Young man staring at the camera, standing in front of a tree.

One Man Two Cities

Vahram Muratyan has produced a bestselling book, a hit blog and high-end prints for designers such as Dior, Hermes and Prada—and you should see what’s next

Baguette vs. Bagel. Quasimodo vs. King Kong. Grand Palais vs. Grand Central. Proust vs. Salinger. Stiff Upper Lip vs. Million Dollar Smile. Cancan vs. Gaga. Metro vs. Subway. Patisserie vs. Pastrami. Aznavour vs. Sinatra. Le Petit Prince vs. The Lion King. Champs-Elysees vs. Fifth Avenue. Marie-Antoinette vs. Madonna. Bordeaux vs. Cosmo. Non vs. Yes.

For graphic artist Vahram Muratyan, creator of the bestselling book Paris versus New York: A Tally of Two Cities and the blog that preceded it, words are as crucial as images when communicating an idea.

Poster design in grey and Yellow colors and smileys on it.
Conceptualized as an online travel journal, Muratyan’s Paris versus New York (images here from blog and deluxe version book) attracted more than 1.5 million visits within its first months and went on to inspire an internationally bestselling book. Designs Courtesy of Vahram Muratyan

“Everything I do is based on words and sentences that are hidden behind the images,” says Muratyan, whose 2012 book has sold worldwide and been translated into French, German, Italian Japanese, Korean, and Portuguese. “I love to open up an image by putting mysterious words around it.”

In the few short years since the blog and companion book were published, some of those images—Audrey Tautou’s dark bob paired with Sarah Jessica Parker’s blonde locks, or the exposed, elegant scaffolding of the Eiffel Tower next to the Statue of Liberty’s concealed iron skeleton—have become virtual icons of their associative cities. A resident of Paris, Muratyan was visiting New York when the duality of the two cities piqued his attention.

“You cannot find the same thing in these two cities. There’s this difference between the private and the public,” he says. “Paris is not open at first, because Paris protects its intimacy. The people are a bit aggressive; it’s in their blood and they don’t pretend otherwise. But when the doors open, they go deep. New York is the reverse; people are immediately friendly and will make small talk. You are close to everyone right away, which is what makes people think everything is possible in New York.”

Muratyan admits that his perspective is informed by greater familiarity with Paris, where he was born and raised, than with New York and the other cities that interest him. “In New York, I have virgin eyes. That’s why I chose not to live in New York, so I wouldn’t lose that fresh excitement.”

Earlier in his life, maintaining interest in his work was one of the things that lured Muratyan away from other artistic pursuits to graphic design.  

“Before I went to art school, I was attracted to geography, history, and architecture. I wanted to be a cartographer or an architect. All these jobs have basically the same goals: to simplify complex things, to make them tidy and sharp. As an architect, though, you’ll sometimes work on a project for three years, so finally I chose graphic design because I wanted to be able to move from one subject to another.”

Indeed, Muratyan keeps his portfolio varied and full. Besides collaborating with such high-end fashion houses as Dior and Prada, he has done design work in Paris for David Lynch’s nightclub, Silencio, and the prestigious L’Intime Literary Festival. Much like the twin cities he famously parallels, corporate and personal projects hold different opportunities and challenges for Muratyan.

2 poster designs. Left: Muratyan’s visual memoir About Time will be published in November 2014. Right: Graphic design work for the L’Intime Literary Festival in Belgium.
Left: Muratyan’s visual memoir About Time will be published in November 2014. Right: Graphic design work for the L’Intime Literary Festival in Belgium. Designs Courtesy of Vahram Muratyan

“With commissioned work, I get into a new universe I’m not used to,” he says. “It’s like a Chinese puzzle: I look at something and have to find the best solution. With my own work, my goal is to say what I want and create something close to what I am. A personal project is much deeper because I have no boundaries; I put myself into it.”

That freedom and personal investment, though, requires time. A corporate project will usually take him a few weeks, whereas personal projects take longer. “It’s like the difference between an actor and director: the actor will come on a project for eight weeks, but the director may be on a two-year journey,” he explained.

Muratyan’s most recent creative journey has been About Time, a visual memoir to be published in November, 2014 by Little, Brown and Company. The forthcoming book follows in the tradition of such graphic memoirs as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, though Muratyan deliberately took a more minimalist approach to incorporating text in his narrative.

“With books like Fun Home, there is a text, and then that text is made into images—but the whole text is still included. For me, it was better to use only flash words, which are more conceptual,” explains Muratyan. “My goal was to make a visual memoir of our time. By erasing what I write, [the story] becomes more open to the reader. A personal work like this is not egocentric; maybe it’s about the person who is reading it.”

While Paris versus New York is about space, Muratyan says, his next book explores the human relationship to time and how it shapes our lives. “It’s about why we’re obsessed with getting old, and why we’re so angry when we wait for something. Time also affects how we experience the places we go: whether you’re moving somewhere versus spending 10 days, or if there is a definite beginning and end to being there.”

An avid traveler, Muratyan counts Armenia among the nations he has visited. He credits his parents and more than 10 years of Saturday classes at an AGBU center—where he took courses in Armenian language, dancing, and duduk—with helping him learn about his cultural heritage. 

“My father moved here from Turkey in the 1950s, and my mother came in the 1970s,” Muratyan says. “They were very active in AGBU, so my brother and I were always surrounded by the Armenian community.”

When asked which city he would compare Yerevan to (‡ la Paris versus New York), Muratyan ponders the matter deeply. “That’s a hard question!” he laughs. “I felt very close to Armenians when I was in Montreal, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, and other cities. There’s a common connection there. Maybe that would be a good book, comparing Armenia with the diaspora.” 

Banner photo by Etienne Malphettes

Originally published in the November 2014 ​issue of AGBU Insider. end character

About the AGBU Insider

AGBU Insider profiles extraordinary AGBU program alumni across a diverse set of industries and passions. With exclusive interviews and photography, each issue reveals the Armenian impact on society, community, and industry.