The pavement is drying fast after a sudden shower over Copenhagen. Sunshine is streaming through the front window at the Hvass&Hannibal studio in the city’s Frederiksberg district. It’s brightening up the workspace, dramatically illuminating an eclectic range of artwork. There are 3-D wooden pieces, painted so that they play with light and color. Two wonderful canvases, made from painted strips of fabric stitched together, hang from the walls—blacks and grays and bright dots of color, a little like a Rothko sliced up and repackaged in vertical lines.
Behind the main worktable, a massive indoor tree branch reaches toward a mezzanine loft that’s packed with books, beanbags and paintings. Hanging down from the spindles that hold the railing is what appears to be a mobile for a huge baby. Clearly, this is a place for creativity.
You could call Hvass&Hannibal a boutique studio—the designer-partners work in a highly personal style for a select group of clients. But with its storefront exterior and full-height front window, the studio really is like a boutique. You can buy art off the wall, tinker around with things they’ve made, book them to create a visual identity or commission a stunning illustration. A little dog called Yuki trots by, and you’re greeted by founders Sofie Hannibal and Nan Na Hvass.
Things are a little different in the studio today. Hvass is at work for the first time in quite a while. Three months ago, she gave birth, and technically she’s still on maternity leave. But while little Bibi’s father babysits, Hvass can come in to discuss the studio’s work. Hannibal has been holding down the fort while her partner has been away because it’s Hannibal’s turn. This time last year, she was on maternity leave herself, looking after her son, Bjorn. It’s like a child-rearing relay, but the passing of the baton from one partner to the other is also a very good reflection of how they work together creatively.
The two have known each other since they were teenagers, and they started collaborating long before they decided to form a studio. Back then, Hvass was mainly interested in photography and took several courses. She was inspired early on by the drawings of Saul Steinberg. Meanwhile, Hannibal had been drawing and illustrationing since the age of eight, when her mother enrolled her in a school with special focus on the arts. She became a big fan of Egon Schiele and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and from that blossomed an interest in street art.
Both studied in the School of Design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. One of their earliest collaborations was a poster promoting an upcoming party, with the theme of clowns. Hvass and Hannibal collaborated on a screen print together, taking turns adding to an image. “It was a very shared process,” Hannibal says. After screen printing it at their design school’s workshop, they realized they had created amazing work. “Of course, we had to set up a studio right then,” Hannibal says.
The duo painted murals together, created art from pieces of fabric and wood, made huge paper sculptures, and designed packaging for friends’ bands. In 2006, they officially started their studio and promoted themselves on MySpace. Their bold use of color in album artwork soon led to international attention. Hvass&Hannibal appeared in Creative Review’s “One to Watch” feature, illustrated a cover for Computer Arts magazine and appeared in Communication Arts. Even in the early days, 50 percent of its projects were from outside Denmark. The studio got so many commissions that the partners took a break from college, returning years later, as practicing designers, to complete their master’s degrees.
Hvass and Hannibal don’t literally pass illustrations to one another very much any more, but when they combine ideas, they still describe the process as “ping-pong.” “We’ve become so practiced, we’ve developed a style that we can probably both do in almost the same way,” Hvass says.
While Hvass has been away, Hannibal has been working on the visuals for an upcoming event in Malmö, just across the Øresund strait in Sweden. Called simply The Conference, it’s for communications professionals, including designers, planners, programmers and executives. This is the second year that Hvass&Hannibal worked on its identity. Last time, Hvass did most of the work while covering Hannibal’s maternity leave. Now it’s the other way around.
Whereas visuals for the first event featured splotches of color, naïve drawings and dot patterns, this time around, it’s a chalkboard theme. A sample promo board is just back from the printers and leans against the studio wall. It’s impressive, the print exactly replicating a blackboard’s dusty texture. Faint lines behind The Conference’s chalk-drawn logo give you a hint at what was previously on the board but has been rubbed out. Dotted lines, building blocks and lots of chalk doodles will give the next event a very look-and-learn feel.
“They said they wanted it to be the most human conference in the world, so we wanted to create something that felt very welcoming, handmade, and very warm and personal,” Hvass says.
