HASBEENS & WILLBEES
Interview By Michael Mundy
In the early 2000s, the fashion collective As Four was one of the biggest names on the downtown New York City scene — and Kai Kühne, the German-born designer, was its most audacious member, a constant (and colorful) fixture in the nightclubs of the era. Since moving to upstate New York several years ago, he and his partner, John Mollett, have brought some of that wild energy to a new endeavor: the experimental auction house Hasbeens & Willbees. Located in Andes, NY, Hasbeens & Willbees’ showroom, where they also stage campy live auctions, is a clever mix of well edited furnishings, spanning everything from Catskills farmhouse tables to bold 1980s contemporary sofas. Here, Kühne and Mollett talk about their philosophy behind the project, their approach to collecting, and the creative inspiration they find in upstate NY. — Mimi Vu
Michael Mundy: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you guys meet, and what were you doing then?
Kai Kühne: I think when we first met, I was designing a line called Myself.
John Mollett: It was June of 2008. I was working at a Swiss gallery in Midtown. I did that for four years, and then when the economy crashed, we both kind of said, “Let’s do something together.”
KK: I didn’t even realize that the economy was crashing.
MM: So you guys met in the city. How long were you there before you started coming upstate?
JM: I was still at the gallery, and Kai was doing some fashion consulting. We would go up and buy at auctions. I grew up in the auction world. My grandmother took me to auctions as a kid, and my mother worked in an auction house.
KK: For me, the auctions were totally new. The magic was seeing the people at an auction with some of the greatest and most random things people were worshipping. It was like church meets a fashion show, without all the beautiful people and glamour. Fashion and art had become very commercialized and had lost its magic. So we had this vision: Auctions could be performance art and openings where friends and family gather to celebrate beauty and objects.
JM: We created a platform where we could showcase the things so many of our friends had collected but wanted to sell. There are so many amazing people in New York, young and old (has-been and will-be) — we wanted to create a platform where their things could have a home.
MM: So Hasbeens & Willbees is about creating a platform to highlight young talent.
KK: Exactly! And highlighting “has-beens” — old pieces that embody great quality, love, and care that went into fabricating furniture or objects or art. There is a lot of curation in the whole thing.
KK: It’s like an underground fashion show meets an art opening. These were the things that excited me about being in New York City. And then feeling a void of that now — we’d like to fill that void, here and in the city, with these kinds of events.
MM: I rarely get to see so many objects the way you have them presented, in such a relaxed environment. Usually, objects of this caliber are found somewhere fabulous, and it’s a little “don’t touch, don’t go near.” It feels incredibly undiscovered. Kai, I never actually associated you with objects. I’ve always associated you with fashion. Clearly, you’ve had a long time to think about these things. Were you always interested in the design of objects?
KK: It’s been something I’ve been gravitating towards and seeing within fashion. Architecture, design, and fashion became an obsession. Fashion is all aspects of design on the human body — you influence the world by wearing great designs — while architecture and objects are stable. With Hasbeens and Willbees, there’s a combination of all of these aspects, while also being an auction house. Not being pinpointed to just one genre or one industry — with its limitations and judgments from that industry — there’s great freedom within that, and we would love to keep it that way. Freedom is very important.
MM: What do you mean by freedom?
KK: Well, the freedom to be able to buy and sell anything, work on your own schedule, and not be limited to a location. We have this location, but with what we do, we can go anywhere and kind of set it and explore.
MM: That sounds like fun. I’m curious, you both have had very successful careers in the city. What inspired you to move upstate full-time?
KK: It wasn’t a decision like, “Let’s move upstate.” It was more an organic process. I would come up and visit this area a lot and visit my friend [the fashion designer] Victoria Bartlett. So then I decided, “Why not have a weekend place here?” We started looking and found this house. It wasn’t like a vacation house…
JM: It was a storage unit in the beginning.
KK: We had tons of stuff in the city.
JM: And instead of paying storage fees, we decided to buy a house.
KM: We tell all of our friends, especially in fashion — with all their stuff — that it’s like buying a house for your kid.
JM: In the beginning, this house was rough, really rough. We would just bring stuff up, little by little, and then all of a sudden it was like, “Hey, that’s pretty cool. That should go there.” It organically became a home.
KK: We fell in love with living here and realized that doing our projects and doing our work was still possible from up here.
MM: Did you ever feel like you were letting go of New York City when you moved up here?
