Taking a radical stance on the way we produce our objects, Gavin Munro and Full Grown are at the cutting edge of an emerging art form, an art form that highlights an interesting way to be closer to art and nature and to create symbiotic abundance for both.
Challenging the way we create products as well as how we see the items with which we surround ourselves, the Grown Furniture has an immediate tactile, visceral and organic appeal.
The first seed was sown when as a young boy playing in the garden, Gavin noticed an overgrown bonsai tree had the distinct appearance of a chair.
It was an image that stayed in his mind for 25 years.
The second seed had time to germinate when he had lots of time to think about that chair a few years later. Gavin went through several operations to straighten his spine.
“It’s where I learnt patience. There were long periods of staying still, plenty of time to observe what was going on and reflect. It was only after doing this project for a few years a friend pointed out that I must know exactly what it’s like to be shaped and grafted on a similar time scale.”
The third and final seed of the project sprouted twenty years later on a beach in San Fransisco – after Art College, a Degree in Furniture Design, an apprenticeship to a cabinet-maker and a long stint building with natural materials in Scotland and California – Gavin had a period of making driftwood furniture.
It was a sheer delight to see what new materials each tide would bring, then a matter of stitching the wood back together – each ‘stitch’ fitting into carefully cut-out mortices.
This was the moment Gavin realised that we could grow trees directly into beautiful and useful shapes.
A furniture designer from Matlock, Derbyshire, Gavin has lent his hand to a number of different skills, from furniture to houses, and everything in between. Inspired by a childhood experience with a bonsai tree, and constantly encouraged throughout his life, Gavin finally made growing furniture his full time profession. He now lives in Wirksworth, Derbyshire, with his loving wife Alice, and their full-time boss, Lina, the lurcher. – “I just wanted to grow a cube.”
Like Gavin, Alice is also a Derbyshire native, and left for the bright lights of London at 18. After a degree in English & German at Oxford Brookes University, Alice eventually began work in Financial Print, working in the City of London, Frankfurt, Paris and New York. Following the post 9/11 economic downturn, freelance English Teaching at companies as diverse as Deutsche Bundesbank, Proctor and Gamble, T Systems, Siemens & SEB was an obvious choice.
Since then, Alice has worked as far afield as China, in fields from environmental education to shipping and export.
Alice now works in various jobs simultaneously: growing cut flowers, teaching German, and now working on developing our community’s online presence. But for us, Alice’s role encompasses social media, export documentation, and speaking to customers and media, and generally trying to help keep everything running smoothly.
Having studied criminology at the University of York, growing furniture was not the obvious path to follow for Ed. However, following a phone call and a meal with Gavin, this is what he did, and, despite having no background in art, design, or horticulture, has flourished with Full Grown, so much so he is now our Field Manager, in charge of not only the production side, but also the more important job of ensuring the workforce is happy and healthy. He is also constantly available to shatter the peace of the Derbyshire countryside with Hip-Hop. – “I got involved pretty much on a whim really. It was a cool concept, and I needed a job, so I thought I’d go along for the ride. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the idea however, and almost three years later I’m still here, still just as passionate about the project. It’s just too good an idea not to do, and I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of such an incredible thing.”
Chris first met Gavin in design college, and they have remained firm friends ever since. Chris is the only “real” artist in the field, and has provided his fantastic design skills towards all our new designs, models, and plans, supplying an aesthetic and artistic eye to proceedings, whilst being taught growing methods by Ed. He has also developed the finishing process for our pieces, and can often be found millimetres from a belt sander, perfecting the plane on a lamp or chair. – “I had to get involved with this project for a number of reasons. There was obviously my close friendship with Gavin, and I wanted to see him succeed, but my own personal reasons came into play as well. I saw this as an opportunity to do something that nobody else is doing, and as a chance to be able to create our own art form, and set the parameters ourselves. Finally, it was just really cool. How could I have said no?
The newest addition to our core team. Following a stint at St Martins, Dom has been Wirksworths “can-do man” for a number of years, trying his hand in almost every skill, with very few jobs proving too much for him to handle. Combine this with his recent reading and study of all matters horticultural, and Dom has already become an incredibly important and efficient member of the team. His main focus at Full Grown has been the wellbeing of the field, keeping an eye on disease and pests, whilst positioning companion plants to help the trees flourish. – “Initially, this job was a way for me to rehabilitate myself after a long period of immobility. Combined with my previous work with a ceramic lamp producer, and current horticultural study, this job is a perfect middle ground, and I feel I can bring something to most aspects of this project. Also it’s really cool. Has anyone said that yet?”
Gus, along with her partner Fash, live in close proximity to the field, settling after years of travelling in a beautifully converted van. They are highly adept in most things natural, skills which they have readily offered up, from compost methods to seaweed feeds, and have been a key addition. Gus also functions as our first-aider and general health monitor, and has often sent one of us home when we were being stubborn and working through an injury. Fash has been focussing on the infrastructure side of the field, helping Chris create the metal frames we use as formers for the trees. He is also the only one of us grown up enough to do the electrics. They are also loving owners of Yarrow, one of three lurchers born from an encounter in the field, and the first product to come out of it!
