For six years, drought ravaged the California landscape. When rain finally hit the state last winter, over 100 million trees had already dried out and died across the 7.7 million acres of forestland, according to the U.S. Forest Service, leaving them vulnerable to mountain beetles invasions, which burrow into the bark, lay eggs, and eat their way through the bark. While this blocks the circulation of water and nutrients around the tree, the beetle's larvae also leave a fungus that creates streaks of orange, green and blue wood across the light-colored pine, rendering them unusable by "furniture purists."
So in 2015, when California Governor Jerry Brown called a state of emergency due to the drought and a task force was put in place to rip out the fire-hazardous dead trees, it seemed they were destined to be used for biofuel for energy or sold to China. But that's when Sandra Lupien and Sam Schabacker, students at U.C. Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, had a lightbulb idea: Forget the purists. Why not turn the trees into furniture?
Enter SapphirePine, Lupien and Schabacker's company founded in Oakland earlier this year to test the waters of the idea. They started by reaching to private landowners and excavators in the Sierra Nevada mountains working to harvest and remove the dead trees from their properties, then discovered that once the drought- and beetle-damaged pines are kiln-fired, killing the live fungus, they are just as durable as any other wood. Plus, Lupien said, "we thought they were beautiful."
SapphirePine specializes in single-slab designs, a product of the massive size of the California pines – the material for their furniture can come from the cross-section of a single tree. “One of the silver linings around this tragedy is that these California trees are huge,” Schabacker told Fast Company. “Someone can literally sit at a dining room table and count the rings of the tree to figure out how old it was."
So far Lupien and Schabacker have made around 12 custom pieces and recently launched a Kickstarter, which will enable the duo to purchase a truck for local deliveries as well as buy more damaged wood and tools to speed up their process. As of now, they’re taking orders online, but will soon display their work in East Bay gallery spaces to widen the reach of their live-giving products.