Yankee doodle is dandy

By Anneli Knight

Simon Greiner’s casual doodle of The New Yorker magazine’s mascot ended up on the cover of the iconic masthead. It’s a boost for the artist but he’s not sure yet if it’s the big break.
Image of Simon Greiner

It was a lot more than luck that brought Simon Greiner’s illustration to the cover of The New Yorker in February, but the New York-based alumnus is humble about his success.

“For any illustrator, The New Yorker is one of the last bastions of print illustrations where it is really an important part of the magazine. It’s an amazing tradition of the world’s best illustrators ... and the fact that I’m tangentially connected to them through this lucky moment is pretty amazing to me,” says Greiner, who graduated in 2002 with a Bachelor of Arts in Media and Communications (followed by Honours in Film Studies 2005).

Greiner moved to New York two years ago with partner Bryony Weiss (BSc ’07). The couple met through the Sydney University Drama Society 2004 major production of Nick Coyle’s The October Sapphire when Greiner was the puppeteer and Weiss the producer, and their romance began two years later. In 2011, the couple decided on a trip to New York – “for the adventure” – which has so far included their wedding last September at Manhattan’s City Hall. “The most romantic place where you have to take a number to get served,” Greiner says.

Part of Greiner’s grand plan for New York was to finally prioritise his illustration work. For years he’d been juggling it with his part-time work in the graphics department of national broadcaster the ABC, with his involvement in the team that brought experimental art exhibition space, The Paper Mill, to Sydney’s CBD, as well as his ongoing involvement in amateur theatre.

“I went over determined that I would be an illustrator and just work doing illustrations. It quickly became apparent that wasn’t tenable,” says Greiner, whose first foray in the media space was as part of the editorial team of Sydney University’s student newspaper Honi Soit. “As an industry, illustration is not as prosperous as it was maybe in the 1930s,” he says, tongue-in-cheek. “It’s kind of a niche thing and without representation as an illustrator it’s not too easy to scrounge paid work.”

Instead, Greiner picked up animation work for an advertising agency and as an in-house graphic artist for National Geographic TV. It took a bit of getting used to the New Yorker attitude. “In terms of creative industries here, you are expected to be one thing and market yourself as that, whereas in Australia you need to be a jack-of-all-trades: a bit of writing, a bit of illustration a bit of design, that’s useful.”

Greiner’s portfolio pre-New York reflects his multiple interests. As well as drawing and painting he has created Now That You’re Big, a sex-education spoof of a Dr Suess book that received more than 300,000 online hits, held a solo exhibition at The Paper Mill The Bunyip Show, and has created puppets for theatre. This all running alongside his animation, commercial and editorial work. “In America they look at you sideways if you say you do too much stuff. They want to know you do the same thing right every time and they want to know you will do the thing they expect,” he says.

Narrowing down his interests is not the approach Greiner was keen to adopt. “I like being able to do multiple things, that’s what’s interesting in life to me,” he says.

It is this attitude and his penchant for multi-tasking that led Greiner to create the illustration that ultimately became the cover design for the anniversary edition of The New Yorker in February. “The way that came about was that each year The New Yorker has a competition to redesign their mascot who is a dandy called Eustace Tilley,” Greiner says.

The competition he entered was not for the coveted front cover position, but instead for a reader’s choice online vote. “If you win the competition you basically get a book and a pat on the back,” Greiner says.

"In America they look at you sideways if you say you do too much stuff."

“I saw that [publicised] and while I was at one of my jobs, I started doing a quick doodle because I had an idea. I finished it that night and then sent it in – I treated it as an exercise really to work on something in one sitting and then submit it,” he says.

Greiner’s design of a bearded man in a beanie with thick-rimmed glasses and a bicycle tattoo captured the zeitgeist. “It basically came from the idea that the dandyism [of Eustace Tilley], at its basest, is kind of the same as hipsterism, in that it is a largely aesthetic pursuit and a very self-concerned fashion … That was the jump and obviously the pose of the New Yorker character is quite iconic. It was very easy to echo that look and update the costume.”

A week after making his submission, Greiner received an email informing him he was one of 12 finalists. A couple of days after that his phone rang. “I got call from the art director Francoise Mouly: ‘We’d like to talk about you being an extra winner, we want to buy the image for the cover’. That was pretty exciting.”

A few days before the issue hit the news stands worldwide (he was aware in the lead-up that a dramatic world event might have scuttled the publication of his cover design) Greiner received an email he might never have imagined 18 months earlier when he boarded his flight to New York: from the editor of The New Yorker.

“First of all it was amazing to see David Remnick’s name in my inbox. I kind of yelped.” Remnick’s comments might be enough to cement the confidence of any young artist: “I’m thrilled your image is going to be on the cover of the anniversary issue. It’s a very big deal for us, I’m really proud to be running it,” Remnick wrote.

Soon after the cover was published, Greiner travelled to Australia to celebrate his wedding party with Weiss in Sydney, and although he has collected a couple of commissions for his illustrations and another kids book for adults with publisher Simon & Schuster, he says he is not sure how The New Yorker cover will impact his career. “This could be my big break or it could just all be downhill from here… hopefully when I knock on some doors The New Yorker will count for something.”