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Biorenewables Research Laboratory Benches: A New Life with a Rich History

Biorenewables Research Laboratory Benches: A New Life with a Rich History

BRL Benches: A New Life with a Rich History. Artist: Chris Martin, Iowa State University Emeritus Professor of Arts and Visual Culture
Biorenewables Research Laboratory Benches: A New Life with a Rich History (2022)
Artist: Chris Martin, Iowa State University Professor Emeritus Arts and Visual Culture
Medium: English Brown Oak, steel, resin
Dimensions: 72 x 17.5 x 17 inches

These benches are made from English brown oak, steel, and resin. The oak slabs are from Iowa State’s TreeCycle program, begun in 2004 after a cyclone touched down on central campus, critically damaging several historic trees. All campus trees are now evaluated to determine whether usable lumber can be made from them. If deemed viable, the lumber made from them is used for special projects around campus.

The English brown oak trees used in these benches were removed from central campus near the southeast corner of LeBaron Hall in 2006 because of “overall very poor health”. It is said that this oak, along with a second brown oak that still stands on the west side of LeBaron Hall, were both planted on the campus grounds by Professor J.L. Budd. Professor Budd was the first department chair for the newly formed Horticulture department, and in 1882 brought several ornamental and fruit tree specimens back to Iowa after a plant collecting trip to England and Russia.

English brown oak is unique to England, and it is rare to find it growing in the U.S. The wood is wonderfully strong and flexible, which is why it was used to build Queen Elizabeth’s fleet of nearly 200 ships in the sixteenth century. Elizabeth was one of the first world leaders to show a concern for the environment. Though it may have been more strategic than altruistic, for she had all the brown oak trees they cut for the fleet replanted.Bench I

These benches carry forward this pedigree, telling the story of how the tree they came from grew in the middle of campus. I felt the imperfections, the knots, the cracks, and the bark pockets, tell a story. Take a close look. What part of the tree did these pieces come from? Was it cut from the base, or where two branches split off in separate directions? Can you see the man-made scars? Perhaps a branch was pruned? When do you think that happened? It’s exciting to consider how the character marks in this tree came to be, and what may have been happening in its world at that time.

The design treats the wood as a treasured specimen to be displayed like a jewel. The metal bezels hold the specimen in place to be carefully examined and appreciated. The design also slants toward my industrial aesthetic side. The steel base has a blackened patina. I like to “soften” that aesthetic by bringing in other influences. In this case, the angle on the legs gives a bit of Asian influence. I also enjoy playing with the scale of the various elements. Obviously, the heavy thick wood slab must be strongly supported. From one angle, the legs appear very heavy. But when approaching the piece from another angle, you realize support comes from a thin piece of angle iron. The angled braces are also more delicate than one might expect.

At the end of the day, as with all my work, these benches are meant for human interaction. Please sit, relax, admire, and contemplate.

About the Artist: Chris MartinArtist Chris Martin facing the camera while smiling

Chris Martin received a BFA in Craft Design from Iowa State University in 1990 and an MFA in Furniture Design from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. Since then, he has designed and produced furniture pieces for both commission and gallery exhibitions. In addition, he has taught furniture design in the Department of Arts and Visual Culture at Iowa State since 1999 and is currently a full professor. Recently Chris was awarded a  Fulbright Fellowship where he spent five months in India working with both traditional artisans and modern craftspeople and technicians to develop a series of contemporary furniture pieces that pay reverence to the richness of India's traditional craft culture. Collaboration with traditional artisans particularly in Ghana and India has become his passion and where his research focus has been directed.