Visit the Bass Museum in Miami Beach this month and you’ll encounter an array of neon palm trees, oversized mushrooms and whimsical, biomorphic creatures that wouldbe at home in a Björk video or a fever dream. This lush, surrealist tableau, the creation of artists Simon and Nikolai Haas—a.k.a. the Haas Brothers—is part of their “Ferngully” show, which runs through April 21. On this evidence, the 34-year-old, L.A.-based fraternal twins have clearly given each other permission to let their imaginations run wild. “Our pieces are meant to engage the viewer,” says Simon with a smile. Over the past decade, he and Nikolai (who goes by Niki) have gained notoriety for their tactile, irreverent, sometimes anatomically suggestive pieces that take cues from furniture but go playfully off the rails. One chaise on view at The Bass museum resembles an oddly elongated dog crossed with a caterpillar. Its sheepskin covering can be parted to reveal that the item is definitely a boy. “The main intention is never functionality,” explains Niki.
“I see their practice very much as a sieve of today’s culture,” read a recent statement from Marianne Boesky, whose New York gallery now represents the brothers, “drawing on the swirl of information we experienceevery day and recasting it in ways that push and question the definition of art.” Clients so far include Lady Gaga, who commissioned them to design sleek black masks for backup dancers, and L.A.’s trendy Ace Hotel, whose lobby bears a series of penciled murals depicting iconic pop-cultural moments, like Britney Spears’ head-shaving. Despite their closeness, the twins (whose older brother, the actor Lukas, first gained fame opposite Harrison Ford in Witness) are very different. As a youngster, Simon preferred dresses and describes himself as “brainy and undeniably gay,” while Niki “played hockey and dressed exclusively in Umbro.” By the time they were teenagers, their divergent paths had become a source of stress for Simon. “When I went to college, I fell into a depression because half of me wasn’t physically there,” he says. He toyed with the idea of becoming a chef, a painter, a dancer, until Niki pitched the idea of collaborating in the arts. “I think he saw me struggling to cope with adulthood,” says Simon. “I was in the throes of alcoholism, and he gave me a way forward."
Now, the brothers spend most of their days working together in their exposed-brick downtown L.A. studio, coaxing ideas into existence amid shelves of their ceramic Accretion Vases, which resemble inebriated sea anemones and are hand-painted in colors you’d expect to find in a coral reef. For the most part, Simon tinkers with materials and establishes a philosophy for each project, while Niki sketches and sculpts objects alongside their 10-person creative team. In addition to mentoring gifted adolescents for YoungArts, they’re currently working on an exhibit called “Madonna,” an “homage to the future,” according to Niki, which will debut in New York later this year. It features a Virgin Mary statue as well as what Simon calls the “fantasy eco-system” that has become their signature. “Niki and I are always building a kingdom, where he is the fauna and I am the flora,” he says. “It’s not like we finish each other’s sentences, but we finish each other’s creative process.”