Although most of their pieces in identity, publishing, editorial and music packaging have been singular, The Conference is a much bigger and all-encompassing project and represents a step up for Hvass&Hannibal. In addition to the visual identity, the studio is creating signage and animations to introduce the speakers and decor for four stages and for the common areas where delegates can meet, eat and hang out. Hvass says, “I think they wanted something that we could give them, which is something very personal. We have time to hand paint signage, the kind of thing that you don’t get if you ask a very corporate studio or agency.”
The work came about because conference organizers had seen Hvass&Hannibal’s designs and illustrations for the Danish indie band Efterklang, on the 4AD label. Pieces like the packaging, booklets and tour visuals created for Efterklang’s Piramida concept album have earned the studio plenty of attention from creative blogs and magazines. AOL, Microsoft and WIRED have all called on Hvass&Hannibal for pieces reminiscent of its music packaging. Illustrations for the band Clogs, done in a style influenced by Henri Rousseau’s art nouveau, have also made a lasting impression on clients. That work led to the studio’s designing plant-based fabric patterns for Heal’s and a more op art–inspired print for the Finnish fashion brand Marimekko.
Similarly, a visual identity for the children’s department at Copenhagen’s central library has led to two children’s books for Wide Eyed Editions in London, titled Patterntastic Treasure Hunt and Technicolour Treasure Hunt. This is a whole new area for Hvass and Hannibal. Prior to having children, the two weren’t interested in children’s illustration.
Publisher Rachel Williams explains why she picked them. “We loved the element of playfulness and color in their work. It’s not every day you come across artists with such high design values who can also appeal to children. Like Charley Harper or Saul Bass, Hvass&Hannibal are a rare breed!” She continues, “Their nature icons are so beautifully rendered and unique. We knew it would make for a great series of nature-inspired concept books for very young children.”
Most fascinating about Hvass and Hannibal is how they’re able to work as one. It was Hvass who led the way with the neatly detailed illustration style they’ve developed, and Hannibal was always stronger in the area of graphic design. By handing projects back and forth to one another as they have done over the years, Hannibal has trained herself to illustrate in the same style, and while Hvass is on maternity leave, Hannibal will design and illustrate the books. Likewise, Hvass has taken on some of Hannibal’s typographic and layout skills. You can no longer tell who did what.
Even their sketchbooks are similar, and they don’t contain many sketches. Instead, they’re full of words. Looking at doodles later on doesn’t always remind them what they were thinking about at the time, so they like to write things out. The real sketching happens on a Mac; even though the children’s artwork looks painted, it’s created in Photoshop.
But what about the business side? Although Hvass and Hannibal are both perfectly sensible and extremely hardworking, they don’t have a corporate bone between them. There has never been a business plan, they won’t take on work they think is unethical and they won’t do anything that stifles their creativity.
Their work has that warm, personal, individual feel because they make it all themselves, and they never stop working on something until they’re happy with it, no matter how long it takes them. What makes their studio special, they say, is that they don’t count the hours, and they have plenty of stories to back that up—about time spent stitching quilts, cutting and gluing paper sculptures, staying up all night to finish a mural using hundreds of individual paint shades.
One risk is that spending too long on a project will mean it’s not worth the fee, but there are other risks, too. “Once, when we were making stuff with wood, we were fetching some very heavy MDF [micro-density fiberboard],” Hvass says. “We had this little cart, and we were struggling with ten huge pieces of it. It was just way too heavy. I think we could have killed ourselves if it fell on top of us. That’s the kind of situation where we could have toned it down.”
When it came to working with the wood, they did it methodically and meticulously. “I remember sitting in the basement just before Christmas, really struggling with some of those wooden pieces,” Hvass says. “Every piece had to be sanded and primed with three layers of paint. The final piece consists of so many little pieces, and they were lying around us, and we were just getting more and more tired of making sure there were three layers of paint on each one.”
Hannibal continues: “Then someone would put a finger on one or splash a drop of paint, and it would be like…”
“NOOOOO!” they both cry out.
“It would have to be sanded, primed and repainted,” Hvass says.
“We wanted it to be perfect,” Hannibal says. “Everything has to be perfect.” ca