Hvass&Hannibal: all play, no work

The Butcher’s Lab claimed to be a ‘combined gym and gallery’ – a set-up Nan Na Hvass and Sofie Hannibal, asked to exhibit there, understandably found strange. When they arrived at the space – an old slaughterhouse in Copenhagen – it still had what the pair describes as “residue” on the walls. There was no exhibition; the Lab wanted free interior design.

The gym specialises in CrossFit, an intense and, in Hannibal’s words, “very serious” form of exercise. With this in mind, the duo decorated its walls with huge anti-inspirational quotes: ‘Whenever I feel like exercise,’ one reads, ‘I lie down until the feeling passes.’ ‘Still pumped from using the mouse,’ a wall says. ‘My idea of exercise,’ goes another, ‘is a good brisk sit.’

“Yes, that was one of the more interesting situations we’ve been in,” Hannibal says. “But it resulted in something very different from our usual work, and the irony is that it turned out to become one of our favourite projects – probably for the same reason.

“The work was the result of total confusion, and what initially felt like a completely hopeless mismatch between the task and our role. But it shows how being put in an unusual context can lead to something good.”

For the Copenhagen-based, multidisciplinary art and design duo collectively known as Hvass&Hannibal, the fun, mischievous, anarchic project is emblematic of the creatives’ working mode. The pair loosely founded their eponymous studio in 2006 – although they met almost a decade before, sharing an extra-curricular design class at school. After graduating from the Danish School of Design, they collaborated on a handful of projects before sharing a basement workspace in Copenhagen. Soon after, in 2008, the creative partnership was made official.

A couple of memorable early projects include a piece of jewellery which doubled as a cigarette holder, dubbed the Smoking Ring. Another, named the Pink Ninja and part of the pair’s range of costumes produced for dancers at a Copenhagen club night, is one of the most unsettling things that Computer Arts has ever seen.

Hvass&Hannibal isn’t particularly keen on airing these pieces in public; you certainly won’t find them on its website. Frivolous though these works may now seem, they helped set the tone for the studio’s future projects. Today’s output has decidedly more focus – but even corporate work is charged with a feeling of creative play.

A question of style

“Since we first started out, the character of our projects has changed a lot,” Hvass explains. “In the beginning they were quite small scale and underground, whereas we now have more established clients and do much larger scale projects. We are more confident with what we do now and we know that if we work hard then something good will come out of it.”

“We started taking on commissions when we were still at design school,” Hannibal says. “Of course we were much more inexperienced back then, but we were also very eager to do anything we could get our hands on. For instance, we could spend a really long time on a mural that we knew would be painted over the next day.”

Album artwork for Danish band Turboweekend’s second album is prime example of such attention to detail. The project saw Hvass&Hannibal painstakingly put together a huge origami ball, by hand, which was then shot in a dark and snowy forest. The outcome is stunning. But, by the pair’s own admission, it’s almost impossible to tell the piece is handmade rather than digitally rendered.

Home away from home

Because of the sheer scale of many of the projects that Hvass&Hannibal undertakes, its workspace plays a central role in the success of the studio. The latest in a succession of bases is a light and spacious studio with four-meter-high ceilings, making a welcome change from the duo’s usual basement dwellings.

“We always try to make our studio feel homely,” Hannibal says, “so that it’s nice to be there and doesn’t feel too much like being at an office. It has to be a nice place, where we can meet and work, and where we have room to build things, draw and do experiments.” The space is shared with “lots of really nice people” – a positive atmosphere that breeds creativity and promotes a very active social life, the pair says.

The studio’s interior design represents one of Hvass&Hannibal’s biggest recent projects: the centrepiece being an elaborate mezzanine-style, floor-to-ceiling shelving system – incorporating, among other things, a bed. The structure is a collaboration with architect Bo Benzon, from another multidisciplinary Copenhagen-based outfit Arkitekturministeriet, the wood specialist that has constructed everything from bar interiors to festival stages.

“As soon as we moved in,” Hannibal says, “we both knew that we wanted to build a big shelving system. With four meters of space above us, we would need a way to reach the top shelves, and since it’s always nice to have a place to lie down, adding a loft bed seemed like the natural thing to do.”

Within the studio, tasks are split fairly evenly and informally. There are no clearly defined roles. Housekeeping is shared, as is client care. “We don’t have a very efficient and clever way of doing business,” Hannibal says. “Every day we’ll meet at the office, not quite knowing what the day will bring. We have a collaborative approach to working, but sometimes we do try to divide the tasks so we don’t both work on the same thing at the same time. Trying to work smarter instead of harder.”

