Nik Bentel Thinks Getting Quick Ideas onto Paper — or the Sidewalk — Is Key to Creativity

The concept artist and industrial designer created a practical product to help kids and adults avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism.

Nik Bentel’s Chalk Drawers project aims to shift perspectives on sketching.

At New York Design Week’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair last year, Nik Bentel tested customer interest in his new line of furniture, the Corpus Collection. There weren’t many takers. Not surprising, considering he “made” the furniture by posing, nude, in the shape of a chair, a table top, and a coat rack.

All Purpose Nik is a conceptual work that uses technical sketches of a human body to comment on the formalities of industrial design.

The collection, for which he drew up formal drafting sketches and filed a patent application, was a conceptual joke. It’s part of his series All-Purpose Nik, in which the 25-year-old RISD graduate explores how “we have designed ourselves right out of our own world.” He investigates how our reliance on technology overlooks the innate abilities of human bodies, from cars discouraging walking to factories obviating handicraft. (The series also includes a stool he made with no tools: he body-slammed a tree until it fell over, broke it into pieces, and gnawed it with his teeth.)

But the project isn’t just an exercise in Luddism; it’s a critical commentary on how designers approach problem-solving and on industry standards that can hamper creativity. “A body, being an amorphous shape which changes all the time, is almost impossible to catalogue and measure precisely,” he says. “This project was a critique on the absurdity of precision in our design practice. It also led to some interesting drawings.”

The technical sketches he drew to submit his own body to the U.S. patent office as furniture got him thinking more about the value of precise representations. They’re taught in most industrial design and architecture programs, but they’re not how many good ideas start.

So Bentel started working on a product that celebrates quick sketches and new ideas. Chalk Drawers is a set of three geometric shapes, made entirely of chalk, that create patterns as you drag one across a chalkboard or roll it down a sidewalk. The simple toy makes neat lines and evenly-spaced patterns, encouraging young kids and creative adults to see drawing in a new light — and with less preciousness.

Chalk Drawers make it easy to quickly create precise shapes.

In the edited and condensed Q&A below, he tells us more about the inspiration and aspirations for this project, which is live on Kickstarter now.

—Katheryn Thayer

Your conceptual work often has a socially conscious angle, from recycled chairs that raise awareness of paper waste to clothing that changes patterns when it detects pollution in the air. Is there a conceptual angle at play in this project?

All of my art and design work aims to tell a story. The story that I hope the Chalk Drawers convey is the ability to reimagine what a drawing is — to reimagine ways of production and what the limitations of our traditional drawings are. By embedding a concept in an everyday object, you might just change someone’s perception for the better or open their mind to new possibilities.

My main hope for the Chalk Drawers is to reignite our excitement for drawing and open up new potential with original pattern-making. The generic chalk design has stayed the same for thousands of years. Using the Chalk Drawer designs, we can still take part in the age-old act of chalking a surface but use different designs to create something great.

What was your early childhood art like?

Both of my parents are architects who run a small architecture practice out of NYC. I grew up under their drafting tables. So my first drawing tools were most likely a drafting pencil and a french curve.

I went to a Waldorf school where we were not taught with your traditional children’s drawing tools, like a Crayola crayon. We had to draw using blocks of wax, fat pieces of graphite, and big sticks of chalk. This opened up our ideas about what drawing could be, which was more than just filling in the dots or outlining a picture.

What’s your relationship with drawing now? What’s your typical process?

Many designers and architects get hung up on the idea of being technically proficient. Being precise is simply a means to an end. In order to not get hung up on being precise, my sketches are quick and simple, filled with poorly drawn stick figures and bad perspectives. My goal is to get the idea across as quickly as possible and then be able to move on to the next idea.

This intention is carried into the Chalk Drawers. They’re tools that allow you to draw quick lines and they guide your hand to be geometrically precise, so you can spend more time thinking about a unique design than thinking about how to create that perfect line or circle.