Indigenous design

CSUC interior-design professor and architect keeps it local and sustainable in the classroom and in the field

Sustainable designer/architect Rouben Mohiuddin, who teaches interior design at Chico State, stands next to a huge English elm tree near the Art Department’s woodshop.

Sustainable designer/architect Rouben Mohiuddin, who teaches interior design at Chico State, stands next to a huge English elm tree near the Art Department’s woodshop.

PHOTO by christine G.K. Lapado-breglia

Local focus:
Go to to learn more about Rouben Mohiuddin’s sustainability-focused design/build firm, Design SI.

“Chico has had a big impact on me—the environment, the community, the culture,” said Chico State interior-design instructor Rouben Mohiuddin, who moved here with his wife and 2-year-old son in August 2009.

“I’ve always worked on sustainable projects in the past before moving here, but I’ve noticed that here people’s lifestyles seem to be more environmentally conscious than in Southern California or New York.”

The 39-year-old Mohiuddin—who moved to the United States from Bangladesh in 1991 to attend SUNY Buffalo—came to the North State following a year-long stint living in New York City, where he worked as an architect and taught at the New York School of Interior Design.

New York, he said, turned out to be “too fast-paced.” Plus, “it was quite congested, the air quality not that great. And I missed the trees and the sky.” Before living in New York, Mohiuddin was an architect in Los Angeles, where he also taught at UCLA and the Otis School of Design.

It is precisely Chico’s beautiful natural environment and environmentally and socially conscious inhabitants that have inspired Mohiuddin in both his work as a university instructor and as an architect/designer/builder. It’s no secret that Chico State’s interior-design program is “heavily directed toward sustainability,” as Mohiuddin put it. He fits right in. He has inspired such student projects as an eye-catching table with legs fashioned from rolled-up, cast-off cardboard stuffed inside plastic tubing, and elegant sculptures constructed from layered scrap plywood and OSB board.

But increasingly, word is getting around about Mohiuddin’s special touch when it comes to designing (and constructing) elegant contemporary interiors, which often include such design elements as his artful tables made from locally sourced reclaimed wood and finished with carefully crafted metal bases by local metal artist David Richer. Mohiuddin’s tables resemble the work of the famous late architect, woodworker and furniture maker George Nakashima in their simplicity and beauty.

“I started seeing that [Chico] people took a lot of pride in locally made products,” Mohiuddin reflected. “You have [the downtown store] Made in Chico, and restaurants serving locally farmed foods, community gardens, farmers’ markets. … And people living healthy lifestyles—people in Chico are quite healthy, I’ve noticed; a lot of them are trying to eat natural foods.

“I started letting Chico influence me.”

It was Mohiuddin’s second year in Chico “when this really started happening.” It was then that he and his family were given “a really wonderful opportunity to live in an orchard—walnuts and almonds.” The home was on the west Chico property of a fellow CSUC professor who offered it to the Mohiuddins while he was out of the area for a year and a half.

“I had a chance to meet with neighbors who were walnut growers,” said Mohiuddin. “I started asking, about walnuts, ‘How do you do this?’ I was curious to know what happens to these trees once they stop growing and bearing fruit. The [one] farmer said, ‘Sometimes they get cut down and sold—especially the burls—to gun-stock makers.’

Mohiuddin redesigned the interior of this Canyon Oaks home, which includes the massive table he designed and built from indigenous claro walnut wood. Above the table hangs a Mohiuddin-designed chandelier made from large recycled-glass light bulbs; the small abstract sculpture at rear of photo is by CSUC ceramics student Kelly Goodman Daniels.


“Naturally, it came to my mind if they could make gun stocks with these things, I’m sure they could make other things, too.”

Since that conversation, Mohiuddin has designed and made tables from such reclaimed indigenous materials as a redwood burl salvaged from a house-demolition site in Paradise, a charred piece of wood from a redwood tree that fell during the 2008 Humboldt Fire, and an old walnut burl he found along the side of an orchard. “The [orchard owner] said, ‘Just take it,’” he said of the walnut wood. “I removed the first layer of dirt to reveal the gem hidden underneath.”

Mohiuddin has also made furniture from pieces of elm salvaged from trees cleared from the downtown plaza prior to its dramatic facelift.

Mohiuddin’s requirements for a tree eligible to be made into furniture—dining tables, coffee tables, mirrors—are that it “has to be from Chico, it has to have a story or history, and it cannot have been cut commercially.” Trees salvaged from city of Chico tree-cuts or those removed for some reason from private property are high on his list.

These days, Mohiuddin works hand in hand with Ivan Hoath of Westgate Hardwoods in Durham in the pursuit of suitable trees, as well as on furniture-building projects. “Ivan has the machines and the space [to handle large pieces of wood], and I have the ideas and the expertise,” he offered.

Mohiuddin recently completed a “budget-crunch”-motivated conference table for the CSUC Art Department “using all plywood scraps from the [Chico State] woodshop.

“I like to recycle and reuse everything—down to the sawdust,” he said. “We’ll even use the sawdust to create fillers [for cracks in the wood].” Mohiuddin also uses elegant, old-fashioned “bowtie joints” to straddle cracks and join pieces of wood together—“a synthesis of old traditions with modern requirements.”

He recently acquired a sycamore-tree stump with a burned-out center from a tree that had once stood in Bidwell Park and is still imagining what he might make from it.

“My philosophy is to generate design inspired by indigenous materials and culture,” said Mohiuddin. “Being in Chico, it was just natural for me to start looking at the orchards and see what could be done with the old trees that are not bearing fruit any more.”

Despite his modern focus on recycling, Mohiuddin agreed that his finely crafted, subtly beautiful work is “timeless, not fad-oriented.

“The flavor of the week—it’s not that.”