– By Sabrina Y. Smith
I meet them in their new warehouse studio: a large, high-ceiling space that used to be an auction house. In the past few months, they have constructed an upstairs office and Simon’s painting studio, different working ateliers, and are in the mist of building a music recording room. The space is filled with their artworks and pieces of furniture: a leather couch with a goat with golden feet, hive pattern, shiny stools with thin legs (that look like they’re about to run off), and numerous large-sized penis sculptures. Several employees are hard at work, fabricating, cutting, assembling the different elements that compose the extravagant Haas Brothers’ designs. The space is buzzing and noisy with machines, but also holds a calm and relaxed atmosphere. Everyone is impressively focused and meticulously working towards what has become some of today’s most sought-after design pieces.
“Sex Room”, Haas Brothers, photography by Joe Kramm 2014
It’s been five years that the Haas brothers have started working together and building their brand. And it’s taken no time for them to receive incredible attention and praise from the design, art and fashion worlds. Even though their success has been growing quickly, the beginning was met with some inner resistance and outward shock.
Before starting to work together, they had taken different respective paths: Simon studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design; and Nikki was a hockey player in high school — something that allowed him to shut his “brain off and just play” — and then became a touring musician with Vincent Gallo for years. Nikki explains: “sometimes you resist what you’re good at and what’s natural to you. You dedicate to a romance, not a reality. Most people have an idea that they’ve created for themselves of what they’re supposed to be, and it holds them back so much. I almost said no to our business”.
What took them years to come to terms with their destiny was there all along: an innate artistic talent and explosive imaginations. “Talent comes with admitting what you enjoy and what you’re good at… If you invest on nostalgia, it’s like keeping a ball in chain on your foot: the more you allow yourself to detach, the more you’re engaged in finding your identity.”
A perfect marriage of nature and nurture, it is undeniable that their family has largely influenced their path. Nikki’s touring music career came from the skills he was taught by his older brother, the actor (and also proficient musician), Lukas Haas; and his sculpting skills from his artist father. Simon had always been on an artistic path, but transitioned from painting to more rational approaches to art through design. He has also taken up writing with philosophical essays that make up most of their first and newly published book Volume I, which was — consciously or not — surely influenced by their talented screenwriter mother.
They both recognize and are grateful for their family’s influence: “we came out of a really creative household: the only thing that has changed is now being more in control.” Not only were their parents in artistic fields themselves, they have also always supported their sons’ choices and creative directions. Even their brother Lukas, seemingly working in a very different field (acting), greatly impacted his younger brothers’ creativity. Having grown up in Austin, Texas, the young Haas brothers would visit Lukas in Los Angeles, impressed by the freedom of identity that the City of Angels offered. Observing their brother’s acting has helped them become better artists themselves. They explain: “Acting is understanding. It gave us insight on how to read and behave.” It also didn’t hurt when they were first starting, to get the support (financial and exposure) from their older brother’s friends, some notable Hollywood celebrities (Tobey Maguire commissioned their first design work).
Haas Brothers, photography by Eliot Lee Hazel
What started off as a twin undertaking has now become a family affair. Their father — a stone-carver by training — also works with them, constructing diverse works of metal, stone and ebony wood. Upon my visits at their old studio, he was working on a series of penis sculptures for his sons’ exhibition (and having much fun in the process.) Their brother is also now building a music studio in the front of Simon and Nikki’s warehouse space. What began as the “Haas Brothers” is now becoming a Haas family endeavor.
When I ask them how working together has changed their relationship with each other, and other members of their family, their answer is clear: “we have chosen this relationship.” While their business only dates a few years, their kinship has always been existing. It’s enabled them to better organize one another; travel the world together (from a week to a month at a time); and grow with one accord. They simply create better together. What seems to be at the heart of it is a strong sense of “shared intention and philosophy that is always evolving.” There are undeniably particular challenges in running a family business: old issues get rehashed, and things can get quite political. There is little to no separation between their work and personal life, but as Nikki states, “if you’re doing art well, it’s very personal.” Most importantly: they always have fun in the process.
Haas Borthers at work, photography by Eliot Lee Hazel
For Nikki and Simon Haas, family is defined beyond blood relatives. It is a group of chosen people who “you want to be around whose intentions for you are good and with whom you share a mutually beneficial relationship.”
They treat their business and the people whom participate in it as their family: they’re creating together and working towards a shared vision. They now have a dozen full-time employees that they personally feel responsible for since every person plays an integral role towards a communal goal.
