Once upon a time there were two Danish girls named Nan Na Hvass and Sofie Hannibal who, quite independently of one another, spent their summer weekends visiting a historic amusement park on the edge of Copenhagen called Tivoli Gardens. They wanted their world to look just like the park—filled with bright fairy lights and shrubbery, old-fashioned carousels, and ribbons that blew majestically in the wind. When they grew up, they met each other while studying for their Master’s degree in visual communication at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, and bonded instantly over their shared love of Tivoli, the Danish artists Poul Gernes and Bjørn Nørgaard, and the way Saul Sternberg mixed playful illustrations with cutting edge design.
In 2006, the pair formed studio Hvass & Hannibal. “We’ve always loved exploring magical or surreal places in our work,” they say. In the beginning, they primarily illustrated landscapes similar to Tivoli. Both determined to inject whatever they got their hands on—album artwork, editorial commissions, or posters—with that same sense of enchantment and whimsy they felt as kids.
Now, Hvass & Hannibal have become one of Denmark’s most memorably unique, international design duos, producing illustrations for Depeche Mode, iconic album covers and set design for Efterklang, textiles for Heals in London and Marimekko in Denmark, and editorial work for the New York Times. If that’s not enough, they also design book covers, videos, award designs, and identities for projects as varied as a children’s library to an annual media and tech conference held in Sweden.
Clients don’t go to them for run-of-the-mill design solutions. Hvass & Hannibal themselves are their brand, and by commissioning the duo you’re actually asking for a slice of their aesthetic, to be a part of their magical-realist world.
“The best part of working in so many mediums and formats is the luxury of avoiding monotony, and also the chance to refresh one’s skills and to approach an untried medium with new excitement,” says Hvass from her desk in Copenhagen, which is strewn with empty tea cups and scraps of paper. Right now, they’re working on a host of illustration commissions, trying out iPad Pro and Apple Pencil instead of Photoshop and Wacoms. They’re also creating a line of painted, wooden figures for a local client. “We usually work on about four or five projects at a time” Hannibal notes.
Whether they’re woodworking or painting on digital canvases with their fingertips makes no difference to Hvass and Hannibal; for both acts of creation they’re essentially doing the same thing: world building. “We like surrealism, creating a kind of magical feeling, whether through colors or the composition,” says Hannibal. “We also like to have some kind of surprise or hidden meaning even in our more decorative work.”
The fact that they’re well-versed in all sorts of craft techniques, from digital illustration to tapestry, means that they can blur boundaries between different mediums. “We like to create ambiguity and we want people to wonder, ‘is this handmade or digital’?” says Hvass. “Or perhaps the perspective is tricky, making you question if what you’re looking at is real or a dream.”
When Hvass and Hannibal initially began collaborating together, mostly on illustrations, they took turns working on a project, passing it back and forth until they felt it was complete. It was a natural“merging of two minds,” with lots of time spent procrastinating, doodling, and day dreaming together. Now, things are very different; not only have their methods and ideas become synchronized, but both Hvass and Hanniball recently had babies, and they took their maternity leaves in turn.
“During that period we both learned to work alone,” says Hvass. Not only that, but the experience of having children has changed their working habits completely.
“Before becoming a parent I would have said procrastination was necessary because you can’t control when the right idea turns up. Now, work time is precious. Procrastination isn’t really an option.”
Currently, there really isn’t any time for trifling with time. Hvass & Hannibal is currently working on the visual identity for The Conference, an annual digital art event held in Malmö, Sweden. The project is ideal for a studio like Hvass & Hannibal because it’s so multi-faceted, with set design, posters, animations, furniture, and a host of other various mixed-media.
“It’s also a huge mouthful for a small studio like ours,” says Hvass. Hannibal agrees. “During the work process we always curse and swear we’ll never do it again.”
Despite developing new studio habits and adjusting to adult routines, Hannibal says that the studio’s penchant for magical realism hasn’t disappeared at all. “This is the third year we’re doing The Conference,” she says, “and three seems like the right number of times to do it. Like in the fairy tales.”