When it comes to the age-old dispute over the relative greatness of Paris and New York, graphic designer and artistic director Vahram Muratyan refuses to play favorites. Despite being born in Paris, Muratyan isn’t shy about revealing that his heart belongs to the City of Lights as much as to the Big Apple. “When I’m in Paris, I miss New York, and when I’m in New York, I miss Paris. It’s really impossible to choose,” explains Muratyan, whose love affair with New York began to take shape as a young boy travelling to the city with his mother and older brother. What started off as summer trips with his family soon grew into trans-Atlantic solo voyages exploring the city as a young adult. Two years ago, at the age of 30, Muratyan’s three-month stay in New York inspired his fanciful blog, Paris versus New York: A Tally of Two Cities.
Through eye-catching, minimalist graphics and snappy copy, Muratyan translates this historical duel into art on the witty blog he launched back in October of 2010. Illustrations of instantly recognizable landscapes, clichés, and famous faces from both cities are pitted against each other. A macaroon vs. a cupcake, a bagel vs. a baguette, and a petite espresso vs. an obscene paper cup of joe are some of the friendly battles featured in the anticipated book version of Muratyan’s popular blog, currently available from Penguin Books. Over espresso at French restaurant Pastis in New York’s Meatpacking District, Muratyan talked to us about his devotion to both New York and Paris, his new book, and why he’ll always be a city boy at heart.
How did the idea for your blog come to fruition?
I wanted to create a diary as a way to keep in touch with my family and friends in Paris. This was my tenth and longest visit to New York, and I wanted to do something to explain why I was obsessed with New York. Also, it was about how I missed Paris. I would ride the subway and draw people in my sketch book. I saw a woman with a big coffee in her hand and it made me think about how that is a very New York thing to do. Some people [in Paris] started adopting that habit but not like in New York where everyone is doing it. Maybe those people in Paris are tourists with their own habits. Parisians want to resist the coffee cup thing. The idea started with me drawing the coffee sizes, then everything else just started popping up.
It didn’t take long for your blog to gain a following. Were you surprised?
I never thought it would be that popular. It was a really a great surprise. I thought, Let me do the blog and see if I can take ten images to feature in an exhibit back in France. Immediately readers were commenting that they wanted these as posters in their place. I did not see that coming. I began to sell the prints two weeks after the blog was launched. It was obvious from the feedback from readers that nobody wanted something on Venice or Rome. Those are great cities, but when you bring up Paris and New York, people tend get much more passionate.
These images have a very a retro look and feel to them. Was that intentional?
The technique was simple because I wanted something that could be done on paper. It was homage to the graphic design period of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I wanted something vintage. The book, of course, was maybe in the back of my mind. I’m a book designer, too, so in some ways with the split page format already had the feeling of a book.
The spot-on captions for each illustration are written in the city’s respective languages. Nevertheless, nothing gets lost in translation. The images tend to speak for themselves.
That was a question we faced. In France, the English copy is translated in French. In New York, we said, Let’s keep the French copy because it’s more fun. It was also a way of showing the spirit of the two cities. Parisians and New Yorkers share an inferiority complex and that’s part of the competition. Some of the copy came from the top of my head and other times the team would make suggestions. The image is what inspires the copy, but it always starts with an idea.
When did you start coming to New York and what was your initial impression?
My mother used to work at the head office of TWA in Paris, so she travelled with my brother and I during the summertime to New York. The tickets were not very expensive, but we had to travel stand-by. We never knew if we could get on the plane. I loved that feeling of nervously waiting. When you are a child, you just don’t understand why you can’t get on the plane. After TWA shut down and as I got older, I had to work to afford tickets to travel. This was my objective for the last 10 years. When I was a child, I was excited by the fact that everything seemed so much bigger in New York. I thought it was smelly, but the mixes of smells were great. It was crowded and there was a sense of danger. This was in the ‘80s. When I travel now, I focus on how the city markets itself. As a child, I noticed how much the city reinvented itself. Every time I would come to New York, it would be different. Maybe I’m much more blasé now but I don’t see that happening as much.
Where do you live in Paris?
I live in the 3rd arrondissement. The map drawing in the book shows you how it’s in a way like Chelsea and Noho (New York). You have that same mix of galleries and boutiques. There’s also Le Marché des Enfants Rouges; which is a smaller version of the Chelsea Market. There’s a lot of bobos (French for hipsters). It can be exhausting because everyone looks the same. That’s what happens in a lot in cities. Here in New York, people leave Manhattan to find new things in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, Brooklyn then starts looking the same, too.
There seems to be a lot of French people visiting and moving to Brooklyn. What are your thoughts on Brooklyn?
I think Brooklyn is exciting, so I try to go there often. I love Cobble Hill because there are a lot of paper and printing shops there. I also like the Italian vibe there. The first week I was in New York for three months, people said we have to go to this pizza place in Bushwick. What is funny is the number of people I ran into there that I knew from Paris. You walk a lot in Brooklyn, and I love that because it’s a promise of future discoveries. In Paris, if I told someone they would have to walk 20 minutes from the métro to get to a restaurant or a party, they wouldn’t go there. Some are snobby and don’t go out of their areas. You also don’t have thousands of cabs like in New York, so movement keeps people from going outside their areas. In New York, the same Parisians will walk with no problem. I have friends who visit from Paris and go straight to Brooklyn. They will not go to Manhattan. If they go to Manhattan, it’s just maybe to go to MoMA. The French want the neighborhood feeling, café culture, and bohemian spirit that Brooklyn has. When I was a teenager, I was staying in Long Island City. At that time in the ‘90s, people would be like, What Long Island City? Astoria? You’re getting on the number seven train? They were making fun of me. Now, these places are fashionable.
What are your favorite spots in Paris and New York?
It would have to be places with a view. A really quiet one I love in Paris is Parc de Belleville because of the amazing view, and there are not a lot of people there. I’m always looking for green spaces. In the New York, the best part about the city is walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan over the Brooklyn or the Williamsburg Bridge. My special spots always include restaurants, but I have too many I love. For my vision, I need to look at beautiful things. I like things that are well thought-out and original. It’s about good urban planning.
Non-Parisians fall in love hard with Paris when they visit. Living there, do you ever find yourself taking it for granted?
The best way to enjoy Paris is to go back to Paris. When I’m away, I miss it. What I love about Paris is the fact that we have four real seasons. The seasons are never really extreme, it’s always mild. My resolution this year: Ne prends pas deux fois la même rue, or don’t go down the same street twice) and don’t go back to the same restaurant. It’s applicable in any city. There are always new places to discover, even at home.
You stay away from picking a winner in this feud. What was your goal with your book?
I wanted to have a double guide. If I miss both cities, because I’m somewhere else, I can look at this book and feel like I can travel in a day. It was made as if one day, I had a double life. I wanted to create bridges between the two cities. It was a way of saying that they are always competing with each other, but they are also feeding each other. What are the links between these two cities and why do they make people dream?
Where have you not been in New York yet?
I haven’t been to the Bronx, Inwood and East Harlem. I want to go to Red Hook too and some other places in Brooklyn.
What draws you to the city life?
The feeling in cities is always one of movement and energy that’s never ending. I love that. Both New York and Paris are winners. Going back and forth would be the perfect life, but I have to have a lot of money for that. I am not a real Parisian or New Yorker. I’m a just in-between.
Photo by Dominique Bry