CID talks to Gavin Munro, a British furniture designer who grows young trees into chairs.
Throughout history, many great inventions were doubted, dismissed and ridiculed at their time –and for Gavin Munro, a British designer and carpenter, it is no different. On his farm north of Derby in England, he doesn’t just grow oak, ash and willow trees, he actually grows furniture. Taking a radical stance on the way he produces the furniture, Munro has a rather unconventional idea of growing trees around special plastic moulds that will shape them over the years into strong chairs, light shades and mirror frames without any joints.
The Full Grown project has taken nine years already and the first chairs will be ready for sale globally in 2017 at a cost of about $3,000 apiece, while the geometric pendant lamps and mirrors frames are currently expected for release late Spring 2016. At the beginning, Munro admits, he had every reaction imaginable – including lots of laughing.
“ Now that we have a fully functioning furniture orchard, people are considerably more interested and most seem to understand the beauty of changing nature more subtly to get the objects we want – in this case art and furniture. Lots of folk too, especially those living in cities, appear to love the idea of working in an outdoor factory with birds and bees flying around the production lines. While we still only have prototypes actually finished, seeing and especially touching the clean geometric outer finish contrasting with the rougher bark seems to bring about the best reaction,” says Munro.
The chairs are still growing now, but when harvested and finished, Munro expects them to be not just fully functional and ergonomic but grafted into one solid piece without the joints that only ever loosen over time. With care, he hopes these pieces will last for hundreds of years. But, how does it actually work?
“In essence it is an incredibly simple art. You start by training and pruning young tree branches as they grow over specially made formers. At certain points we then graft them together so that the object grows into one solid piece. In a way, this is like an organic 3D printer that uses air, soil and sunshine as its source materials. After it’s grown into the shape we want, we continue to care for and nurture the tree, while it thickens and matures, before harvesting it and then letting it season and dry. It’s then a matter of planning and finishing to show off the wood and grain inside,” explains Munro.
Munro is only making 50 or so pieces per year, but for every 100 trees he grows, there are 1,000 branches he needs to care for and 10,000 shoots he has to prune at the right time. The whole process to grow a chair takes between four and eight years.
“While there is the regular joy of seeing birds and beasties living in our production rows, most of the tasks I do on an average day won’t come to fruition until several years later. That’s quite hard to live with – especially as it’s taken nine years already and we’re still a year or two away from the first substantial harvest. Thankfully prototypes and early pieces are starting to come online but still, it’s a hefty act of faith. It’s certainly not instant gratification,” admits Munro.
The first seed was sown when, as a young boy playing in the garden, he noticed an overgrown bonsai tree had the distinct appearance of a chair. It was an image that stayed in his mind for 25 years. At home to England in early 2006, he had a generous offer of some land for growing the experimental prototypes.
“The first year went well but the trees needed more light. We moved to a bigger spot and spent a few weeks preparing the ground for thirty neatly planted trees for chairs and tables. Two days after planting, cows from the farm next door escaped and trampled everything.”
It’s in Munro’s mother-in-law’s garden that the first group of willow trees started to look really like chairs in 2010.
“The first breakthrough was realising that you can’t force the trees – a tortured branch just dies and other pops up elsewhere. This was fortunate, because two years earlier we had planted 3,000 trees very neatly on a 2.5-acre site. Production began in earnest in late 2011.”
The Full Grown has roughly 30 pre-orders so far, a third from local people who’ve visited the site and the rest from all over the world, including the United States, France and the Far East.
“Most people are primarily interested in having a unique art piece grown for them in England although many are keen on the environmental as well as the aesthetic benefits of our production methods. When we have our first harvest of chairs, we’ll put a few aside for exhibitions and charity auctions before offering out the rest to those who pre-ordered early,” concludes Munro.