When Nikolas Bentel set out to make a wooden stool a year ago, he did what any furniture maker would do: He knocked over a tree with his body, then carved the wood with his teeth.
The artist didn't craft a chair with his chompers to give his dentist nightmares, though that might happen. As part of a humorous six-part video series called All Purpose Nik, Bentel is exploring the relationship between humans and everyday products in our machine-driven culture.
"I'm a designer trying to design the human back into our human experience," says Bentel, a resident at New Inc, a design incubator run by New York's New Museum that cultivates ideas at the intersection of technology, art and design.
A typical stool, Bentel estimates, requires multiple tools and wends its way through three countries to get to your living room. He wanted to make one from scratch with local materials, using his body alone.
His stool took lots of planning, and sweat.
After plotting the design with woodworkers and other designers, he headed to a forest in New York's Adirondack Mountains and pushed a dead birch tree back and forth with his body until it finally toppled.
Chatting with Bentel over Skype, it's clear he wouldn't easily be mistaken for a burly lumberjack. So, it's not surprising to hear that knocking down the tree was a "by all means necessary" effort that took several hours and involved pushing off nearby tree trunks for more power.
"It took way, way too much time," Bentel, a 24-year-old graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, says with a laugh. "It was ridiculous."
Then came the time to shape the wood, both from the felled tree and much smaller fragments he found nearby. Luckily, birch is soft, as woods go, so Bentel was able to mold the lumber by slowly and methodically rubbing it with his hands, scratching it with his fingernails and chewing it in much the same way one tackles corn on the cob.
"I got a few splinters along the way, but it ended up working out," the artist says, ensuring me all his teeth remain intact. "It was definitely a doable process."
The unvarnished four-legged stool, which sports visible teeth marks, stands about 2.5 feet (three-quarters of a meter) tall. Bentel made it without glue or screws, instead learning from woodworkers the best way to fit the pieces together. The stool is conceptual art, to be sure, but it's a working piece of furniture too. For another video in the All Purpose Nik series, Bentel made a far less practical piece by getting down on all fours and turning himself into a living, breathing couch.
"To get a point across I need to go a little bit overboard and show the audience that there just might be a shred of reasonableness in going the absurd route," he says.
But while Bentel may be reimagining the manufactured world, he's not antimachine. The self-described "typical New York millennial" lives in an apartment with a phone, computer, car, bike and all the other trappings of modern life.
He also thinks we've become reliant on products at the expense of our own bodies -- driving to the store a couple of blocks away when we could easily walk, for example. That's something he's done in Queens, where he lives, and then thought, "This is so ludicrous."
Bentel doesn't plan to forge a career making products with his body alone, and he doesn't expect to inspire others to follow his example, but he does hope his stint as a human woodchuck will get people thinking.
"In no way is this a lifestyle that everyone else should embody, like, 'Oh, let's all make our furniture from scratch with our mouths,' The important thing about this is just using design in a completely extreme way to [illuminate] that we can live our lives in a different way."
That way, he hopes, involves better understanding where our products come from and how they can distance us from the human experience.
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