Humor and Sex Drive the Haas Brothers' Designs

Simon Haas, left, and his twin brother Nikolai
(Photo: Jonathan Mannion)

Covered in reindeer fur, resting on bronze camel hooves, and sprouting giraffe ossicones from its seat back, the settee at the booth of New York design gallery R 20th Century at the Design Miami/ show in Basel this summer looked more like something one would ride across an open plain than recline on to watch TV.? A bench upholstered in Wyoming buffalo fur crouched nearby on bronze cheetah-shaped legs sheathed in reptilian scales.

The zoomorphic Beast Feast furniture collection by the Haas Brothers — a.k.a. 29-year-old fraternal twins Nikolai and Simon Haas — certainly had an impact on visitors to the gallery’s stand. The pieces sold quickly; collectors barely blinked at paying between $9,500 and $75,000 for the unique or limited-edition designs.

It’s proven to be a banner year for the Los Angeles–based brothers, who have managed in the space of just three years to make a name for themselves as up-and-coming talents on the design scene, thanks to collaborations with architect Peter Marino on Maison Louis Vuitton in Shanghai, with fashion director Nicola Formichetti on a Lady Gaga video, and with fashion-industry veteran Donatella Versace on a home collection.

In April at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, Versace Home debuted the brothers’ 12-piece collection, inspired by the rock-and-roll attitude and blond glamour?of the Italian fashion designer. The work received strong critical acclaim for its ability to embrace the Versace universe (leather, studs, Medusa heads) without being too literal. The Donatella chair, in a limited edition of 12, was outfitted in black leather, as well as brass tiles laid in a honeycomb pattern using a technique developed by the brothers in their downtown Los Angeles studio. The Bondage bench also featured honeycomb brass and was wrapped with leather straps, giving it a definite fetish vibe.

The Bondage Bench  [Courtesy Aldo Castoldi and André Lucart/SGP]

The subsequent presentation in Basel was in effect their first full-fledged exhibition. Beyond the Beast Feast collection, the pair displayed ceramic Unique Accretion vases, handpainted with a clay-and-water solution to create a rough surface, and globular Hematite vases in highly polished bronze. The show also included their first rug, made from handwoven alpaca and decorated with the brothers’ cheeky line drawings, and the Hex lamp in brass tile with a rather phallic shade composed of hundreds of clear Plexiglas strands.

The brothers admit their humorous designs are full of sexual innuendo, which they are in fact hoping to push even further.

“I find furniture pieces can, in general, lack a bit of humanity,” explains Simon. “Humor and sex are part of everyone’s daily life, if you’re lucky, but they don’t really make their way into design. For us, it’s quite important.” Nikolai quickly adds, “I think Beast Feast is as humorous as we can get with furniture, but the sex could be a bit more explicit.”

Unique Beast bench with Wyoming Buffalo fur and cast bronze Chester Cheetah feet [Photo by Ben Cope]

With their zoomorphic collection standing not far from designs by the Campana brothers at Design Miami/, it was easy for collectors to draw comparisons. But Marianne Goebl, director of Design Miami/, says that although there are “several similarities in their approach”—for example, both teams enjoy making everything themselves by hand—there are also significant differences. “The Campanas’ work?traditionally focuses on creating something new out of found?objects. The Haas Brothers are also avid makers, but their vocabulary rarely consists of found objects. They make all the?components themselves.”

“Their final objects seem to be the consequences rather than the desired results of the material research they conduct,” she adds.

Fully aware of each other’s strengths, the twins divide their work accordingly: “When it comes to the proportions, Nikolai is the wild one, and I’m a little more square, which I think is a good thing, as we balance each other,” Simon says. “Simon comes up with these insane scientific material experimentations, and he’s the one inventing a lot of the processes we’ve come up with,” says Nikolai.

With the two constantly finishing each other’s sentences, interviewing the Haas Brothers is like commentating on an intense Ping-Pong match.

