. But we woke up one night and asked ourselves, What if this kind of chance never came up again? I saw it as my opportunity to bring to the world-famous studio of Chermayeff & Geismar everything I had learned from my studies in Düsseldorf and Arnhem and the work I did at Büro Uebele in Stuttgart. And then to learn from the masters.
Did things go as expected? Any surprises?
First of all, Hannah and I had to move up our wedding, which had been scheduled for September. We had two weeks to plan everything. Nevertheless, it was an amazing day. And then we came here with two suitcases and our kitten, Kiyoko, who injured her tail on the airplane. I will not bore you with all my comical stories about getting our visas and the trip itself.
And life at the office?
Previously I was a project manager or my own boss. Here, everything goes through three partners. This can be challenging and requires compromises on all sides. We all have a personality. I claim that I have taste—but so does everybody else. We all offer opinions and arguments about what works best for the design, and if there is a good reason to choose this instead of that. In some cases we all agree. In all cases the work gets better because of this process. And it is interesting to work in English because so much can be said with so few words.
How do you like living New York?
New York City is unique. Although in certain ways life is much tougher here—paying twice as much rent every month for a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, apartment a quarter of the size of what we had in Düsseldorf can be frustrating—it is a better life. There is so much energy here. Things get done more quickly. And it’s a culture of diversity that I think is unmatched anywhere else, especially the restaurants, the museums.
Your English is nearly perfect. I have noticed that particularly about people from Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. They may have a slight accent but rarely make grammatical mistakes. Why is that?
We have to do better. We have to prove ourselves to be the smartest, especially taking into consideration Germany’s history. And we have an excellent school system, free and supported by the government.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on the design of an iced tea brand that will fulfill the hearts of New Yorkers with a great icon and good taste. I’m also working on the corporate design for an international zoo, which will be announced in March, and one other icon that is not public yet.
What do you recommend to other young designers who might have similar career aspirations?
Wait until you are really sure your portfolio represents your signature, that the work is consistent, not squishy or all over the place. Concentrate on a powerful visual language, not a ‘style’ of the moment. Learn from the best designers, but mix in your own tasty cocktail. When you interview, be polite but confident. A good portfolio is nothing without a good presentation.
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