On the gloomy first floor of a run-down Neukölln apartment building, a door opens and a blond man peers out quizzically. “I’m looking for Nathan.” “Ah. Okay, come in,” says the stranger.
The free bed at the home of Nathan Cowen – one half of Haw-Lin – is almost always occupied by one of his many friends from around the world. Nathan, a native of Hawaii, soon comes padding down the narrow hallway in his socks and hugs me warmly. “Would you like a tea?” he asks rhetorically, immediately decamping to his home-built kitchen counter to brew a Swedish blueberry variety. Shortly afterward, the doorbell rings and Jacob Klein, Haw-Lin’s second half, enters the apartment, his bike hoisted atop his shoulder.
Jacob and Nathan launched Haw-Lin in 2008 as an online mood board in order to have a space where the two designers could assemble visual artifacts from their daily research. Haw-lin.com quickly became known as one of the best, most visually innovative sites; reborn as Haw-Lin Services, Jacob and Nathan begin to apply their curatorial and aesthetic skills in client projects and collaborations.
We spent several days with our friends Nathan and Jacob in Berlin and also visited the the studio of Felix Kiessling and his gallery together. We did a lot of research in the city, visited unique sites and collected a lot of material. At FvF you’ll see and read who are the guys behind Haw-Lin and how we spent the days, and at the same time you can switch to the Haw-Lin site to discover the creative results that came to fruition during the interview.
How did you two meet?
Jacob: I am originally from Rheda-Wiedenbrück, a small town in the middle of Germany and I studied Graphic- and Communication Design in Bielefeld. We both met when we were interning at a agency Hort in 2008, I was 28 at that time. There was a table for all the new interns and we sat next to each other with the wall to our back so nobody could see what we were doing.
Nathan: (Laughs) Yeah, I grew up in Hawaii until i was 17. That is also where the name Haw-lin comes from. Haw for Hawaii and -lin for Berlin. Then I moved to San Francisco and studied at the California College of the Arts before coming to Berlin for my internship, where we met. We were noticing pretty fast that we had a similar interest in hip-hop, fashion, music and graphics. When we met, I hadn’t actually started looking at blogs that much. But I was constantly looking at Jacob’s screen thinking ‘Wow- what’s that?’. He had to send me links.
How did you start Haw-lin?
Jacob: Every designer has a folder on their computer, you probably do as well, where you throw things in that you like or that inspire you. We realized, we both had very big collections of images that we both liked and thatʻs how we decided to put them together.
How would you describe your respective taste? We were talking about the “basketball and naked chicks specialization“ over dinner the other night…
Nathan: Haha, yeah. I am always looking for basketball-images that I remember from my childhood. I loved the commercials with Michael Jordan.
Jacob: I think, in general, your stuff is a bit trashier. But maybe thatʻs the wrong word.
Nathan: People seem to have different connotations if you describe design. You should never describe design to a client as trashy, they wouldn’t understand. We can both tell by looking at an image whose post it is. But even my girlfriend can’t tell our posts apart. To me its so obvious. More often I am like “of course Jacob finds a way cooler image.” It’s like a competition.
How is the procedure and the daily routine to run Haw-lin?
Nathan: I began with a basic routine because I didn’t have much work at the time when we started in 2008. So everyday I would drink a coffee, check my E-mails and then I’d spent two hours minimum looking for images. Itʻs always about seeing pictures as a group together. Like when you play music and have a movie in the background- your mind starts syncing them, so the beat is in sync with the cuts and the images. You start connecting them by picking out colours or shapes…
￼Jacob: We build image chains. We look at an image and think “Ah, this color reminds me of that image” et cetera. It’s like connecting the dots.
Did the way you pick images change over time?
Jacob: In the beginning Haw-lin was literally just to share images between the two of us on an online moodboard. We just told some friends about it. Now, we do better research and it became more and more serious to us. We want this to be successful and we have more of a purpose. At one point, we decided to post everyday in the week, Monday Nathan does a post, Tuesday itʻs me and so on…we do it ping-pong style.
Nathan: Itʻs becoming more and more important to understand what the image is about, to research the photographer and his previous works. I like the progression of the way we think about images.
How did you learn that people are really influenced by you?
Jacob: What really shocked us was when we installed Google-Analytics. There was one day last year when we had 10,000 people on the website per day. Now it varies always between 6,000 and 10,000 a day.
Nathan: I think we are more realistic now of what Haw-lin is or can be.
Jacob: My sister bought her Christmas presents by looking at Haw-lin. It’s interesting how people use it.
What actually pays your rent at the moment?
Jacob: Itʻs freelance graphic design. But our aim with Haw-lin Services is to offer our creative services to people and to find new ways of collaboration with brands we like. This is what we are working on right now. We would like to make it a full time business.
Velour was the first project you did as Haw-lin Services, right?
Jacob: Yes, Velour started sending us images of their clothes as a normal promotion thing. We just wrote back if they would be up for a collaboration. So we picked some pieces from their collection that we wanted to integrate and two weeks later we got a package with nice clothes to work with.
What was that project about?
Nathan: We wanted to focus on patterns, material and fabrics to create a still life by combining it with other materials we just found somewhere like wooden bricks. They were really happy with it and asked us right away if we want to do it for the next collection as well.
Jacob: The next thing we are doing is for Opening Ceremony. Rory Satran contacted us and asked if we want to be guest editors on their blog. We will guest post bi-monthly probably. What we are doing now is, that they are sending us material, like pictures of the newest collections, behind the scenes footage, things they are working on etc. and we get inspired by these images for an image selection similar to what we do on Haw-lin. But we donʻt have to integrate their material if we donʻt want to.
What about other dream collaborations?
