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Stamps Students Turn Trees Into Tables

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Storm-damaged trees and other trees from across the University of Michigan are being turned into new, functional furniture on campus. 

Students in Associate Professor Joe Trumpey’s Tree to Table Class, along with students from Stamps and the Program in the Environment, are milling logs and working with wood taken from trees on campus. The trees include the legendary Tappan Oak, which had become decayed and was removed from its location near Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library in 2021 for safety reasons.

The students are also working with cherry logs from the Arboretum that fell in a large windstorm in July 2023

Trumpey has worked on developing the Tree to Table course for several years and has more plans for this interdisciplinary, interactive experience in the future. Our broader community consumes an overabundance of disposable, plastic, fast fashion, and fast furniture. These are objects that we know little or nothing about. We know little about their sourcing, materials, or labor practices. This class asks students to see those goods, understand how many are not sustainable, and work to design and build better goods. This creates beauty because they use local waste, student labor, student designs, non-toxic materials, and all in partnership with departments — this year, MBGNA, SEAS, and Stamps.”

In the course, students learn about tree biology – what is wood, how wood behaves, how trees grow, and a brief history of Michigan Forests. They also meet with campus grounds and MBGNA staff to understand campus trees. The students researched sustainable forestry and proposed processes for a sustainable studio practice that uses wood. Many students have little or no experience with tools, so much time is focused on building skills. The students traveled to Trumpey’s farm, where they milled the wood to prepare it for construction.

The various pieces they are constructing will be placed at a few locations on campus, including the Art & Architecture Building on U‑M’s North Campus, where the Stamps School of Art & Design is located. 

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Students in the Tree to Table class work on a conference table surface in the Sculpture Studio at the Stamps School.

In a proposal for the Stamps School, students Suha Asadulla, Audrey Tang, Creak Shi, Jocelyn Fradette, Youjin Kim, and Natasha Leavitt proposed creating a coffee table and conference table for a new meeting space located within the Stamps Dean’s Office. In describing the project, they wrote: 

The conference table will feature an elegant oval top crafted from cherry wood, complemented by a sophisticated apron and stretcher design for the legs. This table is designed to accommodate six people, making it ideal for meetings comfortably. On the other hand, the coffee table, exuding a rustic charm, will be constructed from a red oak cookie and supported by three sturdy stakes. It will boast raw edges and a simplistic, staked design, adding a touch of simplicity and natural beauty to the space.”
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Associate Professor Joe Trumpey holding the cookie” from the historical Tappan Oak that will be used as a top for a new coffee table. The Tappan Oak tabletop will feature historical markers chronicling major events along the tree rings.

Trumpey estimates the students will finish the project by the end of the semester, and the furniture will be placed around campus this spring. Each table will have a QR code engraved on the top that will link to a website chronicling the full story of each table, from the history of the tree to the final campus location and information on the student team that created it. 

Trumpey’s creative practice focuses on understanding local, sustainable materials. As he looks to the future of sustainable art practices at U‑M, he views campus partnerships as a way to foster a larger focus on the importance of repurposing trees across the university in the future. 

I have partnered with Grounds and Campus Forestry for years. Our campus forester is a former student,” said Trumpey. Lumber was created for the strawbale buildings at UMBS and the Campus Farm. Stamps Dye Garden and for the Campus Farm’s Mobile Farm stand. We are using dead, dying trees or trees that had to be removed for development. I have partnered with Grounds and Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum (MBGNA) to write a grant for a campus-based sawmill to be located on North Campus. I hope this will be funded and open many new opportunities for sustainable wood products coming from campus and serving our campus.”