A Winter Person

Sophia Martineck

Sophia Martineck

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

Our Holiday Issue cover was drawn and hand-lettered by Sophia Martineck, a Berlin-based illustrator and designer. I’ve been working with Martineck since my days at The New York Times Opinion section and have always admired how her thinking translates into a naïve but sophisticated style. When I asked her to do our cover, she sent an interior, explaining that she “googled American kitchens (oven, fridge, cupboards and tiles) and also the row houses of New York,” for veracity.

Her previous contributions to the Review include portraits of Franz Kafka; Theodor Adorno, Gershom Scholem, and Walter Benjamin; Albert Camus; and a series of drawings from her prolific sketchbook output that we featured as spot art in our May 25, 2023, issue. After closing the issue last week I e-mailed with Martineck to ask her about her holiday routine, Berlin, and books.

Leanne Shapton: How did you prepare for the holiday growing up, and how do you prepare now?

Sophia Martineck: Naturally, as a child I was nerve-rackingly excited about Christmas. But then, once the day arrived and all the presents were opened, I would get melancholic, since I had to wait an entire year all over again. 

These days, I shop for presents and send out cards early. I prefer to keep the stress at a minimum. I look forward to the days between Christmas and New Year’s: everything is quiet, and you have Berlin to yourself. I enjoy Christmas more as a grown-up. It’s so relaxed because it’s about seeing family and friends more than getting gifts.

One of our editors remarked that your cover looked like an advent calendar, and I thought, that’s what every cover should feel like, the anticipation of what’s going to be inside. How did you come up with the idea of staging a kitchen?

I found the assignment inspiring: nothing too sweet or seasonal, no Santa, nothing too predictable. Drawing scenes from the everyday fascinates me. The isometric perspective had to be there too, so I can put as much as possible into in an illustration. I love to look in every corner of a room and peek through an open door or window. My idea was to look behind the scenes: the preparing and cleaning of the home for guests. The other—annoying—side of the holidays. So I thought showing a kitchen with all the cooking and shopping and setting the table, all this going on at the same time as the owner has to answer the door to receive parcels from the postman, would best illustrate the “Holidays.”

Do you have a studio? Could you describe your workspace?

I work from home, which I have done for most of my artistic career. I need to be alone and enjoying the silence in order to work. My desk is right at the window so I can watch the birds in the Norway maple tree in my backyard. A kestrel, who I love, and a Eurasian jay, who makes a lot of noise, pop around every now and then, but usually it’s a pair of common wood pigeons, who live there permanently and quietly. I have a small desk, as my drawings are not big. A radio brings me all the news.  

What kind of art do you love, and maybe even revisit for inspiration?

I adore Jiří Šalamoun’s work for its wild inventiveness and bold creative ideas. He was a Czech illustrator. When I am stuck, I have a look at his books. They always help me ease my mind. I am also an avid follower of the Instagram accounts of the American Folk Art Museum and the Wellcome Collection in London. I suppose you could say I am fond of folk art!

I love your sketchbook work. Can you tell me about that practice?

The sketchbook drawings started with the task of filling one page with the same thing—object, animal, plant, or human—over and over again, and to come up with ever new and different forms for the same subject. The size of the page defines the number of things I can put on it, how many can go in one row. Repetition and variation are great sources of inspiration. And the limitations on style imposed by a black fineliner, too.

Are you reading anything new or old this winter?

Something new: I just read Austrian novelist Monika Helfer’s third book about her family, Löwenherz (Lionheart), this one about her brother. The first book (Last House Before the Mountain) took as its subject her maternal grandmother, the second one (Library for the War-Wounded), which I finished a couple of weeks ago, her father. I just love her dense, beautiful, and precise language. Every sentence is a gemstone. She can describe the direst moments with heart and warmth.


What is Berlin like right now?

Berlin is covered in snow at the moment, which is early for the year, but really nice. I love the gray sky, the cold air, the rain. I am a winter person. 

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