Identical twins Kirk and Nate Mueller sat side-by-side in identical leather chairs wearing identical GANT gabardine suits fiddling with identical Le Pen pens. It was chilly December afternoon just before the New Year at the Fort Greene offices of Studio Mercury, a boutique design firm made up entirely of alumni from the Rhode Island School of Design’s hyper-exclusive Digital + Media graduate program.
The Muellers’ similarities are more than superficial. The twins, who are 27 and stand 5’5″, share the same bank account. They share the same calendar. They share the same curriculum vitae. The same sexual orientation (gay), brownstone (Prospect Heights) and taste in boyfriends (“over 30”). They share the same profession, and the same specialty (interactive design). They even, in a manner of speaking, share an identity. Email the Brothers Mueller at their shared account, and the only way to tell which Mueller is responding is by whose name shows up first in the signature: Nate & Kirk versus Kirk & Nate.
“We have this little notation,” said Kirk.
“Some people figured it out,” chimed in Nate, who, along with his brother, seems unburdened by matters of selfhood.
One stutters trying to figure out how to address them. “The Brothers, the Brothers Mueller, or ‘the twins,’ or ‘the boys,’” Kirk said.
In the year and a half since the Brothers got their master degrees from RISD—sharing the podium as commencement speakers in 2010—and moved to New York, they have created iPad apps for Martha Stewart and e-books for Vanity Fair and Bon Appetit. Coming soon are a political website for The New Yorker and an iPad app for Newsweek. Whereas most graphic and user-interface designers tend to hand off the technical work, the brothers do it all, relying on Nate’s speed in programming and Kirk’s facility with design.
Their first media world collaboration, a one-off iPad app for Martha Stewart called Boundless Beauty, won the Society of Publication Designers “Tablet App of the Year” award. Shortly after, Time magazine called it the cover of the year for featuring an interactive time-lapse video of one of Martha’s prize peonies, a 10-hour shoot compressed into 10 seconds. The SPD Award dinner was on a Friday. (“We have these crushed velvet pumps,” said Nate. “Loafers,” Kirk corrected. “And it’s the only time you could wear something like that,” Nate finished.) The following Monday, they got a call from Scott Dadich, Condé Nast’s vice president of digital magazine development, about revamping the company’s e-book operation.
“At this point in media, they have a bit of a lore, like, ‘Oh, the Mueller Brothers are coming!” said Melissa Lafsky, the launch editor for Newsweek’s updated iPad edition, which is slated to debut on Jan. 23, with the Brothers’ help. “When they come into the office, people love it because they’re so striking to look at. Everyone does a double-take because they’re so handsome and well-dressed and there are two of them. They’re a presence. They’re sort of the modern Jewish mother’s dream.”
“When Martha met them, her first question was whether they would appear on The Martha Stewart Show,” seconded Gael Towey, longtime chief creative and editorial director for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
Not everything about the duo is as identical as it first appears, however. After the first half hour, it comes into focus that Nate’s face is more of an oval. The bridge of Kirk’s nose is more narrow, his physique more slight. Nate’s voice is deeper and a few decibels more nasal—a blessed discovery you don’t make until the next day. “It’ll be hard to transcribe,” they warned, eyeing The Observer’s digital recorder.
“Our collective identity is what matters,” said Kirk.
“We don’t get offended if people can’t tell us apart,” added Nate.
“Gilbert and George, the art duo, they call themselves ‘living sculptures.’ We like the idea of instead of being ‘living decorative objects,’” explained Kirk, gamely.
Before speaking, the twins tend to turn, birdlike, to face each other, often hesitating until they’ve reached some sort of wordless consensus before offering a response.
For all their attention-getting ensembles, the brothers retain a Midwestern equanimity from a youth spent in the suburbs of Akron. “Because we were originally raised Catholic, we have this running joke that for these twin gay boys in Akron, Ohio, our outlet to ornamentation and beautiful things was going to Mass,” said Kirk, recalling that as altar boys they fought over who got to wear the gold sash.
As budding young artists, they read up on the Aesthetics Movement and admired Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp.
They came out at different times—Nate first, Kirk years later, but never officially to each other. “I guess we always assumed that the other one was going through the same things,” they wrote in an email. “We would have been more surprised to find out the other one was straight.”
Even among unflappable New Yorkers, the Brothers Mueller tend to draw stares. In the subway or the elevator at 4 Times Square, “we get stopped once a week by people who say, ‘Have you been interviewed for a magazine or newspaper?’ and we just go, ‘Nooo,’” Kirk said, demurely shaking his head.
“That’s what’s fun. They see you maybe as objects? So we get people touching us,” said Nate, miming a hand on his arm, “saying, ‘Do you know that you’re twins?!’ It’s great.”
Indeed, the brothers are just as affable fielding questions about their interactive wallpaper, which was on exhibit at the Chelsea Art Museum and featured stylized versions of a viral molecule, appearing and disappearing between delicate rows of damask (“They’re STD viruses!” explained Kirk), as they are entertaining questions about fetish play.
Identical twins tend to receive unsolicited queries of a sexual nature, and in 2010, when Bel Ami, the gay porn production company, introduced the world to the Peters twins, muscle-bound teenage Czechs who begat the word “twincest,” such interrogations took a turn for the lurid.
“It used to upset us a little at first,” Kirk said. “But now we’re very playful with it.”
“My favorite is using ambiguous language,” Nate added.
“They’ll ask questions about us, like do we date the same guy or do you sleep with the same guy,” explained Kirk. “So we’ll purposefully answer, like, ‘Not usually,’ or ‘I don’t know,’ at the same time. Nate will say, ‘Not really,’ and I’ll say, ‘I don’t know.’ It’ll explode their head.”
“And then we walk away,” finished Nate.
Later, they offered a less ambiguous answer by email: “We don’t think there is a need to experiment with something like that when there’s a whole city full of beautiful people.”
As for whether they would date the same man simultaneously, however, they added dryly, “I think it’s the German in us that seeks out efficiency, so what would be more efficient than the both of us dating one person?”
Kirk (left) and Nate Mueller at the SPD Awards dinner.
Crushed velvet loafers not pictured. (photo credit: Glenn Glasser)
The Brothers Mueller with Wyatt Mitchell, creative director for The New Yorker
"There was a photo booth set up and that’s how we met Wyatt from Conde Nast," said Nate, "Because he was like, I want to get a picture between both of you." (photo credit: Glenn Glasser)
The Boundless Beauty app from Martha Stewart Living
The Viral Wallpaper
The Brothers, printing the Viral Wallpaper.
More fun with wallpaper.
"It all stemmed from a story of Oscar Wilde, when he came to America, someone from the press asked Wilde, 'Why do you think America has such a bloody history?'" said Kirk.
"A violent history," said Nate. "Because they’re so new, and he said, 'Oh because you have such awful wallpaper," said Kirk. "Such ugly wallpaper," said Nate.
The Muellers during a winter critique at RISD.
A piece called the Wallpaper Machine
"A repurposed Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)—originally introduced in the USA in 1984, the year The Brothers Mueller were born."
From the homepage of the Brothers Mueller's website.
An installation called the Yellow Salon.
"Featuring hand screen-printed wallpaper, HD Video, and hand crafted porcelain nintendo cases."
They're the toast of New York media. And yes, boys, they're gay.