Ultimately, the tight collaboration works because the brothers are so adept at editing each other’s output. “If it’s not a good idea we’ll just say so and take each other’s word for?it with no argument,” Simon explains. “We just move on to the next piece and we don’t waste time. There is really no rivalry; that’s why everything works so well for us. We are really working toward the same goal.”

Raised in Austin, Texas, the brothers showed their sense of craftsmanship early on, working with their father, a stone carver. While Simon studied painting and architecture for a couple of years at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design before dropping out, Nikolai toured as a musician with performers like Vincent Gallo and Sean Lennon. In 2007 they both settled in Los Angeles, where their older brother, Lukas Haas, an actor, introduced them to his Hollywood friends. One friend, Tobey Maguire, brought them together to create their first furniture designs in 2010.

“Tobey Maguire came up to me one day and told me I should do furniture design,” Nikolai recalls. “At the time, he was redoing his office at Sony Studios, which was being designed by Johnston Marklee, an architecture firm. They were very generous, because very few people would have let us in on their project.”

The brothers fabricated a partition wall with raw pine designed by Johnston Marklee. They also came up with their own tiny chair, a pouf, a brass table, and a colorful, sculptural urethane resin block.

“He has the very first pieces we ever made, the whole set— and it’s clear that it was our first set,” Nikolai says. “Some are actually very good and have inspired the collection we made now, and some are, to be quite frank, crap, because we were experimenting a lot. So he got the good and the bad.” Although most of the items remain in Maguire’s office today, a few?ended up in his assistant’s.

With the money from the commission, the Haas Brothers was born. More jobs followed, primarily creating set designs and props for videos. “My girlfriend is a stylist and was assisting Nicola Formichetti on a video with Lady Gaga, and we made all sorts of pieces—some that got used, like some black polyethylene masks, and some that didn’t,” Nikolai says.

“We were more about experimenting with materials rather than furniture design, and people were approaching us more to ask us how to make things they wanted,” Simon?says. “And that’s why it happened so quickly, because we were working very hard and very fast. We divide the work between the two of us, but it sort of happens naturally, not something planned. Niki does most of the sculpting, definitely the?sense of humor, and the freshness of the forms generally?comes from his brain.”

“But don’t mistake that I do this solely,” Nikolai interrupts, “because Simon solely designed the form of the Donatella chair, which has become the most iconic piece of that collection.”

Their love of experimentation is what makes them stand out in the field of design. Their signature honeycomb brass motif, created with small hexagonal tiles that are individually bent to fit any shape, was a technical feat inspired by the bathroom floor tiles at a friend’s house.

“We had found this gigantic brass hexagonal rod, which we found interesting, and it had been sitting for a long time in?our studio,” Simon says. “We’d been working with bronze and polished surfaces, and we decided to slice the rod up and try to use those small tiles.”

The brothers had only a small square of the material to show to Donatella Versace for their first meeting, but she liked it. “It’s very hard to force this crazy shape on something round, and none of it can be planned in advance, you have to go with it as you’re doing it, as you hammer them.” explains Simon. “It takes 5 to 10 minutes to figure out how to make each tile fit, which is why this process is so time consuming. You can tell when you look at it there is something about it that is very intense.

“What was interesting for us is that the way the light reflects off it negates the honeycomb grid. You can barely see?it if you look at the reflection. You see the grid only when moving. And we like this confusion. We like optically confusing materials if we can create those.”

Going forward, the brothers are participating in Design Miami/ this season with R 20th Century, showcasing several new lighting pieces. They also have ambitions to expand into fashion design with textiles (they’ve already done arty hand- drawn animal prints for Versace’s fall/winter 2013 collection), jewelry, and shoes.

Nikolai admits to being a shoe addict ?and having an obsession with high heels. “It’s not going to stop there,” says Nikolai. “We want to do fashion, we want to blend the line between art furniture and fine art, and we will be doing some public sculpture and philanthropic work.” Simon adds, “We want to keep everything as fluid as possible.”