The Bizarro World of Twin Designers Nikolai and Simon Haas, aka the Haas Brothers
They may not look like twins, but when the Haas Brothers—29-year-old Simon and Nikolai Haas—talk about their collaborative designs, their twin senses are attuned. The brothers created standout anthropomorphic furniture (highlighted by Wallpaper* editor-in-chief Tony Chambers) and “gnarly” ceramic pieces for the R 20th Century booth at Design Miami/ Basel. We spoke with Simon and Nikolai (aka Nikki) about their former careers, their inspiration for their hairy “Beast” series, the L.A. design scene, and their insane mission getting their works to Basel in time.
Marina Cashdan: Can you talk about your upbringing with regards to craft and design? I read that you grew up in Austin, Texas, and that your father is a master stone carver. How did his influence your careers in design?
Simon Haas: We grew up with our parents both making a lot of things. Our mom was constantly repainting the house and buying all sorts of antiques, and she has rooms covered with morpho butterfly wings. She glued shells to everything, so you go into the living room, and it’s like you’re in the sea. It’s crazy. And our dad’s from Germany, and they have this limestone called karst rock, and it’s full of holes; it’s like from the regions where caves form. And Austin actually has exactly the same stone. And [our father] saw it, and made all of these grottoes at our house. He like built huge stone grottoes. So we grew up in a really bizarre environment.
Nikolai Haas: In high school I became [our father’s] main stone carver for his business. I would mostly make fireplaces and sconces...
SH: Then I wound up going off to college…
NH: And I went to New York and was playing music, and [Simon] was at RISD.
MC: And did you always know that you wanted to be designers?
NH: Oh, no, definitely not, I would say. I was a touring and studio musician, playing drums mainly, but a bunch of other stuff, too. And so that was my career path.
SH: I was a painter for a long time. Or I started doing architecture, and then I moved into painting, and then I left [RISD] and just moved to L.A., where I was cooking. I’ve cooked [longer] than anything in my life.
NH: But then we had some friends ask us to build some furniture pieces for them, and they turned out really well. And then we got offered to work on this project with Johnston Marklee, the architects, and it was such a cool project to work on. You know, we started out workshop basically to make this project happen: took the budget, opened the shop.
SH: And we’re big fans of theirs, so when they asked us to help out, we were, like, oh, yeah, we’ll do anything! So somehow we did a lot of art fabrication for a little while. We’ve always been pretty good at just building stuff, so it was natural. I mean, all of it was kind of stuff that we had been making for a while.
NH: But design has always been around us and part of our lives, so it made sense. And now that we’re doing it, I’m so much happier as a designer than I am as a musician. I’d say you are more so as a painter [to Simon]?
NH: Yeah. Well, it doesn’t seem like anything else is a possibility at this point. [Laughs.] But our involvement in design and where we're coming from is really fun, because we’re getting to blur the line a lot between, like, furniture design; and we're starting to do lots of fashion projects, too, which is, like, super rad.
MC: I know you work as a pair but I wondered how you divide the workload? Are there particular strengths that you’re able to bring to the process of making the works?
SH: I obsess over materials, or just about surfaces. Like, ultimately I do the cladding, and Nicky does the sculpting.
NH: Yeah, so Simon came up with the textile, which is like a totally insane process to execute. And he came up with [the accretion] on the vases, so he's super good at experimenting with material. He’s sort of like a scientist in the back room, messing around with materials. Some of them fail, and some of them are, like, incredible. And I mainly do the sculpting, and then anything else is up for grabs, whoever wants to do it. Like, this rug is a good collaboration. We designed it and then it was hand-woven in Guatemala, out of Alpaca. But I drew the animals and Simon drew the plants.
MC: Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your “Beast” series?
NH: We wanted to use fur. Simon was super opposed to it off the bat.
SH: …Well it’s hard to make fur...okay, you know?
NH: I love fur. But anyway, everything here is either farming or byproduct. This is reindeer, it comes from Finland, and it’s food before it’s fur. This is Wyoming buffalo, same thing. And this is Icelandic sheep, so same kind of idea.
SH: And he went to Iceland and actually got sheepskins from there.
NH: I came home with some reindeer fur and with some sheep fur. And I was just super into it, and I showed Si [Simon], and he was super into it. We were like, oh, we should definitely do upholstery. He was like, we can't do upholstery with fur.
SH: And then we started talking about it, and we decided that it was a sort of humorous thing, I don't know, taking an actual animal and making a cartoon animal out of a real animal. It actually doesn't feel so bad anymore, or to me.
MC: There’s obviously an anthropomorphic quality to your “Beast” series. Is that something that you frequently play with?
SH: I think our stuff is kind of generally anthropomorphic. Even this tripod stool, which is one of the first things we started doing, Nicky sculpted it very much to feel like a person—the legs kind of have, like, a thigh feeling. And everything about it is supposed to be sort of active.
