ISU students create furniture from state's largest Scarlet Oak felled by 2005 campus tornado



Chris Martin, Art and Design, (515) 294-1639,

Nancy Surprenant, Facilities Planning and Management, (515) 294-9612,

Lynette Pohlman, University Museums, (515) 294-3342,

Heather Sauer, College of Design communications, (515) 294-9289,

Teddi Barron, News Service, (515) 294-4778,

ISU students create furniture from state's largest Scarlet Oak felled by 2005 campus tornado

AMES, Iowa - Some Iowa State University 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 a new university 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 Iowa State's 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 tree measured 12 feet 4 inches around, and stood 62 feet tall with a 70-foot spread. It was located just 50 yards from the university's landmark campanile.

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 meaningful application for the historic Scarlet Oak by making it available to design students.

"This was a wonderful opportunity to use this great wood for educational purposes," Surprenant said.

Martin and Vande Griend

Iowa State University furniture design student Dean Vande Griend (left) discusses his bench design with Chris Martin, associate professor of art and design. The bench is made of wood from a tree destroyed by a tornado on campus. Downloadable photo by Bob Elbert

She contacted Chris Martin, an 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 in furniture design 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."

"Landscape architecture is so important on Iowa State's campus," Martin said. "Using wood from a campus tree for furniture for campus buildings is a good way not only to re-use the wood, but also to connect to our history."

With Pohlman as their client, six students began work last fall on their 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."

To help with funding, Surprenant pitched the project for the Class of 2006 gift. 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 couldn't saw through the Scarlet Oak's massive trunk.

"There's no saw mill around here with a saw big enough," Martin said.

So, designers used wood from the oak's branches and supplemented it with walnut.

"Still, the oak is the prominent, focal point of each furniture piece," Martin said.

In Vande Griend's bench design, for example, the oak seat is treated like a piece of art, surrounded by a walnut frame. Caboth designed a program for a CNC router to create a wavy design in five panels of oak for the lectern that incorporates the unique characteristics of the wood. The design, which is meant to suggest the rolling Iowa landscape, is repeated in the desks.

"The center panel on the lectern has two knots marking where someone many years ago cut off a branch. So you can see the history of the tree," 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.

"We hope we can continue this type of partnership and re-use valuable wood from campus trees," Surprenant 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.