A father's invention-turned-family business offers an alternative to fake trees, messy trees or pines that just won't stand straight.
Each December, Dick Babcock's family would cut down their own Christmas tree, haul it home, wrestle it into a stand -- A little that way. No, too much! Back a little. -- then try to water it without spilling. In short, a lovely tradition nonetheless tinged with tension.
Babcock was an architect who built furniture in his spare time, so in 1982, his wife suggested that he design and construct a tree of wood. "And make it look Scandinavian."
He did, crafting a tree of wooden slats that required neither ax, nor water, nor the vacuuming of fallen needles. And, in a moment of brilliance, Babcock conceived of suspending it from the ceiling like a plumb line, forever unerringly straight.
Daughter Pat grew up and married Arne Sorenson. When they built a new home in 1992, it left them with a pile of scrap cedar. "Why don't I make you your own tree?" her dad offered, and he did.
No one remembers exactly what prompted the epiphany that Dad's trees were unique, but someone proposed that they pursue a patent.
"Oh, my dad labored over that process," Pat Sorenson said. Appearing to be a simple assemblage of slats, closer inspection reveals that each rising tier is subtly thinner than its neighbor, and that the edge of each slat angles diagonally. Babcock measured and re-measured every angle.
They got their patent in 2002 and within days got a call from Hammacher Schlemmmer, the huge retail catalog company, inviting them to exhibit their tree in its annual inventors showcase. They knew they were on to something.
And still, years passed.
"You know, you get busy with life and we just put it on the back burner," Sorenson said. Finally in 2005, husband Arne said it was time to act, and possibiliTree was born, with the help of Arne's sister, Nadja Reubenova of Minneapolis.
Today, the sisters-in-law make up the factory assembly, working in the basement of Sorenson's Golden Valley townhouse, which is filled with pallets of slats sawed and finished by a woodworking company in Maine. Weathering the occasional sliver, Sorenson and Reubenova assemble the 6-foot trees, stringing together the slats through graduated dowels, then folding everything into a bundle about the size of a pair of skis. The whole tree weighs 13 pounds.
They also sort and pack a 35-inch tabletop tree that owners can assemble themselves, stacking the dowels and slats over a metal rod.
Reubenova, long involved with arts-related nonprofits, found an unexpected benefit to this family business.
"It's really nice to work with your hands and deal only with questions of yes or no, or six or seven branches," she said, laughing. "There's no analytical decision that has to be weighed, and you get to see the fruits of your labor."
The final touch is wood-burning their logo into the base, a spiny design inspired by Arne's frequent observation, "We come from the shards of an exploded star," Sorenson said. "We like to think of it as an angel's view of a tree."
For the past five years, they've made 300 trees available. They saw a "teeny" profit last year, and hope to improve this year. Orders are coming in from around the world. Bloggers are writing about them. So did Harper's Bazaar Russia. A tree was part of a "Today" show package on alternative trees.
But with Dick Babcock's death in 2006, a year after the business began, possibiliTree has become as much about honoring his inventiveness as it is about providing distinctive home decor, Sorenson said.
"He was a quiet, humble man with a great design aesthetic, but always thought in terms of practicality," Sorenson said. "He had this idea of integrity, which I think of as a human quality, but he thought of it as a design element. Form follows function, less is more."
Trees are made of walnut, cherry or birch. The large ones are $350 and custom strung to accommodate a particular ceiling's height, since they hang 18 inches above the floor. The tabletop trees are $195. Their website is www.possibilitree.com.
Originally called artisTree, the business became possibiliTree to convey how the branches can be decorated year-round, such as a monstrosiTree for Halloween, or a cupidiTree for Valentine's Day. Festooned with family photos, it could be ancesTree. Reubenova said it looks nice even unadorned, thus avoiding anxieTree.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185