“For smaller projects,” Hvass says, “it’s more likely we’ll split the task, because otherwise it can take too long discussing every step. But with bigger design projects we tend to work more hand in hand. This helps to make sure that the quality of the work is high, as it always helps to have each other’s eyes on things to uncover as much potential as possible.”

A diverse portfolio

Those projects incorporate an extensive and eclectic mix of disciplines: from graphic design and illustration to handmade and textiles pieces, costume and set design, video and installation. A run-through of upcoming projects reinforces this point: “Right now,” Hannibal says, “we are working on an identity for a children’s library, an album cover, where we are once again teaming up with our favourite photographer Brian Buchard, as well as a design for an app, a book cover, a Film4 screen print…”

With such a diverse portfolio, is there any creative field the studio has yet to explore? “We’d like to work more with moving images,” Hannibal says. “This fall, we will have an intern that works a lot with animation, and hopefully this could be an opportunity to try out more in that direction.”

Public speaking and teaching is another string to the studio’s bow – Hvass&Hannibal’s relaxed, convivial disposition proving popular everywhere from Ireland to China. “Both our partners are in bands,” Hannibal says, “and they always get to go on tour, to all of these different engagements and meet lots of people. So it’s cool to go out and meet lots of other designers. It’s good to meet people you admire, people you’ve only seen online and don’t even know whether it’s a man or a woman.”

Hvass&Hannibal cites its enchanting, otherworldly illustration for the cover of Computer Arts, back in 2008, as its big break. “First, we stretch out, drink some tea and try to postpone the inevitable,” Hannibal says, considering how the studio approaches a new brief. “And, then, when we can’t avoid it any longer, we get to work. We might first panic a little bit, if it’s a very exciting project. But we talk about it or go our separate ways to think and sketch for a while, and usually that reveals a direction.” The pair says its insouciant approach, and the panic it often engenders, is a good thing. Panic is good. Panic gets things done. “It makes you work harder,” Hvass says, “that fear of being caught without having anything. Panic makes you alert. All your senses are awake. You’re open to all possible solutions.”

“But our approach also depends on the project,” Hannibal adds. “With an illustration we might be more intuitive and one of us will just start drawing. With a bigger design brief, where we have to come up with a concept that can work on many levels, we spend a lot of time researching the subject, looking for inspirational images, brainstorming and sketching ideas.”

The thread that knits the studio’s output together is the uncynical, starry-eyed, almost childlike quality inherent in its work. Hvass attributes this to a childhood trip around the world, with her parents and brother, between moving from her native Swaziland to Denmark. The exotic landscapes she saw as a child reveal themselves in her work as an adult. In Hannibal, she met someone who understands, shares and augments her vision.

“It happens pretty much unconsciously,” Hvass says. “There are certain things we’re very interested in and keep returning to – such as surreal landscapes and folklore, a craft-based approach and, of course, our love of colours.

Design directions

“Initially, we were surprised to see that many of our projects have a connecting theme. We even tried to shift direction and change media, as a consequence of wanting to renew ourselves. At one point, we were perhaps trying to run away from ourselves, but later on we realised that it’s a huge benefit that we can rely on our style to shine through, without having to force it. We don’t consciously try to brand ourselves in a certain direction.”

Another shared trait is a tendency to work in fitful but obsessive bursts. This often means they are reluctant to let a project go, constantly looking to make unnecessary changes. “For example, occasionally we both get obsessed with an album,” Hvass says, “and then almost kill it by listening to it over and over again. We do the same with our lunches, actually. We have this pattern of finding something that’s good and then eating it every day for two or three months, before we move on to something else.”

“Sometimes, of course, there’s a deadline,” Hannibal says. “So you have to have it done. Other times, the client will decide it for us. But, I guess we also have to decide when it feels right to let it go. It’s not something we always have to discuss in words; sometimes you can just feel it. We’re never finished before deadline. So if a client gives us extra time, we’re always trying to change things, right at the very end, that other people probably can’t see at all. Record labels often give us a deadline and then say, ‘You can have two more weeks.’ Then we think: ‘Now it has to be even better’.”

Choose a job you love, goes the old cliché, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. Nan Na Hvass and Sofie Hannibal embody this truism. While the work they produce is confident and accomplished, it’s also underpinned by a sense of levity, a feeling that it’s done as much for their own pleasure as it is in response to a client’s brief. “It’s fun and challenging working in this way,” Hvass says. “It, perhaps, takes a bit of courage to push the boundaries of your skills, but it’s very rewarding for us as well – finding out we can do new things. It renews our approach, because using a different medium forces us to think in a different way.”

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