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Giving Fallen Trees New Life

Published: October 3, 2016

Students working on turning fallen trees into furniture.
Students working on turning fallen trees into furniture.

When a windstorm pummeled Los Angeles County on Nov. 30, 2011, destroying thousands of trees, CSULB School of Art lecturer RH Lee and nine other members of the L.A.-based Box Collective, a group of environmentally conscious furniture makers and designers, did what came naturally. They set about collecting wood from the fallen trees to make furniture and art.

Lee, who teaches woodworking at CSULB, recently saw her handmade furniture crafted from fallen trees gathered in the “Windfall” exhibit at LA’s Craft and Folk Art Museum. The show, which ran through Sept. 4, featured an array of works from benches and end tables to bowls.

Her walnut “End Tables” created with San Francisco-based collaborator JD Sassaman, incorporated paulownia wood from the Los Angeles Arboretum as well as black walnut and claro walnut with a unique twist: granite spires cast in 3D printed molds pounded into the wood. Lee explained that the tables were inspired by a backpacking trip through the Sierra Nevada Mountains through snowy granite peaks, wind-damaged trees and the Devil’s Postpile National Monument.

“The story that a fallen tree tells is much more interesting and varied than the industrially harvested and milled boards you have access to at a lumberyard,” Lee said.

For many members of the Box Collective, she said, the unifying theme of their work is sustainability. “One way to do that is to repurpose trees that have come down either from storms, development or tree disease,” she explained. “We are choosing to use wood that otherwise would end up in a dump. We use that wood to create furniture which is a great way to do sustainable work. By using local trees, we reduce our carbon footprints instead of importing milled lumber from abroad. Using local wood offers a real variety of grain patterns, colors and species that you cannot find in the traditional lumberyard. There is a diversity in local wood.”

Lee explained that her CSULB students in her woodworking course Art 254 use slabs of fallen campus trees milled in previous years in her six-hour studio class.

“The slabs we use have been drying for several years before being turned by students into furniture,” she said. “I enjoy incorporating sustainable woodworking into the CSULB curriculum. We’ve enjoyed great success in terms of the versatility of student work. Our students begin to appreciate the beauty of wood grain in the local CSULB trees—they begin to understand that these are really rare specialty woods that cannot be obtained in lumber yards. I want to open our students’ eyes to wood working. There is a magic that comes when you cut into a tree and are totally surprised by what you find.”

Woodworking is an ancient art that experiments with modern techniques. Lee works at the low end of the technological spectrum with hand tools but also incorporates digital technology when it makes sense.

“I chose woodworking because I liked the idea of not knowing what I’ll find until I cut into the wood,” she explained. “There is always an element of surprise and usually it is a pretty good surprise. I like working with living, breathing material. I try to figure out how to work with it as it expands and contracts over time. I find the living nature of the medium intriguing. There is diversity in wood. Each tree is unique and you find that out when you cut into it.”

Lee earned her bachelor’s degree in visual arts from Brown University in 2000 and went on to work in theater building sets and in San Francisco’s interactive science museum the Exploratorium. She currently runs the Offerman Woodshop collective in Los Angeles as well as her own furniture business, Lee Build.

She sees herself continuing in woodworking for the foreseeable future and that includes working with fallen trees.

“This is not a gimmick,” she said. “Wood is a limited resource and there are lots of wood species that were used in furniture for hundreds of years that are no longer available due to bad logging practices. Using local salvaged wood will be a necessity for more people as time goes on.” She points to the friends and colleagues who recently founded the L.A.-based Angel City Lumber as a way to collect fallen and diseased trees or trees that have come down as part of urban development. “Because of Angel City Lumber, my shop has started to use locally salvaged wood from the L.A. area for furniture commissions,” she said. “This is the first time I have been able to offer this to clients on a large scale. It is very exciting. Fallen trees are an important resource for the woodworking community.”

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