A designer from Derbyshire in northern England has hit upon an innovative way to create fully-formed, one of a kind, items of furniture — by growing them straight out of the ground.
The process starts by training and pruning tree branches as they grow into shape around a specially made mould, with branches grafted together at certain points to build a solid piece of furniture that can eventually be harvested when mature.
Gavin Munro, who first began experimenting with tree growing in 2006, said the technique he’s cultivated over the years is actually a more efficient use of resources than current methods for making furniture.
“The process that we go through to make a chair nowadays, the way we’ve been doing, is almost ludicrous. We grow these trees for sixty years before they’re worth cutting down, and then we make them into smaller and smaller bits, only to stick them back together again in ways that can only ever come loose over time. And all the energy and all the driving around of all these bits and all the things that you need to make... why do all of that?” Munro told Reuters from his 2.5 acre ‘Furniture Field’.
The first pieces were grown from a type of willow - salix viminalis - because it shapes and grafts particularly well. Since 2013, Munro and his team have been growing furniture from a variety of other tree species, including ash, sycamore, hazel, crabapple and oak.
Successfully coaxing a tree into the correct shape was a task that took Munro years to perfect. His first chair prototypes were trained to grow the normal way up, but Munro soon realized that growing a chair more effectively meant turning it on its head.
“We grow the chairs upside down and we start with one branch that spreads out into the chair-back. So, you’ve gone from one to two, and then the seat, and then you’ve got the four legs; and it’s much more of a tree shape,” he said, adding that the growth process is similar to 3D printing where the furniture grows layer by layer. “Actually it works in a similar way to 3D printing... we’re using photosynthesis for the printing. So as it grows, you’ve got a piece growing up.”
It’s been a labor of love for Munro who had to learn by trial and error what trees could be trained into the desired shape. Despite only planning an initial 50 or so pieces per year; for every 100 trees grown there are 1,000 branches that need to be cared for and 10,000 shoots to be pruned at the right time.
“You can’t force the trees to do anything they don’t want to do. We learnt this early on, if you shape a branch in the wrong way and it doesn’t like it, it’s just going to die, a new shoot will grow lower down,” he said. “We’ve got to have a kind of relationship with all of these trees where what we’re doing to them is nothing more than a very minor inconvenience.”
The endeavor has so far taken nine years, with the first substantial harvest still a year or two away.
“It takes between five and eight years to grow a chair. Small lamps; between two and three years. And the dining tables; ten to fifteen. It’s a long-burner. But it’s something similar to setting up a vineyard, it takes a few years to get going but we’ll have a crop every year,” said Munro.
The long wait hasn’t stopped interest from buyers who have already snapped up most of the first batch of furniture, at a cost of about £4,000 per chair (6,120 USD).
Munro’s novel approach to furniture making has also not gone unnoticed in the local community, according to Gavin’s wife.
“A lot of people have been saying for quite a long time, yes - ‘that’s a bit bonkers, he’s a crazy bloke in a field, what is he doing?’ But actually there’s been a lot of really positive reaction, especially recently. I think there’s something very visceral, everybody wants to know about trees and seeing them in a slightly different way, everybody has a immediate response to it,” said Alice Munro.
Munro’s company Full Grown say that the first crop of chairs is expected to be ready in the next two years, while the geometric pendant lamps and mirror frames are expected next year.
They say that each piece of furniture is unique and is not just fully functional and ergonomic but grown, grafted and fastened into one solid piece that could last for centuries.