Jacob: Oh, we have a few. We would love to do a T-Shirt with a great company for example. Similar to what Opening Ceremony did with the Opening Ceremony x Timberland Boots. We would like to do a Haw-lin boot with someone as well. M/M Paris did that scarf with Kanye West which was really cool as well. But the product is one thing. What interests us as well is to create everything around the product, like the photo shoot or promotion-material.
Nathan: We would love to do a photo shoot with a great model like Marloes Horst.
Jacob: I would agree on that but you are influencing me with the girls again.
Nathan: Our aim is to create the entire project in collaboration. Like let’s send the work back and forth or have a party, a pop-up-shop or a night together where we play music and have some type of interaction. Whatever. Our underlying goal is to do open collaborations on the same eye-level. We want to have an equal voice in the respective process.
What people inspire you?
Jacob: My dad is a furniture designer and a few years ago he introduced me to Konstantin Grcic. The way he works and his products are inspiring to me. And Anselm Reyle is popping to my head, too. I really like the bad taste side to his work.
Nathan: For me, some inspirational names are Michael Jordan, Tim Schmitt, Frank Herbert, Tsunetomo Yamamoto and John Carpenter.
Haw-lin is often referred to as effortless cool. Is there a Haw-lin attitude?
Jacob: Itʻs just our attitude I guess. Memories, things that we like, things that we dream of, things we would love to have but we probably will never be able to afford.
Nathan: I think we have a certain level of pretentiousness. We put everything on Haw-lin that we like and which are statements that we wanna make or inside jokes. We donʻt really care how it’s perceived. We just donʻt want to have anything on there that is harmful or degrading.
Tell me about your selection criteria and the “no guns, no bikes” policy.
Nathan: Basically, we just publish everything we find visually appealing. But the no-gun- rule is because we are against the idea of showing a gun as something positive. There is just nothing cool about it.
￼Jacob: And for the bikes it’s that on every second blog you see fixies and these guys with Brooklyn Works caps and we were just fed up with it. Although we both appreciate bikes of course. We ride them everywhere, we both have fairly decent bicycles, but its just too much.
What did you expect from Berlin before you came here?
Nathan: Cheap food! (laughs). No, I actually didnʻt even know that. I just had normal American ideas about certain historical facts. East-west, the wall. Now I like Berlin for the youth culture, the food, the Café culture. I found a lot of similarities to California actually.
What did surprise you?
Nathan: The biggest thing I had to get used to was that you can’t pay with credit cards at most places and that everything is closed on Sundays. In the states, Sunday is the biggest shopping-day.
In which Kiez do you live and why?
Jacob: I live around Bergmannkiez. I feel really comfortable there, its relaxed, easy going. Maybe not as young and hip as Gräfekiez or Kreuzkölln, it’s quieter, a family area. And I have many friends close by. Even four or five friends from Rheda- Wiedenbrück are around the corner. In general I like Kreuzberg, I wouldn’t like to live in Mitte or Prenzlauer Berg. And Neukölln, where everybody is going to now, is getting really expensive.
Nathan: I moved to Kottbusser Damm because it’s very central, I have one of my best friends living in the building and its near where I work and where most of my friends live.
Back in the days you didn’t link the pictures on Haw-lin. Why did you change that?
Jacob: We never wanted to have text or captions on Haw-lin. It’s a image moodbard and we want it as simple as possible. Now that we link it’s not as mysterious as it was before. But everyone who produces work like photography, graphic design, art or fashion wants to be linked and recognized. One guy once complained and we had a little trouble with him. This whole image rights thing on the web is a big blurry area.
Nathan: I was fighting the link-thing a bit more. It did slow us down. But the main reason why I gave in to Jacob was that many times I tried to go back to find a source for my own research and I just couldn’t remember it anymore.
But it’s also a political issue.
Jacob: It’s very important to point out that we donʻt own the images on Haw-lin. But it’s our selection and our grouping. If you want your picture taken off, just write us a short notice and we take it off.
What are your favorite websites?
Jacob: Google, Google, Google. And of course we have our rss-feeds, but it’s difficult to point something out.
Nathan: My favorite website is Google and the others are undefined. There are a lot of blogs we respect and like but we always try to find something special. Like a forty-year-old-persons website they had since the 90s with just a list of files. I once found this website of portraits from one family. They were always taken in front of a rainbow painting which was from the 70s, so all of the photos had this vintage quality from a cheap film camera to it. It was really cool to see the kids grow up in front of that painting.
We are always talking screens. How important is being away from the screen for you?
Jacob: We as designers research and collect books and other printed material that inspire us as well…
You are famous for your sensitivity towards visual expression. How important is theory and academia to you?
Jacob: I come from a corporate design background. I did a lot of it while studying and a strong concept and a proper research is very important. I think, without a proper concept your design is pretty loose. But I am not sitting in bed every night reading theoretical stuff, I am more visually driven.
Nathan: Same with me. It’s important to have a strong concept and a system, even if it’s not apparent. A lot of the work we are creating are actually visual systems.
What are your plans for the future?
Jacob: Well, we have Haw-lin and Hood-lum where we feature work from other people. With Haw-lin Services we want to produce our own content now and also step out of the digital world. At the moment we only use our sense for aesthetics to curate but we also want to use it for collaborations and free projects. We would love to make a business out of it and thatʻs what we are working on.
Thank you for the tea and the nice talk! We are very excited to see what you are coming up with next.
Please find all mentioned websites of Nathan and Jacob below and be aware you are going to spend a serious amount of time with them if you haven’t already.
Video: Marcus Werner & Nicolai Niermann
Photos: Ramon Haindl
Interview & Text: Sarah Weinknecht