How are these Grown Furniture pieces made?
In essence its 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 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 planing and finishing to show off the wood and grain inside.
The whole process takes place over seasons and years – between 4 and 8 years to grow a chair – but when you look at how long and how much effort it takes us now to go from having no tree to the final wooden object, then you realise that the craft we’re a part of developing is not just more cooperative with the natural world; it has an elegant efficiency all of it own.
Has this been done before?
Yes, It’s been going on for millennia. Apparently, the ancient Greeks & Egyptians grew stools and the Chinese dug holes and filled them with chair-shaped rocks and grew tree roots through the gaps.
More recently in 1904 John ‘Dammit’ Krubsack planted the ‘Chair That Grew’. It took him 11 years and I can completely see why he was nicknamed ‘Dammit’! He inspired Axel Earlanderson who made the tree circus in the 1950s in California – sadly he died without telling anyone how he did it. He in turn inspired even more people, some of whom we’ve had the pleasure of meeting; The wonderful Dr. Chris Cattle (http://www.grown-furniture.co.uk) whose grown stools directly inspired me to take the plunge and have a go, and the creative and knowledgeable Peter Cook and Becky North, (http://pooktre.com) who have a great book to help folk start their own grown projects.
What are the biggest challenges in making them?
The biggest challenges are twofold.
The first challenge is the practical fact that what we’re doing is neatly organising a small forest. I’m only making 50 or so pieces per year but for every 100 trees you grow there are a 1,000 branches you need to care for, and 10,000 shoots you have to prune at the right time. It’s an art-form in itself keeping track of everything.
The second challenge is the emotional fact that, while there is the regular joy of seeing birds and beasties living 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 9 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!
Are the pieces fully functional and ergonomic?
They’re still growing now, but when harvested and finished we expect them to be not just fully functional and ergonomic but grown, grafted and fastened into one solid piece, ie. no joints that only ever loosen over time. These could last for centuries. We hope and trust that this will eventually become an improvement on current methods.
Finally, let’s clear up some common misunderstandings…
Isn’t this cruel to the trees? We learnt early on that an unhappy tree won’t do what you want, just because you want it to. It will send off a shoot in the direction it wants to grow (usually towards the light), or sprout a shoot just below the carefully-positioned graft. As a species, humans have been grafting and coppicing (not to mention topiary, pollarding and espalier) trees for thousands of years, and this developing craft is taking advantage of some of that ancient knowledge, as well as the renewable fuels of sun, water, soil and air. When we finally cut down the furniture pieces from the trees, they will sprout new shoots (coppicing) and continue to have a life, possibly to grow something else later. We nourish and nurture the trees, employing as many natural, permaculture and organic methods as we can, as optimum nutrition means optimum growth.
We think this method is kinder and less wasteful than planting a (frequently monocultural with all those implications for biodiversity) plantation of trees, growing for a specified lifetime, then chopping down, leaving an uncared-for, cleared area, with all the additional problems like desertification.
If this is so ‘Green’, why have you got plastic moulds? Isn’t that a waste of valuable oil?
The (recycled) plastic moulds (same amount of corrugated light plastic used in about two ‘For Sale’ signs for a chair mould) were a prototype design. We’ve been reusing them as far as possible, and now we’re moving on to different formers, moulds and ways of constructing the grown chairs and furniture. Please be assured we aren’t pouring oil down the drain to produce this furniture!
We’re constantly looking for ways to reduce our energy use, and we currently estimate we use about the same energy as 8 x 60w lights, burning for 8 hours a day for a year (in an office, for example) to run the whole Furniture Field for a year. We recycle everything we can, and constantly reuse even the tiniest bits of wire, string and plastic. The tea bags go on our compost heap – (more nourishment for the trees), we’ve got a composting loo, and have just got solar power (no electricity before that!).
It’s estimated, from early calculations, that we use about 25% of the energy needed to produce a wooden chair with conventional means. As the items take some time to grow, we are currently looking at designs & methods we have developed further, and things are constantly changing in this fledgling production method.
When and where will they be for sale?
We are talking with a number of galleries at the moment and we’ll announce details closer to the time.
The first chairs are expected mid-2018. For the other pieces we’ll find out whats ready at the end of this growing season – the geometric pendant lamps and mirrors frames are currently expected for release late Spring 2016.
We have a very limited number of pieces left for pre-order and can be reached at fullgrown.co.uk
Back home to England AND in early 2006, we 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 here in Gavin’s mother-in-law’s garden that the first group of willow trees started to really look like a chair 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.
Since then, the team has grown, the Furniture has grown, and there have been more and more exciting developments every week.
How we make wooden furniture now
Currently we grow trees for 50+ years and then chop them into smaller and smaller pieces, before putting them back together in ways that always come loose over time.
At each stage of this process, the wood is moved from forest to saw-mill to timber yard to the factory or workshop, using even more energy.