The man who grows fields full of tables and chairs
- 19 June 2015
- From the section Business
At first glance it is a typical countryside scene. Deep in the Derbyshire Dales, young willow trees stretch upwards towards the late spring sun. Birds, bees and the odd wasp provide a gentle soundtrack to the bucolic harmony.
But laid out in neat rows in the middle of a field are what appears to be a rather peculiar crop.
On closer inspection these are actually upside-down chairs, fully rooted in the sandy soil.
Slender willows sprout out of the ground then after a few inches the trunk becomes the back of a chair, the seat follows and finally the legs. The structure is tied to a blue frame and the entire form is clothed in leaves.
Surveying the landscape in front of him is Gavin Munro, co-founder of Full Grown, the company he formed to put a childhood vision into practice.
"The concept is pretty straightforward. Rather than cutting down trees and making furniture I wanted to grow the trees in the shape of chairs, mirrors, lamps and so on."
On the next row along, elegant spirals are growing around cylinders. These will eventually be used as hanging lamps. There are also mirror frames, tables and hammocks.
The way Gavin describes the process makes it seem remarkably simple.
"We grow the trees, shaping them as they go along, it's a little bit like espalier - the process of training trees," Gavin explains.
"When they've formed the specific shape we want, they're cut down and dried out, giving you a finished chair that has grown into one solid piece."
It's a long process, taking around six years from start to finish. But Gavin is a patient man.
"As a child I had a spinal condition and underwent surgery to straighten my back. Part of the treatment was in effect being grafted on a frame, similar to the way we graft trees. So I appreciated how forms can be shaped - and how long the process can take.
"Around about the same time, my mum had a bonsai tree. The bonsai was left to grow in its own direction and eventually formed itself into the shape of a throne. I was intrigued by this, the thought of a chair being created directly from nature."
Shopping at the beach
Gavin's fascination with trees and wood grew into a business when he moved to California. He made his main living working as a gardener, but started to craft furniture from driftwood as a sideline.
"You do your shopping at the beach, collecting materials from what's washed up. You're using what's already there and there's a certain satisfaction to that."
When Gavin returned to England, he wanted to continue working with the natural environment. Thinking back to his mum's bonsai, an idea began to form.
"If a bonsai grew into a chair shape, why not other furniture? Why couldn't I grow a whole field of it? There'd be no waste plus it'd be structurally stronger."
Ten years ago Gavin put his plan into action. With a £5,000 investment from a supportive friend he bought the basics, including a lawnmower, moulds and other equipment. There was some experimentation with materials to begin with.
"We looked at different types of wood and eventually settled on willow as the main crop. It's fast growing and relatively easy to work with.
"We wanted to offer other varieties such as cherry and oak, both for customer choice and also to spread the risk if they fall prey to a disease. I love the look of ash, for example, but it easily gets [the fungal disease] ash dieback."
There's also the problem of pests, says Gavin, who's trying to create a solution from the natural environment.
"I guess you could call this an open air factory and we're using this to our advantage. We've taken on permaculture ideas, for example, tempting birds on to the land with nuts so that they'll eat the aphids and caterpillars.
"We've also planted clover under the trees. The roots fix the nitrogen so the trees can access it better and the clover also covers the soil so it's not damaged by the sun."
In a world where you can pick up the entire furnishings of your house in one afternoon in Ikea, Gavin's slower alternative seems to have caught the imagination of buyers.
"Our first crop of chairs should be ready to harvest next year and we've already sold out of pre-orders. We've also had a lot of interest from people around the world who are interested in doing something similar."
The pre-orders for chairs and lamps are sustaining the business for the time being and have generated just enough money to pay a few staff, one full-time and several part-time including Gavin's wife Alice.
The time, effort and skills required to grow furniture mean that the pieces don't come cheap, however. Chairs are priced at £2,500, lamps start at £700 and mirror frames £450.
So is grown furniture just something for the well-heeled and deep-pocketed? This is the case for the time being, but Gavin says his plans could see that change.
"We have a 50-year plan. There's plenty of scope for global scaling. Wherever trees grow, you can grow furniture," he reasons.