Simon & Nikki Haas share an incredible open-mindedness that is both alluring and alarming, and is surely a catalyst for their ever-evolving and restless creations. They tackle what many consider some of the most taboo subjects, in an unprecedented way and with an unusual ease. While their motivation may not lie in “going against the grain”, the result is often the case. They both admit: “if someone tells us we can’t do something; of course, that’s the first thing we’re going to do. And that happens a lot…”
However, we can not mistake it as provoking for provocation sake: there’s a deeply sincere motive behind their work. “The point of an artist is that you want to change people’s minds and in order to do that, you have to show them something they’re not used to.”
Sex, a theme they’re now moving past, has been a subject they’ve explored in depth and central to much (often critical) attention. As a result, they’ve frequently been often simply labeled as sexually focused artists. They both underline that it is not their sole interest, pointing out: “we don’t want to ignore that sex is part of life — and art should reflect how you’re thinking about things. There’s not more sex in our work then there is in our lives — or for that matter in nature too.”
© Haas Brothers, “KAA”, Brass Hex Tile, 2014, photograph by Joe Kramm
In fact, installations such as their “Sex Room” (which was viewable at Art Basel 2014) treats sex as a simple and innocent manner. The interactive installation is a small, curtained room composed of a table filled with hand-carved ebony and bronze sex toys, and close-circuit televisions screening nude videos. The experience, as described by Simon, was to create a “voyager spacecraft” that felt like a record of how a person looks and acts. They wanted to create a space where anyone can feel comfortable to “go in and explore every avenue of sexuality”. “We’re not suggesting the avenue: only the exploration. You’re alone and free to do you as you wish. That’s the message: it’s anti-shame… We’re trying to get people to have thoughts that they would normally reprimand somewhere else.”
Stepping away from a pornographic treatment, the effect is one of intimacy rather than pervasive sexuality. So while the room may seem based on sex, it is: “very much against sex being a shocker or anything negative. It’s all about innocence.” In Nikki’s words: “sex is innocent if it’s in a pure form.”
© Haas Brothers, “Dolph”, Icelandic Sheepskin, 2014, photograph by Joe Kramm
Despite, or perhaps thanks to, the fact that they are fraternal twins, they share a rare openness when it comes to discussing the subject. The fact that sex is taboo is a shocker in itself for the Haas boys: “Hiding, judging, not knowing, is a far more dangerous and suppressing attitude than openness.” This admirable tolerance and creative approach to sex may have also been influenced by their respective views on the subject: Nikki, a heterosexual who’s been in an eight year relationship (with fashion stylist Djuna Bel); and Simon, who is now openly gay after years of hiding his sexuality.
This duality has enabled them to shake preconceptions on sex, and a variety of subjects. With genuine shock, Nikki states: “It’s weird that people tell you what to do. How on earth could they tell you what to do? We’re pushing into sex not because it’s easy or sells, but because it provokes these ideas: we’re figuring out how to use language to express to people. With themes like sex, our message is immediately reachable.”
For them, artworks such as the sex room “are coming out of difficult questions. It’s stuff we don’t understand, and the point is to explore. We want to work on something we don’t get. It requires being honest.”
It is this very honesty that allows them to approach every subject fearlessly — balancing curiosity, intellect and humor. They are “contrarians” that focus on the things they’d like to change. They want to confront and shake every socially rooted idea; and while sex may have started the motion, their focus has now shifted to other social issues. “We’re starting to touch on heavier subjects. It’s easy to get people to open up: it’s almost a therapy session with the rest of the world.”
Simon explains that his current creative interests are in “finding balance between computer generated and human generated beauty ideals.” Nikki adds: “We’re moving more towards ideas of freedom and liberty. Exploring things that aren’t suppose to happen but somehow do.”
For their newest project, which they will be presenting in South Africa this year, Simon has come up with mathematical equations to recreate the laws of nature in design. For example, one of his formulas allows them to fabricate plants (made out of beads) that can grow accordingly to a specific space and dimensions. Nikki explains: “You’re allowing this natural process for something to grow, but you’re manipulating it at the same time.” The design, thus, becomes independent and the designer, secondary. The ultimate goal, they explain, is that these formulas could potentially be used to build living structures, “smart buildings.” It is the “most design thing we’ve ever done” states Simon. “But also the most natural at the same time,” adds Nikki.
Haas Brothers, photography by Eliot Lee Hazel
They complete each other’s sentences and thoughts with an uncanny naturalness. When they’re together, as so often is the case, a powerful symbiosis emerges and a creative explosion follows. Their different skills and thought process compliment one another, and their goals and success are rooted in shared values.
They underline that the objects they create, whether it’s a chair, sculpture, or drawing, are secondary to their message: “the product can be anything: it’s the message that’s important. People will always remember your message. We’re not making pieces for pieces’ sake, we’re making it for a larger picture, an ethos, a philosophy.”