No, you’re not seeing double. Meet Kirk and Nate Mueller, the Brothers Mueller to the art world: self-styled digital dandies, design gurus, and steadfast collaborators. From the moment they first fought over a gold-trimmed sash as altar boys in Ohio, the Brothers have shared a passion for the gilded, the handcrafted, and the decorative, offset by a fascination with digital platforms. And despite every effort made by the outside world, the twins have remained inseparable: their collaborative art garnered them two out of fifteen coveted spots in the Rhode Island School of Design’s Digital + Media graduate program and landed them on the project of helping to translate Martha Stewart Living Magazine into an iPad app. Spend an hour with the brothers, and you’ll soon realize why 2 is not just better than 1, but 500.
Growing up as twins is something that most of us can’t begin to understand. What was your childhood like?
Kirk: We had our own language, which is common for twins, and we didn’t want to give it up. It really freaked out our parents, because we should have been saying our first words like “mom” or “dad.” Instead, we were talking to each other.
Nate: But we fought too. When we were younger, we were altar boys. The altar boy who would lead the procession got to wear this really big gold sash, and I remember we would fight over it all the time. Where we lived in Ohio, all the houses looked the same. But the once a week we were forced to go to mass was our outlet for ornamentation.
Kirk: It was over the top – the smells, the bells… It’s where we developed our love of ornamentation.
Was art and design something you both loved growing up?
Kirk: Because we went to separate high schools, we developed our own interests, but they happened to be the same. And then from college on, we eventually got into the same major. I was English, Nate was art history and graphic design. This was a struggle for me, because Nate was originally the one studying graphic design. I didn’t want to do the same thing.
Nate: Then eventually, there was a point where we just didn’t care. We decided to embrace it and just do it.
You’re designers who have a penchant for technology and the digital world. Is this a recent transition?
Kirk: We were always interested in technology, even at an early age. Before we could drive, we got jobs as web content producers for Ohio.com. We’ve always had a love of design. It was only after a class we took sophomore year in which new media artists came to speak about their work that everything changed.
Nate: We were no longer interested in doing anything print.
Kirk: When a project came up that was like, “design this wine bottle label,” we would look at each other and say, “No. Let’s do a website, or an installation, a projection… ” You could say we were anti-print!
Nate: Our faculty didn’t know what the hell to do with us. After we got a commission from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland to do one of our text messaging pieces, the head of the graphic design department sat us down one day and said, “Listen, you guys should have gone to another program and I don’t really understand your work… but people really like it. As long as you continue to use your design skills and your typography is great you shouldn’t have any problems.”
How did your collaboration as the Brothers Mueller begin?
Kirk: It wasn’t until the second year of graduate school that we admitted to this collaboration that had always gone on. I don’t think we ever made a decision without first consulting each other. Growing up, we would always divide up tasks; it was easier for us to get things done working together. I’ll admit, Nate’s definitely stronger with design, and I’m a little stronger with programming. So we can sort of divide and conquer. It’s this great way to take on a big project that’s out of our reach and divvy up the parts. We’re always overambitious.
Nate: We all reach a wall at some point where we get stuck. What’s great about us is that we can then swap the tasks. I’ll start doing the technical work, and Kirk will do the visual work… and he’ll contribute ideas I never even thought about.
As artists, you do have one singular identity comprised of two people. How do you think that informs the artwork you do?
Nate: While we were writing our thesis, we were doing a lot of research on artists duos, collaborators, and twins. Gilbert and George were very influential in the way we were piecing together our identity. They called themselves living sculptures. People would always tell us we were like them – but we would say we’re not living sculptures, we’re living decorative objects.
Kirk: While at RISD we were constantly aware of the stigma of making things functional, decorative or pretty. We were drawn to the idea of elevating the decorative, which got us creating our wallpaper series. We wanted to take something that now falls to the background and bring it out into the foreground, draw attention to it.
It’s interesting to me that you’re digital designers, but you have an appreciation for the handmade. How does that inform your practice?
Nate: It comes out of frustration. Earlier on, we took a stance that we had to be completely digital – we wouldn’t do anything unless it was on the computer. We thought technology was the answer. Then we realized that you’d actually go crazy if you do everything with technology – if you always have a middle man to get the output. What keeps us sane is that we’re able to use these processes like silk-screening or painting, where we have control over every step of the process. Technology is an almost perfect process, yet to us, most technology is ugly. You see all these cables and wires hanging out. It’s very raw and masculine. It’s not pretty. In our work we try to hide that, or change it to make it more pretty.
Kirk: Yeah, our work is very patterny, floral, and feminine. We also needed an escape to get away from the bytes and bites of the computer and do something with our hands. And so we use processes that allow us to make multiples. We could make 500 copies of something – but whenever we use the process of duplication to make things, we only make two.
How did your professional career and your current collaboration develop out of this?
Nate: We started working very closely with a studio here in NY called Studio Mercury – made up of alumni from RISD, based in Park Slope. They had all these projects that combined what we were interested in, but put in a professional context. Right before we graduated, we were offered full-time positions with them. It’s a great experience because it doesn’t really feel like a typical design firm, but more of a design collective. We’re all different identities, but under the same umbrella.
Tell us a little about your most recent collaboration with Martha Stewart Living.
Kirk: About a month before graduation, we got a call from one of the coordinators. They said, “Someone from Martha Stewart is coming in talking about iPads, and you’re the only people who do that.” I can only imagine what the Editorial Director at Martha Stewart thought as she sat down with a pair of twins who were just about to graduate and looking for an exciting project to take on.
Nate: We really liked this project not only because it was Martha Stewart Living, but because it presents these problems that we like looking at. How do you merge the static nature of print with the capabilities of a new digital platform? We had to revise our manifest: Print isn’t dead… it’s slowly taking its last breath. At this point, especially in this economy, if you’re going to do a print publication, it needs to be really, really great.
Kirk: It’s a great time, because only the great publications will survive. Technology is slowly getting there. The iPad feels like it is in the middle of print and multimedia, and we enjoy being in the center of two different mediums.
Where are you both headed?
Kirk: We’re still trying to figure that out. We’ll always be at the intersection of art, design and technology. It’s chaos, inspiring and challenging but extremely rewarding.
Would you like to have your own firm one day?
Kirk: Yes and no. We do really like the idea of collaborating, especially with other people. The collaboration gets us out there, learning new things. It’s a concept that’s easy for us to do, because we collaborate with each other on a daily basis.
What do you need? What can BR!NK help you with?
Nate: Essentially, what are we looking for?