A UK-based furniture company called Full Grown, started by furniture designer Gavin Munro, doesn’t take wood and make them into furniture. They grow them on trees. Their bizarre furniture farm is located in a one-hectare field in Wirksworth, about 24 km north of Derby, where Mr. Munro is currently growing rows upon rows of tables, chairs and lampshades which he hopes to harvest in a couple of years.
Mr. Munro’s technique lies in coaxing the young saplings of willow, oak, ash and sycamore trees to take the shape of any furniture by training them to grow along predefined routes. This is achieved by using plastic moulds and through years of pruning, coppicing and grafting. The final product is either a chair or a table or a lampshade that has been grown out of a single, solid, joint-less piece of wood.
Munro has been developing his idea since childhood, when as a young boy playing in the garden, Gavin noticed an overgrown bonsai tree that had the distinct appearance of a chair. Later, Gavin had to undergo several operations to straighten his spine. He had to wear a metal frame and sit still for long periods of time, waiting for his bone graft to heal. “That got me thinking about grafting and how things stick together.”
Years later, after graduating in furniture design in Leeds, Gavin recalled the bonsai tree he saw on his mother’s garden and realized that it made more sense to grow trees directly into objects.
“When you look at it from a manufacturing point of view and from a design point of view, it actually makes total sense. Why would you grow trees, chop them down with all the faff? Why don’t you just grow the shape you want and it is eminently scalable? You can make thousands of these in the same way as you can make 10, but each one is unique,” said Munro.
Growing an individual tree into a complete chair takes anywhere between four to eight years. “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 in to one solid piece – I’m interested in the way that this is like an organic 3D printing 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 in the Winter and then letting it season and dry. It’s then a matter of planning and finishing to show off the wood and grain inside.”
Gavin’s technique is not unique. Tree shaping has been practiced for at least several hundred years, as demonstrated by the living root bridges built by the ancient War-Khasi people of the Cherrapunjee region in India. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians grew stools and the Chinese dug holes and filled them with chair-shaped rocks and grew tree roots through the gaps. Contemporary designers include artists Peter Cook and Becky Northey, who call their work “Pooktre”, arborist Richard Reames, who coined the term “arborsculpture”, and furniture designer Chris Cattle, who uses the phrase “grownup furniture”.
Gavin Munro is currently tending a crop of about 400 pieces of furniture which will be harvested at the end of next year and sold in 2017. Chairs will be priced at £2500 while lampshades will be between £1,000 and £1,500, targeted at people who are looking for a unique art piece. When Full Grown has scaled up production to hundreds and thousands of units in future years, products will be sold at more affordable prices, he said.