For months, people have wandered the halls of the Sweet Tooth Hotel snapping photos, taking selfies in a tub and posing with giant lollipops on a bed made from leftover Nike shoe tread. Built By Bender, a Dallas-based custom fabrication shop, crafted five of the rooms for the Sweet Tooth Hotel, including the Sunset Lounge, Sprinkle Spa, Dream Suite, Candy Cuisine and Surprise Room.
The Sweet Tooth Hotel, dreamed up and orchestrated by husband and wife duo Cole and Jencey Keeton, is the first experimental installation and retail pop-up art exhibit of its kind in Dallas. This 1,200-square-foot shrine to confectionery holds rooms filled with Willy Wonka-esque art collaborations.
Built By Bender is the brainchild of Aaron, Ariel and Milan Bender, three brothers who designed, fabricated and installed almost everything one sees in the five main rooms at the Sweet Tooth Hotel.
“I felt like I was doing my dream job,” Aaron says. “I was making all this art and props. It’s like, OK, I have to get up and go to work and build a giant doughnut.”
The Sweet Tooth Hotel is not a typical art exhibit. Guests are encouraged to touch, pose and interact with almost every installation in the building, from the glowing neon Ring Pop cactus to the radical, retro-style bathroom with giant floating doughnuts. The Bender brothers' exhibit allows visitors to take some sweet photos for Instagram.
“It’s fun for people because when they go to these things, they are the subject in the room,” says Ariel, who goes by Ari.
The Sweet Tooth Hotel exhibit is not the first time the Benders have unleashed their wild ideas on the world. Their father owned a water-bottling company, which granted the boys access to a workshop with tools most children did not have access to.
The brothers often found ways to utilize their creative skills, and soon they found an appreciation for the DIY ethos.
“We grew up with a shop and the idea, ‘Build stuff for yourself,’” Aaron says.
From a young age, the Bender brothers honed their skills as designers and craftsmen. They learned a lot from their father and the guys who worked in his shop. When it came to their own work, the brothers say they learned a lot through trial and error, without the assistance of YouTube.
When the brothers found a hobby that required construction, they fashioned whatever they needed to accommodate the activity — such as paintball.
“We would go paintballing a lot,” Milan says. “We would build all kinds of our own rigs, like flags that would flip up when you hit a target.”
When the guys were teenagers, the earliest Bender brother installations were found at a local DIY skate spot behind a run-down FedEx building.
The brothers would build skate ramps and grind boxes to leave at the spot, along with ramps and rails built by other skater kids.
“You could go up there and it was basically a skate park,” Ari says. “That’s probably where it all started.”
The guys quickly learned to create and construct an array of things themselves, which included building their own café racer-style bikes and restoring old Volkswagen vehicles.
“We were always into old stuff that needed work,” Milan says.
The brothers would eventually open their own fabrication shop, but Built By Bender fell into fruition from an unlikely place.
Ari and Aaron played in a punk rock band named Missile around 2010. From the beginning, the band wanted to do something to stand out. Aaron made costumes for the band members and helped craft a large neon sign that read MISSILE in big red letters. The band brought the homemade sign to their gigs and used it as a large glowing stage prop.
It was at one of these shows Aaron would meet his future wife, Stephanie, who styled photo shoots at the time. She encouraged Aaron to begin designing costumes for her shoots.
While working for a furniture business, Aaron’s employers asked him to make a new sign for the company building. Aaron jumped on the job and completed the sign, which led him and his brothers to design a giant floor display for the same company.
This was the first time all three Bender brothers worked on a job together.
“We realized we can achieve more together," Aaron says.
During this time, the guys still worked from their father’s shop, which they say restricted and limited their creativity. After deciding they needed their own workspace, the brothers took the next big step and opened their own shop.
Aaron says it was by pure luck they stumbled upon their current workshop, which was up for rent. They had a place. Now they needed an image.
“I think when we started, we were saying yes to any job just because we wanted to make a living doing this,” Ari says.
Most jobs coming in were commissions for building furniture, but the biggest job the guys got came from next door.
The proprietor next to the Benders’ shop, who worked in video production, offered them a job to build a set for a TV commercial. They wanted the set to look and function differently from just a basic set of walls.
After they finished, the client loved the unique set, and the Bender brothers began to tackle bigger and more creative jobs.
"We thought we would work ourselves into a niche, and we haven’t yet,” Ari says. “We thought the goal was to find our niche, but maybe our strong point is that we don’t have one.”
When the Keetons asked the Bender brothers if they wanted to work on the Sweet Tooth Hotel, the guys quickly agreed to do the project. From the beginning, the brothers say they cooked up innovative ideas for the exhibit.
In the early stages of production, the Bender brothers say it was hard to imagine what the finished product would look like due to constraints of the space they were working with.
“I got scared when we walked in to Sweet Tooth, and it was just drywall, walls and the rooms are all just tiny,” Ari says.
“We tried to use as much of the existing walls as we could," Milan says.
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After brainstorming and drawing design plans, the brothers’ raw ideas for the project morphed and evolved into the colorful creations featured in the Sweet Tooth Hotel. And after hours of hard work and innovative teamwork, the Bender brothers' craftsmanship now pops to life in a once unassuming office building on Victory Park Lane. Their artistic vision now serves as one of Dallas’ hottest Instagram spots and may highlight the future of interactive art exhibits.
"Personally, I like work that is interactive, especially if the interaction adds to the understanding or experience of the work," writes Willie Baronet, artist, activist and professor of creative advertising at Southern Methodist University, in an email. “These days, people take selfies with the statue of David or the Mona Lisa, and I’m not sure that is ever going to change. But it isn’t the same as work that is designed to foster interaction as part of the viewer’s experience.”
The Bender brothers say they have received a lot of attention due to the Sweet Tooth Hotel’s popularity. The guys are in talks with the Keetons about Sweet Tooth Hotel 1955, a retro-space themed installment coming soon, as well as working on a play area for a local CPS facility.
“I think we are trying to be the go-to people for the kind of weirder stuff that you can’t find or hire just a normal contractor or woodworker for,” Aaron says. “We want to be the bridge between construction and design.”