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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

March 30, 2007

Furniture from felled tree graces new museum

by Teddi Barron, News Service

College of Design students have created furniture from a historic tree downed by a tornado that hit campus in 2005. The sculptural furniture is being used in the Christian Petersen Art Museum, not far from the spot where the stately oak tree once stood.

Just before 1 p.m. on Sept. 8, 2005, an F1 tornado struck the Iowa State central campus, destroying nearly 70 trees. One, a Scarlet Oak, was a State Record Tree, a designation given to the largest tree of its species in the state of Iowa. The circumference of its trunk was 12 feet 4 inches. It stood 62 feet tall with a 70-foot spread.

scrapwood furniture

Faculty member Chris Martin (standing) and three of the six students who worked on the furniture project (from left): Dean Vande Griend, Andy Kopp and Brent Herrig.Photo by Bob Elbert

Student project?

Wood from fallen ISU trees is usually made available for firewood or ground into mulch for use on campus. But this time, Nancy Surprenant, campus landscape architect, sought a more worthwhile application for the historic Scarlet Oak by making it available to design students.

She contacted Chris Martin, associate professor of art and design and furniture designer. At the time, Martin was in discussions with Lynette Pohlman, University Museums director, about having students create benches for the new Christian Petersen Art Museum. They agreed that the Scarlet Oak could work well for the museum furniture, adding historical significance to the furniture project.

"It's a sad and happy story," Pohlman said. "It's sad that we lost so many trees, but it's a happy outcome that we could give a second life to the historic oak."

With Pohlman as their client, six students began work last fall on designs for benches and a lectern. The students are Cale Caboth, Mount Pleasant; Brent Herrig, Le Mars; Andy Kopp, Solon; Ben Ryan, Camanche; Brian Tiedeman, Mason City; and Dean Vande Griend, Hull.

They started with six designs, critiqued each and narrowed them to three by Caboth, Ryan and Vande Griend. The plan was to make six benches of one design. But Pohlman liked all three designs, so they made two of each. Martin designed the lectern and also came up with a design for two desks.

"I was delightfully surprised by their designs," Pohlman said. "They were sympathetic to the space and wonderfully sympathetic to the tree. The pieces have a sense of heritage, but with a contemporary twist."

Class of 2006 steps up

To help with funding, Surprenant pitched the project to the Class of 2006. Their $15,000 gift will purchase replacement trees for campus and cover saw mill costs and other expenses associated with the furniture.

There was one glitch, however. The saw mill near Nevada didn't have a saw big enough to cut through the Scarlet Oak's massive trunk.

So, designers used wood from the oak's branches and supplemented it with walnut. Still, the oak is the focal point of each furniture piece, Martin said.

Pohlman is thrilled with the outcome.

"The students did a great job. They were enthusiastic, professional. This furniture was a win-win project all around," Pohlman said.

Martin already has another project lined up. This summer, his students will create 12 benches for the Memorial Union from trees cut down to make way for the building addition.

"And, if the mill gets an attachment, we'd like to make conference tables out of the Scarlet Oak's base log, too," Martin said.

Desk by Chris Martin

Desk designed by art and design faculty member Chris Martin for the Christian Petersen Art Museum.Photo by Bob Elbert


"It's sad that we lost so many trees, but it's a happy outcome that we could give a second life to the historic oak."

Lynette Pohlman