KK: Not really. I used to be downtown and full-on in the heart of everything and rocking that place. And then we moved to Midtown, and suddenly I wasn’t in my village anymore — running through the village square every day and knowing everybody — but I still existed and was fine. I had my connections, and all the relevant things in my life still happened. I realized that I don’t have to be there to exist. Just being a few miles and a few hours further away wasn’t going to change it. New York has a huge influence, and it’s very important. It’s still home and the greatest place on earth, but my world, our world, is international. I go twice a year to Paris. My best friends are in London, Berlin, and Paris. My world is everywhere. Besides, nature is the most wonderful place to be. Upstate is really a state of mind in a certain way, you know?
MM: So you never feel like you’re losing your edge being up here?
KK: No! It’s very funny. My mom was like, “Aren’t you afraid you won’t be inspired?” And I’m like, “No!”
JM: It’s kind of the opposite, because being here allows room for you to pinpoint more. By being here, we don’t have to constantly keep up with other people’s expectations.
KK: We are very lucky, though. We have a pool of the greatest people in the city — super-talented people, real creators. They’re our friends, our creative pool, that we are constantly connected with. While in other worlds…in some parts of fashion, you’re either in or out. My fellow German Heidi Klum says, “You’re either in or you’re out.” That doesn’t work for us. So that’s part of our whole philosophy with Hasbeens and Willbees. If something is great, it’s great forever.
JM: By being here, we can work outside and take a little more time to sift through what it is and who it is we want to engage with.
MM: You seem to really believe in collaboration. Can you elaborate on that? Who and what attracts you?
KK: I’ll be your mirror to reflect what you are. It’s the greatest way to thoughts of greatness — by having the judgment of others around. And if you have something to give and you’re not shy of criticizing, you can help others to become their best.
MM: What makes a good collaboration for you?
KK: I think good collaboration is being vulnerable and opening yourself up to criticism so that you can develop certain strengths as an individual — to protect your core, to be open to influences, to become the greater you.
MM: So it’s that immediate feedback, and you kind of bounce off each other.
KK: Immediate feedback, either verbal or emotional — you feel it. And then if you open yourself up, you can either take the information or stand up for what you believe in. It’s a constant struggle, and I think you develop a strong character through that.
MM: I like collaboration myself, because I find sometimes it just takes it to another level that you didn’t expect it to go to, and that’s because you keep pushing each other.
KK: Both the egos have to be equal. And you have to lose a lot of fear. As we know, [the filmmaker Rainer Werner] Fassbinder says, “Fear eats the soul.” So if you lose fear and you become stronger, your soul becomes stronger. I think that’s something to live for.
MM: So you’re up here, you’re still part of the world. It sounds like you don’t miss anything because you’re just comfortable where you are. Have you always been that kind of person that lives in the moment?
KK: I believe so. I believe I’m trying to be like that, and naturally, I am like that all the time. There is no past. There is no future. I try to make the moment the best I can. Stagnation is hell.
MM: Hasbeens and Willbees doesn’t seem to pander or cater to anyone in particular. It has a very refined sensibility. It’s very quiet. Objects slowly unfold as you move through your space. I’ve walked through your showroom three times, and each time I saw something completely new. Things slowly reveal themselves at such a relaxed pace. This isn’t your typical interior design or antique showroom. There’s a real kind of edge to it, but it’s very subtle. There is something very sexy and irreverent all at the same time, while also being sophisticated and mature.
KK: Thank you. It is a constant struggle. The capitalist system of consuming is doomed and is the source of all evil for humanity — probably worse than the atomic bomb — but it can also be utilized in a positive way, and that’s our humble approach, to do whatever we can do. It’s a struggle, too. We want to reach as many people as we can, make money, survive, build, and grow — not only to be rich but to grow and spread the word. At the same time, we want to be evolved, interesting, subversive, and inspiring. To find that balance, we’re constantly struggling. I think that [Hasbeens and Willbees] has a little bit of that outcome, but then leaves you with a subtleness that is not so in your face.
JM: People ask why aren’t we selling on Instagram. I think it’s important that it’s not just one story. It’s about what else is going on in the story of this piece. What other human being is in there.
MM: It seems what you have going on in your space is more like a conversation. Often you go into places, and it is about the individual object. But here, there’s a dialogue that goes on between all your pieces. You need to be here to experience that. It wouldn’t translate as well online. I like that. As a person in New York City, I’m going to have to go upstate to your place to experience this, or attend one of your events. You need to be present to experience it fully.
KK: Yeah, you get more.
MM: Yes, this was way more than I had expected. Thank you both. I’m thrilled to have met you, and I want to come back again and spend more time here.
KK: Awesome, and don’t forget to shop.