NH: Furniture design can lack humor, it can lack sexiness; and I mean explicit sex. So we have plans for lines that are going to be coming up soon that look like sex. And, like, we love humor. Like, I saw this woman walk through here, and looked at this piece, and she was laughing, and she was, like, [with distaste] “Oh”. Like, she didn’t like it. But were both like, “Awesome! That’s so cool!” It made her laugh, at least, and she had a good time looking at it. So, I think the inspiration is more the material, and the furs we were obsessed with.
MC: I also noticed a similarly fur-covered chairs by Campana Brothers at the Galleria O. Rome booth. Have you seen them in person yet at the fair, and what do you think?
SH: I know. That’s funny.
NH: We got here and we were, like, oh my god, brothers, and they did fur pieces! I’m really stoked about it, because I feel like it just means that we’re tapping into the right theme.
MC: Can you tell us the story of getting your works here to Basel and the feat you overcame to make the shipment?
NH: Well, we’d just done this big project at Salone del Mobile, and so we’d just...
SH: …which took a lot of energy, and then we had to produce this all of sudden.
NH: So we had like a month to produce everything. Some of it had been underway, like we had to cast the feet [of the tables and chairs] ahead of time. So we got back, and we thought we had more time than we did. [Laughs.] So they called and were, like, alright, so the truck’s coming in, like, three days. And I was like, “No, Whoa, whoa, whoa, we have until, like, April 1st.” And they were, like, “no, this one has to be in New York.” So, we took all the stuff, threw it in the truck, and set it up that we literally drove from L.A. to New York in 45 hours. So I was up until, like, three in the morning or something, wiring this thing [points to the lamp pictured in the installation shot at right], and there was something wrong inside of it with the wiring, and it wasn't going right. I had to pull it completely apart and re-jigger it, and then my assistant and I got in the truck and then drove to New York, without stopping the entire way. It took us 48 hours at the end of it.
SH: I just stayed in L.A. [Laughs.]
NH: Well, I'd gone across country like a million times when I was touring, when I was younger, so it was easy; I don't even need a map, I just, like, start and I know everything. It was fun.
MC: Have you been able to go through Design Miami/ Basel yet? If so, what designers’ works stand out?
NH: We’ve been looking at a lot of stuff, and there are a lot of lines crossing between everybody's designs and that just means that you understand what's going on, you know?
NH: Like eggs that were cracking up and with rocks coming out of them. They’re so gnarly. And he has this pink vase that he did that has like gold drips all over it. There’s this emerging gnarly ceramic scene kind of thing happening, which is rad. And, like, the fact that fur is a part of it. I feel like there are some pretty humorous pieces around. I mean, I really love mid-century, and I love really simple, stark furniture, but I feel like we’re at the beginning of this rolling out of that, you know? It’s been a sort of palpable feeling that, like, everything’s sort of shifting into a different spot.
SH: It’s going in a cycle
MC: As you’re based in L.A., can you tell us briefly about the L.A. design scene?
NH: That’s easy. I mean, David Wiseman is in it, which is fantastic. And Tanya Aguiniga. And we have a bunch of friends doing so much cool stuff. L.A. is one of those places where if you want to 3D print something, the biggest 3D printer in America is there.
SH: L.A. is the kind of place that facilitates making things. It’s super easy. You can make anything, you can get any kind of material, and it’s not so expensive that all the creative people get driven out, you know?
NH: We’re not only proud to be American designers, but specifically Los Angeles or California designers. The best thing is you can be hanging in L.A., and working really hard, and then you can just take off. And you can be in the Sequoias, the biggest trees in the world, or you can be in Joshua Tree. I mean, that’s a pretty direct Joshua tree reference [again, points to the lamp].
SH: It’s not exactly a Joshua, but L.A.’s so full of all these sort of martian-looking plants, and everything there is just so bizarre. And it really influences our experience.
NH: There’s so much inspiration in L.A., and because of the movie industry, literally anything you want you can buy there. And the people are so laid back and open to young people doing things. Like when we were first doing our jobs: “How old are you?” / “Oh, I’m like 25.” / “Okay, screw it. Here’s 150,000 dollars.” I feel like in other cities, it’s not such an easy barrier to cross when you're younger.
MC: In the time you've spent in Basel, have you found a place that you like to hang out at?
NH: We haven’t been here that long but I guess the Rhine.
MC: Did you go swimming in the Rhine?
NH: I did. I jumped in. It’s crazy how cold the Rhine is. It hurts. But it’s awesome. I also like that people are all rollerblading back and forth with. No one in New York would ever rollerblade...
SH: Rollerblades aren’t cool. [laughs.]
NH: But everybody here is rollerblading on the Rhine. People are just chillin’. Yeah, Basel’s cool. I dig it.
On view at R 20th Century Gallery, Design Miami/ Basel 2013 - Design Galleries, Booth G23, June 11th – 16th.