Trees killed by drought and beetles are given new life as stunning furniture

While many furniture makers see drought-killed, beetle-infested wood as impure, Oakland-based startup SapphirePine sees value and beauty.

According to the US Forest Service, over 100 million of California’s pine trees died from 2010 through last year as a result of drought. Dried up from the subsequent beetle infestation, the trees become fire risks, so the government has them cut down and turned into biofuel or shipped to China for construction.

Sandra Lupien and Sam Schabacker, two students at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, however, have a different solution: repurpose them into furniture.

As it turns out, the wood contains unusual streaks of colour – often oranges, greens, and blues – left behind by the beetle larvae’s fungus. Most find these patterns ugly, but Lupien and Schabacker beg to differ.

“But we thought they were beautiful,” they told Fast Company.

So after talking to private landowners and harvesting their dead trees, the two fired up the damaged pine slabs in a kiln. This process not only killed the fungus but also brought out the wood’s colours.

After adding hand-fabricated steel legs and bases, the result is a collection of modern industrial furniture that shows just how majestic California pines are.

Most recently, SapphirePine raised US$21,601 (AUS$27,239) on Kickstarter to scale their operations.

We talked to Lupien and Schabacker to learn more about SapphirePine.

PTell us more about yourselves. How did you get into furniture design?

“We met in 2014 while working at a national environmental non-profit organization. While there, we decided—separately—to attend graduate school—together—at University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, where we are both 2nd year Master of Public Policy students.

Sandra: “I’ve had a diverse two-decade career working in theater, broadcast (radio) journalism, and—for the past ten years or so—working on environment, climate, and sustainability in the non-profit sector.

“As part of a small theater company, I helped build sets; I later took carpentry classes and worked on my own house. And, I’ve always admired beautiful design.

“So co-founding a sustainable venture that tackles climate change by transforming trees killed by drought and bark beetles into uniquely beautiful furniture perfectly combines my skills, interests, and passions.”

What was the ‘lightbulb moment’ that inspired you to repurpose drought-killed California pines?

Sam: “I wanted our desk, headboard, dining table and other pieces to come from a sustainable, local source of material. So after doing lots of research, I built my family’s furniture out of Colorado beetle kill pine.

“When I moved to California to start graduate school, I packed all of this furniture into the back of my car and thought I was done with furniture making. But upon driving into California, I saw the scale of the problem; it was the exact tragedy I had witnessed growing up in Colorado: a drought and tiny mountain beetle killed millions of trees, which were rotting or burning in the mountains.”

Take us through your creative process. How do you work with dead trees, especially with these ones having those unusual yet beautiful streaks of color?

“Private landowners in California are required to remove dead trees for wildfire defense. We are currently sourcing our wood from private land.

“We hand-select the most beautiful milled and kiln-dried pieces for our clients, selecting for brilliant coloration, interesting patterns and characteristics, and—for customers selecting live edge designs—the lines and angles of the edges.”

What’s your favorite piece out of the entire collection?

Sandra: “Wow, that’s a tough question. I have a favorite slab of wood, from which we’ve built a number of coffee tables. It has a super-interesting knots, and a beautiful reddish ribbon running through the heartwood. You can even see the points from which branches generated! And I love our angled-rectangle legs.”

Sam: “The dining tables are striking. We use a single slab design, which means that each table is a perfectly symmetrical cross-section of the tree. You can count the tree rings on these tables and learn how old yours is—in some cases, these slabs come from trees that are 200-plus years old!”

What are you working on next?

“We just closed a successful Kickstarter campaign. Big thanks to our 188 backers who helped us raise nearly $22,000. So we’ll be making bookmarks, coasters, breadboards, side tables, and coffee tables—gifts to those who pledged. We are also starting a hallway bench for a customer who just bought a new home in Kansas.”

To find more about SapphirePine, check out their website.