Spotlight on The Haas Brothers

Sherry Griffin, courtesy R & Company

With new ideas and radical techniques, Nikolai qand Simon Hass have become design's latest enfants terribles.

“Ridiculous.” This is how brothers Nikolai and Simon Haas describe their obsessively detailed sculptural work—spiky sea creature ceramics and fur-covered settees with bronze animal feet—as well as their cramped L.A. studio, which houses 13 craftsmen. The amazed-and-amused characterization could also apply to the breakneck pace of the brothers’ ascent in international art circles. It began with a 2012 group exhibit of bronze vases at New York’s R & Company and led to their first European solo show, at Galerie Gmurzynska in Zurich, as well as an interactive Sex Room installation—complete with phallic torchères at the entry—at Design Miami/Basel this past summer.

In a little more than two years, the Haas brothers have created a limited-edition jungle-bacchanalia screen print for wallpaper firm Flavor Paper, the reception area decor for L.A.’s Ace Hotel and an elaborate ceiling for architect Peter Marino’s interiors at Guerlain on Paris’s Champs-Élysées. They’ve conjured masks and wings for Lady Gaga, built furniture for Tobey Maguire and designed a capsule collection of furniture and accessories for Donatella Versace, including a leopard-print textile used for a jacket worn by Beyoncé. Though their output can be provocative—often with exaggerated anatomical embellishments—it’s hardly limited­ to celebrities. With references to Neoclassicism, Surrealism and Brutalism­, their creativity has also found favor with architects, interior designers and art collectors.

“We want people to feel empathy for objects, to make them funny and relatable,” says Nikolai. “If there’s a weird animal in your house that happens to be a sofa, you will form a relationship with it.” The two earned their craftsmen bona fides early. The sons of Berthold, a stonemason and carver, and Emily, an opera singer and writer for Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld, they were raised in Austin, Texas, and encouraged by both their parents and their older brother, actor Lukas Haas. “Our mom had an insane collection of Chi­nese emperor portraits, butterfly wings and porcelain doll heads. Our dad built a stone grotto and a seashell-covered four-poster bed in the yard,” Nikolai says. “We absorbed all this information and learned how to build all sorts of things.”

As is often the case with fraternal twins, the 30-year-olds are complementary opposites. “My brother is gay; I’m not,” Nikolai matter-of-factly explains. Niki, as he likes to be called, is physical and expressive, a T-shirt-and-ball-cap-clad guy devoted to hockey. Simon, who prefers Hockney, is cerebral and meticulous, dressed head to toe in black. “Niki’s about impulse and emotion. He can put life into new forms of sculpture,” Simon says. “I have an obsession with applications and finishes.” Yet, they are two minds so seamlessly joined, they tend to finish each other’s sentences. “We don’t like art that’s so precious you can’t use it, but we don’t call ourselves designers,” says Simon of their sculpture. Niki adds, “We’re trying to obliterate the line between art and design.”

This anarchic spirit is expressed with a sly sense of humor steeped in pop-historical references. For pottery that evokes Pompeii and Jules Verne—and sells for $5,000 and up—they developed a ceramic glaze whose color morphs under artificial light and promptly dubbed it Change-ium. And while their Beast seating collection (from $40,000), covered in buffalo fur and Icelandic sheepskin, alludes to mythological creatures, it bears contemporary names like Debbie Hairy, Dromedary; Edward Fur-Long; and Hairy-Kate Olsen.

The future seems only more exciting. In September the brothers’ first monograph, The Haas Brothers (Damiani), which includes a con­tribution from Laura Dern, was published in anticipation of their first U.S. solo show, opening at R & Company on November 4. There have been discussions of rug designs and a documentary about their lives by photographer Mason Poole. The grand plans are no accident; quirky as their work can be considered, the brothers are aiming for universal—not niche—appeal. “I want people to be at our mercy,” says Niki, “by making things that are beautiful.”

“The Haas Brothers” runs from November 4, 2014, to January 10, 2015; 82 Franklin St., New York; thehaasbrothers.com.

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