From 2010 through last year, a severe drought gripped California. Aquifers dried up, agriculture suffered, and, according to the U.S. Forest Service, over 100 million trees shriveled and died across 7.7 million acres of the state’s forests. Without a consistent supply of moisture, California’s majestic pine trees began to dry up from the inside out. Parched trees are especially vulnerable to invasion from mountain beetles, which burrow into the bark, lay eggs, and eventually eat their way through the bark, blocking the circulation of water and nutrients around the tree.
The drought and its fallout reached such severity that in October 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency and organized a task force to remove and deal with the dead trees, which, in large quantities, post a catastrophic fire risk. So far, the task force has largely focused its efforts on getting the dead trees out of the forests, and either using them as biofuel for energy, or shipping them to China for construction. Sandra Lupien and Sam Schabacker, students at U.C. Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, have a different idea: Turn them into furniture.
Beetle larvae leave a fungus that creates unusual streaks of color in the timber of the trees it kills: The sandy pine tones are streaked through with orange, green, and blue ribbons, signifying where the pests burrowed in. Among furniture purists, Lupien says, the streaks are seen as impurities. “But we thought they were beautiful,” Lupien tells Fast Company. Once the damaged pine slabs are fired in a kiln, killing the live fungus, they are just as durable as untainted wood.
In early 2017, Lupien and Schabacker, who met while working for an environmental nonprofit before beginning graduate school, founded SapphirePine to prove the value of the drought-killed trees. They reached out to private landowners and excavators who were working to harvest and remove dead trees from properties in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and asked if they could source wood from them to turn into furniture. So far, the SapphirePine team has custom-built around a dozen pieces of furniture to fill word-of-mouth orders, and have launched a Kickstarter to expand its Oakland-based operations.
Schabacker grew up in Colorado, where a similar drought and beetle infestation created an overabundance of fungus-streaked conifers, which local artisans transformed into furniture that decorated his childhood home. Seeing the same conditions strike California, and seeing no efforts on the part of the state to create a supply chain to repurpose the wood, he and Lupien decided to launch SapphirePine to bring the concept to California.
“One of the silver linings around this tragedy is that these California trees are huge,” Schabacker says. Where he grew up in Colorado, pines reach only around 10 inches in diameter; a table made from Colorado pine would take several slabs of wood to complete. “But here in California, you have Ponderosa pines that are three or four feet in diameter,” he says. SapphirePine furniture centers around single-slab design, taken from the cross-section of a single dead tree. “Someone can literally sit at a dining room table and count the rings of the tree to figure out how old it was,” Schabacker says.
For months before they incorporated as SapphirePine, Lupien and Schabacker worked with mentors at U.C. Berkeley’s businesses and design schools to build out a market strategy plan. For the time being, they’re fielding orders online, but coordinating with gallery spaces in the East Bay to set up small-scale displays. The Kickstarter funds will enable them to buy a truck to make local deliveries from their Oakland-based shop, and source more wood and tools to speed up turnaround time on the furniture.