At the end of the day, for Nikolai and Simon Haas—aka the Haas Brothers—it comes down to family. After all, the twins grew up in a household with a sculptor father and an opera singer mother. (Simon refers to their parents, lovingly, as “super-wacky eccentrics.”) That environment, where, as Simon puts it, “fantasy was the norm,” nurtured the brothers’ artistic sensibilities and fostered their flights of fancy. “All we really did as kids,” Niki notes, “was come up with ideas, even if it was just a game.” Chiming in, Simon recalls how they “used to make potions together, as well as these little toys that we would try to sell at toy stores in Austin when we were like 11.” And while the little toys that the brothers made then probably sold for pocket change, today their creations easily fetch upward of six figures. In the eight years since the duo founded the Haas Brothers studio in Los Angeles, the two have made a name for themselves with creations—ranging from sculptures and objects to furniture and jewelry—that are at once fantastical, erotic, and youthful. Think Dr. Seuss meets Timothy Leary with a dash of the Marquis de Sade thrown in. “As children, everything was about fantasy,” Simon notes, “and that just hasn’t really changed.”
The brothers got their first break in 2010, when Niki was asked by actor Toby Maguire to design several cabinets for his new office. Niki,who admits he’s better with his hands, didn’t know how to draw. However, Simon, who had studied painting at Rhode Island School of Design, was great at rendering with computer-aided design and drafting software. As with any good Hollywood success story, the brothers were helped by good connections, and in short order, they found themselves commissioned to create pieces for some of popular culture’s luminaries: Lady Gaga, Nicola Formichetti, and Peter Marino all count as clients of the brothers. Then, in 2013, they were asked to design a capsule collection for Versace’s Fall 2013 collection, with T-shirts prominently featuring their designs, as well as a small selection of jewelry and small leather goods. In the span of a few short years, their profile rocketed, first as the toast of LA’s celebrity set, then as darlings of the international design community.
Yet, when you speak to the two, there isn’t the slightest hint of pretension or preciousness about their success. If anything, the same tongue-and-cheek attitude they bring to their creations seems to pervade their attitudes toward celebrity—both their own and that of others. Take, for example, the various ceramic vessels featuring a decidedly clitoral-like protuberance, each playfully named Beyonclé, or for that matter, their hand-knotted rug titled La Brea Brad Pitt, which looks like a steam-roll flattened wooly mammoth. “We live in LA,we absorb pop culture like crazy,” Niki points out. “And I think everybody nowadays is fully engaged with it on some level.” By positioning their works within the landscape of popular culture through these names, Niki contends that “it makes them funny and approachable and easier to relate to”—a conceit the brothers see as important for distancing their works from the rarified, hermetic landscape of the art world. “We love if somebody laughs at our work, even if they hate it,” Simon points out, noting that, while he and Niki “take our work very seriously, we try not to take ourselves overly so.”
One subject the brothers do take seriously, however, is the discussion of sexuality and eroticism that often surrounds their works, as was the case with their 2014 installation for Design Miami/ titled “Sex Room”—which featured framed images of animals in various amative positions, alongside a selection of objects that had a carnal functionality to them. For the brothers, however, that exhibition, as well as with many of their more suggestive works, had less to do with overt sexuality than with the entrenched shame that Western culture brings to the subject. “It’s a part of our reality, part of everyone’s reality,” Simon notes. “We’re trying to get questions about sexuality asked,” Niki continues, “because if the viewer takes the initiative to ask how it makes us think and feel, it then gives us the opportunity to explain ourselves, and that’s amazing.”
Indeed, explaining themselves is, ultimately, what seems to animate the brothers and their designs, a fabulous discourse that, through their fantastical creations, summons the inherent contradictions that ground the human experience. “Life is short and terrifying,” Niki ventures at the end of the interview, “but also the most fun thing ever. We just make work that reflects how we feel about the world and our experience of it.”