At this writing, the hashtag #DanishDesign has 2,035,417 posts on Instagram. When you look it up, a feed of design classics and white-white interiors appears, all telling the story of a small nation's strong design tradition. Kept in simple colors, yet with a strong expression, danish design is something most people with an aesthetic vein will know and have a clear image of. You won't find anything remotely similar to the wondrous work of the illustrations duo Hvass&Hannibal. However, they're often met with the impression that they should part of the Danish or Nordic design scene.
But Nan Na Hvass and Sofie Hannibal, who make out the artistic duo, are made of a different matter – something that feels well-known and still surprises. And even when they try to steer their work in a new direction, they somehow end up in a familiar design. Not because they can't do anything else, but because they're doing – and living – a style entirely, uniquely themselves.
In a small side street, Hvass&Hannibal have decorated their studio. From the outside a small studio shop with a large street window, from the inside a wondrous world of paper clippings, art, a small scale palace – and office spaces in two floors, making the small space feel larger and a little bit like something out of a children's cartoon. It feels homey here, not least because Nan Na is wearing slippers as she sits down with three cups of coffee in mismatching vessels – in opposition to the sharply defined graphic profile of their work.
There's a big table at the center of the office at which the two can meet to discuss their shared work. That is an integral part of their practice, having grown from a practical need when two designers collaborate to the way they make magic. Today, even if they don't design in total unison, everything made in the studio feels like their personal work. Sometimes, they can't even tell who of the two came up with a crucial concept or significant detail.
"When we first started working together," Nan Na recalls, "we used to send our drawings back and forth until both of us liked it. Today, that process has become like a symbiosis, and now the essential part of our work is the talks we have about a project."
Nan Na and Sofie met at design school and founded their joined studio while still studying. Sofie tells how that background makes it natural for them to pursue different directions before settling on one, which will feel self-evident to anyone in design.
"We still inspire each other, working like this. Though with the years, we've developed an instinct that is triggered by the same things." Sofie Hannibal
"We still inspire each other, working like this. Though with the years, we've developed an instinct that is triggered by the same things. So, even if we discuss directions, concepts, and details, our understanding stems from the same place," Sofie says.
Hvass&Hannibal has developed one of the hardest things as artists: recognizability. People like us would call that very successful branding when you can recognize the graphic designer of a poster in the street. But Nan Na and Sofie would never call it branding. "It feels speculative," Nan Na protests.
"When clients come with a new project, they rarely have a defined brief for us. They come because they want something that feels like us," she continues. Sofie adds: "We give a lot of ourselves in the work, so even when it does branch out in a new direction, it's still personal to us."
"It's hard to formalize our process. We just do what feels right and like us. It's not a fixed process or method. It's something to do with the juxtaposition of something slightly nerdy on one side and something indefinable on the other. We work a lot with finding the balance, and whatever the parameters, the final result has to add up to 100," Nan Na explains.
Just as they don't follow a choreographed routine, the studio has never had a business plan. One thing just kind of took the other, and new projects followed the first. But what from the outside may look like luck really is the result of very hard work over the past decade.
With a portfolio of many and varied projects, one word keeps popping up when describing the work: Magic.
"There's also magic in having made everything in real life, and not just on a computer" Nan Na Hvass
Magic feels omnipresent in their work. And in fact, a little bit of actual magic goes into the production of their art, as well. Take the album artwork for Magic Chairs by the Danish band Efterklang. It's a photograph, but it seems surreal. And even more so, when you know that every single whirling pennant was handmade. It looks unrealistic, but the magic is that it isn't. "There's also magic in having made everything in real life, and not just on a computer," Nan Na adds.
In their new work with Kibun, a series of textile artworks, they explore the notion of telling a story as simply as possible: How few elements do you, in fact, need to express natural phenomena like a sunrise or rain? Even if this simple expression seems foreign to some of their very detailed illustrations, it speaks the same language as the rest of their portfolio: The language of Hvass&Hannibal that is globally understood and instantly recognized.
Go explore their art here.