Taking a radical stance on the way we produce our objects, Alice & Gavin Munro 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.” – Gavin Munro
The third and final seed of the project sprouted twenty years later on a beach in San Francisco – 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.
2006 – Research starts on two small plots of land in the Peak District, UK.
2008 – Rent 2.5 acres of field and plant 3,000 trees in case ‘it works’ later.
2012 – First generation of chairs, lamps and experiments begin.
2013 – Second generation of chairs and experiments started.
Full Grown registered as a limited company. By the end of the year the company comprises of Gavin, and 2 part time staff.
2014 – First lampshade harvested and word gets out locally bringing in pre-orders.
Came 2nd in the UK Climate KIC Incubator and one of the course leaders, Richard Davis MBE, continues to be Full Grown’s mentor.
Gavin delivers TEDx talk in Derby, during which he unveils the first prototype chair, which is now part of the permanent collection in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
2015 – Third generation chairs begin. First batch harvest of 30 lamps.
The global media avalanche begins with a paragraph in The Times nature corner, to be quickly followed by The Guardian, Vice, Design Week, Architectural Digest, International Business Times, MIT Technology Review and 100s of other articles. Combined with appearances on BBC News, ZDF GermanTV and Countryfile,this leads to Full Grown reachingTens of Millions worldwide,an invitation to lecture at Kew Gardens, and an offer to collaborate with designer Martin Baas.
2016 – First completed lamp delivered by hand to Zurich.
Exhibitions begin: Little Morton Hall in Cheshire; National Centre for Craft & Design in Lincolnshire; Ars Electronica in Berlin; Museum Boijmans & Tutti Cortex, both in Rotterdam. The Nat. Museum of Scotland purchases the prototype chair for their permanent collection. Due to increasing volume, we learn not to say yes to every media request, although highlights include CNN’s Great Big Story,The Daily Telegraph, French National TV News, Country Life magazine, and The Daily Record, who call us one of ‘the best treasures in the new galleries at the Museum of Scotland’
2017 – Three more Prototype Chairs sold to the Rotterdam Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Manchester Metropolitan University, and a private collector in North America. First batch despatched to New York, Connecticut, Paris, Germany, UK, and Norway. Kickstarter campaign, with 200 backers, raises 260% of original target. Begin collaboration with artist Wolfgang Buttress (The Hive at Kew Gardens).
Received the honour of giving Keynote speeches to the European Academy of Design in Rome and at Cologne’s Interzum Furniture Fair, followed by hosting a visit from the International Dendrology Society the very next day. Exhibition at Messums in Wiltshire. Delivered a talk at Thomas Heatherwick Studios, in London, were nominated for the San Miguel Rich List, and featured in the Book ‘Change Makers’ from the Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam.
Display of the Edwardes Chair in Milan, with the Masterly Milano Dutch Pavilion.
Harvesting of the Gatti Chair & display immediately afterwards at Messums, Wiltshire, together with a talk.
Filming with the US flagship Arts programme, Sunday Morning.
2019 – Exhibition highlights include the UK Pavilion at the Beijing Horticultural Expo, St Etienne Design Biennale, Secretcape in London’s Mayfair.
Lecture highlights include include St Etienne Design Biennale, Anti_Fashion in Marseille & WGSN’s Trend Day.
2020 – Lecture at IMM Cologne & Acential Conference, London
How are these Grown Furniture pieces made?
In essence it’s 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 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.
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.