Artist Nikolas Bentel Specializes In The Clever Craft Of Play

Turns out there's a lot to learn from fun and games.


Nikolas Bentel. Courtesy the artist.

Nikolas Bentel likes to play.

He's probably best known for flipping an original Robert Rauschenberg drawing into corporate real estate. These days the artist, who's quite tongue-in-cheek, is focused more on the curious business of toys. Chalk Drawers, a set of three distinct white chalk toys the size of a hand’s firm grip, are made to draw five-point marks, circles, or straight lines, one gesture at a time, with gratifying geometric precision. 

Bentel uses chalk partly because it’s raw, it’s easy to mold into different shapes, and it’s been around for a very long time. Almost anywhere in the world, chalk reminds us of our childhood, of both the act of play and of learning. Using aspects of critical design, Bentel aims to complicate the role and function of drawing, drawing tools, how we draw, and what we use to draw, and to reimagine the many ways in which objects can exist in the world. 

Bentel’s designs remind me of Shantell Martin’s line drawings in public spaces, where patterns appear and repeat themselves endlessly. They also conjure memories of Yto Barrada’s Lyautey’s Unit Blocks, toys that morph into colorful, life-sized sculptural forms, building blocks that have a way of masking the darker sides of human nature. Chalk Drawers, on the other hand, take us on a more pleasant journey, where the movement of lines and shapes urge us to stretch how we negotiate the limits of architecture, design, and drawing in a single, seamless hand gesture.

Since the project first appeared at the New Museum’s storefront window in April, all three models have found their way into the MoMA Design Store, with more requests coming in from the Guggenheim and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

"I need to get these toys off the ground first,” Bentel told me in a recent conversation. “But I also think a lot of unique play will come out of some crazy collaborations. I have started to test the toys in crayon material, adding color to the mix. I have also been testing out a few different designs. Someday, I hope to see myself doing the same absurd design work on a much larger scale.”

I spoke with Bentel about his childhood, chalk toys, and what we can learn about human behavior from indulging in the art of play.



Nikolas Bentel demos his Chalk Drawers. Image courtesy the artist.

1. So how did your project 'Chalk Drawers,' which was recently shown at the New Museum's storefront, first come about?

Nikolas Bentel: Chalk Drawers took me about a year and around ten iterations before I felt confident that they were ready for design stores. Products in the design phase, a tactile object such as a drawing tool, must go through multiple rounds of testing, just to make sure many different-sized hands can use them, and that they can be manufactured. Also, the design process is never really done.

I am the son of two architects, so I spent my entire childhood playing with shapes that were ‘out-of-the-box’, unique toys and architectural tools. I grew up without a television or video games. So we had to go outside and make our own version of play. I grew up in a crazy looking concrete house. It was a modern house designed using only concrete as material.  

Growing up, I can specifically remember not using traditional Crayola crayons and instead using large chunks of wax to draw. I guess that’s when I realized, subliminally, that in fact there were many definitions of what drawing is, and that there are no set rules on how to draw. This also applies to the drawing tool. It can be anything from a pencil to a geometric chalk blob. I like to think that, subconsciously, my childhood is where the idea of Chalk Drawers originated.  

2. Tell me a little bit about your process, how you came up with the idea, designed and launched it.

NB: The idea of redesigning chalk has been floating in my head for a while. In terms of design theory, I believe Chalk Drawers fall under the category of ‘Critical Design.’ Critical design applies a theoretical approach to design. This kind of design uses fiction writing and storytelling to question assumptions about the role of objects in everyday life. Critical design starts by creating fiction from which designers are able to build worlds that mirror our own reality, as a form of fictional design playground. Often, critical design does not lead to a feasible object. Every now and again, a functional object is created.

Typically, my process starts with an extremely bad sketch.  I ended up 3D printing multiple variations of Chalk Drawers in order to create unique shapes that were impossible to create without this type of technology. 3D printing allowed me to create designs that are geometrically precise. Human modeling alone would not only have taken me months to make but also years to master.

You never fully understand how much time it takes to make a simple product come to life. You also need to make sure the final product makes sense to your audience. Chalk Drawers are for people of many different age groups. However, kids make up around sixty percent of that market. Looking into this a little more, I realized kids are typically the end users, but I also learned that kids are not the people who actually buy toys. The product must be seen through the eyes of a parent first, since parents have the means to purchase toys for their children. Over the past two months, seeing plenty of different people using the toys, I've seen a lot more room for improvement.


Nikolas Bentel in mid-install at the New Museum. Image courtesy the artist.

3. Play is also a good form of storytelling. We see it in some of your other works. Tell us more about this relationship.

NB: Play is an extremely important aspect of the work I create. It is vital for conveying large concepts to people who only have a few seconds to spare for your design or creation. Playing with materials and shapes, that’s where most of my ideas begin. Different age groups can use Chalk Drawers differently. Kids see a toy whereas adults see a sculptural item. The design for the packaging, had to appeal to kids but also look sophisticated enough to be considered a sculptural object that someone wouldn’t mind putting on their shelf. One of my goals is to create work that can be understood by a large audience.  An important aspect of Chalk Drawers is that they can be purchased for young children, architecture students, and also adults. The design has no age group attached to it and this has been done on purpose.

4. If it's driven more by 'play' and less by a desire to solve a problem, how does Chalk Drawers bring about change?

NB: Chalk Drawers will definitely not solve world hunger. However, they might change the way someone thinks about drawing or help someone reconsider how to draw. When we learn to draw in middle school, we are taught that there is a specific ‘method’ to drawing. You must hold the pencil this way, when you draw a face, use this outline, you must use this particular paper, etc. Ultimately, this is a frustrating process for many of us, it gives us very little freedom for creativity since drawing has become a formulaic process. Not only does this dissuade the vast majority of students from creating artwork but it also cements in our collective consciousness this idea that there is only one way to create a drawing.  I hope Chalk Drawers will become one of the many different tools that question what it means to make a ‘good drawing’ in the future. And, what it means to be able to draw 'well.’  When someone picks up one of the Chalk Drawers and starts using it, they make a subconscious agreement with themselves that there are many ways to draw and that there are still many un-invented ways to create new things.


Self-portrait. Image courtesy the artist.


5. 'Chalk Drawers' is also an interesting play on words, a bit tongue-in-cheek. Are you driven more by form (drawers) or function (drawers)? In other words, is this more about how objects exist in the world or how we interact with them?

NB: Chalk Drawers are more about how objects exist in our world. Half the time, toys become a person's desk toy, which at the end of the day will never be used. A big part of my design work is to make sure the manufacturing, shipping, and packaging process is environmentally-friendly. You cannot get more environmentally-friendly than selling what is essentially just a natural rock. However, I was also struck by the idea of calling the design a ‘chalk toy’ or a ‘chalk tool’. But, each of these names has a specific connotation to it. I thought to myself, no one would consider a “chalk toy” a sculptural object and no one would consider a “chalk tool” something fun for a kid to play with. So, as a result, I coined the term ‘Chalk Drawers’. This allows anyone to become a design user!  Anyone who has an inclination to pick up the piece of chalk becomes the ‘drawer’, the one who draws.


Author: Mebrak Tareke
Editor: Rain Embuscado