The Haas Brothers function with a freedom, enthusiasm and fearlessness that socialization often degrades. This quality comes across the moment they walk into a room, and is, of course, evident in their art, where they hold back nothing back and shirk cynicism. Their refreshing mentality has made them two of the most sought after design minds in the world — recent collaborators include the likes of Lady Gaga, Versace and Peter Marino. With their new project “Afreaks” out this fall, NeueJournal caught up the Haas Brothers after their talk at NeueHouse Madison Square and they gave us some insight into their work, and the thinking that births it.
NeueJournal: Where did the title “Afreaks” come from?
Nikolai Haas: It was was a 70s Prog Rock record made by this band “Demon Fuzz.” I always loved the cover — it had an African wrestler on the front. It was just beautiful, and we were going to Africa, listening to this record, and then we were just thinking about the idea of a “freak” and what it means to be a “freak.” What you realize is that’s like 90% of people.
Simon Haas: I’m not sure there is a statistic, but most people can say that they have been a freak at some point, or felt like one. We like to advocate for outsiders, and reclaiming words is a great way to take control of them, so using “freak” proudly is a cool way to do that. Our project also has some social meaning: It has a lot to do with women’s rights and racial rights, so we really wanted to title it something that reclaims the identity of “freak-hood.” Also, we wanted these things to be completely unbounded by any design constraints so being freakish means that it can be whatever.
NH: You probably identify as a freak
NJ: For sure! But what first attracted you to the beadwork of the women you met in South Africa, and how did you establish such intimacy with your collaborators, who now call themselves the ‘Haas Sisters’?
SH: We first stumbled across their booth at a craft fair while we were there, and their work it was so expressive. They made really beautifully done animals and we are really attracted to animals in our own work.
NH: We were attracted to the aesthetic too. We got their card and started to email back and forth, and I then I think eventually we were like, yeah, let’s do a project together. We were in Africa again for work, so we decided to stay for an extra two weeks to try and make a little bit of a collection. We got really close with them super quickly. We started learning all these stories, gaining a tremendous amount of respect for these people. It’s a pretty racist place, and it’s hard for them to be taken seriously, even just as humans, so no way could they ever be taken seriously as artists.
SH: They expected to be told what to do, but it was really important to the project that they were expressing themselves and not just fabricating. It took them a while to come out of their shell, but then they were actually competitive with each other, because each person had different techniques and but also because they are all very economically depressed. They didn’t trust us either because we are white. So we just worked with them, treated them like we would treat anyone else, put them on salary and asked them to experiment. They actually started calling themselves the “Haas Sisters” because we got so close.
Artwork: Haas Brothers – Monkeybiz, Tail-or Swift and Tail-or Splif, John Lith-Cow
NJ: Sex is a theme that seems to penetrate almost all of your work. How has your sexual identities as people informed your creations?
SH: I think that because I’m gay and he’s straight, and we’re really open with each other, we have both experienced the other one’s reality. Also knowing each other as children, like pre-sexuality, and then watching what sexuality does to your personality. Being straight actually requires a certain amount of theatrics, and so does being gay. So, I think we can see that layer added to the original personality.
NH: I feel like I experience Simon’s sexual reality as much as I do my own. I would consider myself queer as well, and I feel like it’s such a gift to understand Simon’s side of the coin because what you start to understand is that there is no side.
SH: It’s a bummer that straight guys are shamed for being emotional because a lot of them want to be emotional. I don’t get it — it is very restricting. People don’t talk about that a lot because men, in general, have it easy, but they do have a restricted reality.
NH: And women are not really allowed to be very sexual, and if they are, they have a pretty good chance of being shamed. I make a conscious effort to call my dude friends who have a lot of sex “sluts” and my girlfriends who have a lot of sex “players.” I think the engagement of our sexual identity is also like an effort to negate it. I’ve been in a monogamous relationship with my fiancee for eleven years, but if she wasn’t in the picture and I wasn’t in love with her, I would be totally open to having a relationship with a guy if I felt like it.
SH: I’m unlikely to have a relationship with a girl, but it might happen.
NH: I think that would be unlikely, but there are certain people that I could see you being with.
SH: Oh my god, there was this Lebanese girl that I met in Cape Town who I was actually extremely attracted. That was cool.
NH: But, by the way, the sexuality of relationship is really just 10% or something. I mean, it’s important that it is a healthy 10%, but there a lot of relationship that are not gay or straight — they are just not sexual. It seems so stupid to try and define what a relationship is just by those 20 minutes you have once in a while.
NJ: If you could live within the reality of any TV show, which would it be?
NH: I would want to live in “Adventure Time.” That’s an incredible universe. If I could be Fin or Jake, I would be so stoked.
SH: I would probably live in a nature show like with David Attenborough. If I could be narrated by David Attenborough I would be really excited.
NH: How about ‘“The Kardashians”?
SH: I wouldn’t want to live in that reality.
NJ: How would you explain reproduction to a six-year-old?
SH: I would be frank about it. I think that a lot of problems come when you try to simplify the world for a young person.
NH: My goddaughter is six. She’s been in our studio a million times and has seen all the sexual work we make. It’s not a big deal.
SH: Also, if you explain it to a kid birds-and-bees style, you’re implying that there is something vulgar. But it’s such a natural part of life.
NH: Obviously, they shouldn’t be watching something too explicit, but there is nothing wrong with the naked body.
NJ: Simon, what is something people don’t know about Niki?
SH: I think everyone knows that he’s a really good guy, but I think they don’t know that he’s such a doer, and people don’t immediately what a deep thinker he is. He surprises me all the time with his ideas, and the shapes he makes. He’s a genius with expression.
NJ: Niki, what is something people don’t know about Simon?
NH: Simon never, never, never lies to anyone. Sometimes he’ll get flack for being too frank, but what you realize is that he just doesn’t lie to people. Sometimes I’ll make up white lies, but Simon will never, and so I know that anything he says is the truth.
SH: I want people to like me for who I am, so I don’t present something else.
Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal