By Laurie Paolicelli
When a tree on campus or in the Chapel Hill area has fallen or been professionally removed, that’s not always the end of its story. Local furniture designer Brian Plaster, a North Carolina native, loves to repurpose, recycle, or even upcycle the remains of local trees. To wit: Plaster recently designed a reception desk for the new Visitors Center at 308 W. Franklin Street, using only local hardwoods, milled and dry kilned in Carrboro.
As a North Carolina native, Brian Plaster has grown up surrounded by the rich visual history of his state. From collecting nostalgic roadside signs to giving old barns new life, he has always felt an obligation to do his part in preserving what is rapidly becoming lost to us. Equally important to Plaster is the value of good design. As a result, Plaster has created his own aesthetic, reflecting both his memories of the past and his love of modern design.
Whenever possible, the materials he uses have been re-purposed or recycled. Variations in the wood or metal work are to be expected. “Cracks, nicks, nail holes, rust, dings, and imperfections may be present in the wood and metal used,” Plaster says, “and any item crafted with raw metal may rust over time, enhancing its character.”
Almost everybody notices it when they come to this area for the first time: how stunningly green are Chapel Hill and Orange County. Pines, oaks, cedars, and much, much more. Around here oaks seem nearly ubiquitous — red oak, white oak, willow oak, and water oak abound. But the area also has several other native trees, thanks to good upland soils and rich bottomland: evergreens like loblolly and shortleaf pine, as well as eastern red cedar and American holly; hickory species like shagbark, the evocatively named pignut hickory, as well as yellow poplar, sweetgum, sycamore, sassafras, dogwood, persimmon, and an assortment of maples.
You won’t, however, find many longleaf pine, despite a widespread belief that the longleaf is the official state tree. In fact, the state tree is simply the pine — all eight species native to North Carolina — designated by the legislature in the early 1960s after the Garden Clubs of North Carolina advocated for it.
But other trees are part of the landscape of this area and part of its history, too. In fact, the area may owe its history to a tree, the Davie Poplar, an enormous tulip poplar in McCorkle Place in the middle of the UNC campus.
According to legend, revolutionary war hero and university founder William Richardson Davie personally chose to locate the school lands around the tree, after having a pleasant summer lunch beneath its leafy bows. In actual fact, the university’s location was chosen quite unromantically by a six-man committee in November 1792, and the tree was named in the late 1800s to commemorate the legend.
But legends live on. The most enduring one associated with the tree is that as long as the Davie Poplar remains standing — and it’s now more than 300 years old — the university will thrive; if it falls, the university will crumble. Consequently, steps have been taken to preserve the tree, including grafting a second Davie, called Junior, and planting a third, naturally called Davie Poplar III, from the original tree’s seeds.
“People have a connection to wood,” Plaster says. “They don’t want to see it go to waste.” Plaster is a true artisan and entrepreneur for whom fallen trees offer not only beauty and durability but an environmental opportunity. “Here’s the value of urban lumber: It’s growing in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, on our streets. We have a botanical wonderland.”
For the Visitors Center welcome desk, Brian used post oak from his Carrboro backyard and poplar from a house near the Dean Dome.
“My objective is to explore modern functional design, while retaining the naturally organic beauty of the materials we use. The idea is to reuse before we destroy. You can check out Plaster’s website here: http://www.brianplaster.com/about
How fitting it is that the desk welcoming newcomers to Chapel Hill is made from trees that may have been over 100 years old. It’s beautiful. But more than that it symbolizes the past, present, and future of our glorious town. The history we know is merely the prelude to histories yet to come; trees have seen it all, and, God willing, will we be witnesses to what’s to come. This desk is so much more than what it appears to be: it’s a small repository of our local soul.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.