For the last decade, Gavin Munro has been figuring out the perfect way to grow wooden furniture and art like patterned lamps, chairs and tables. More recently, this British tree farmer, artist and designer, along with a small team at Full Grown, have expanded their craft to grow chandeliers, benches, large geometric sculptures, and hammocks in their “organized woodland.”
Growing structures out of trees and plants isn’t new, but there is something incredibly imaginative, even visionary, about Munro’s approach to furniture and design. A sustainable design ideal amidst a world of disposable plastic and other materials that routinely get junked. To help see his team’s vision to completion, but to also create an entirely new eco-conscious industry and raise awareness, Munro recently launched a Kickstarter campaign.
As Munro tells The Creators Project, he originally became interested in this method of growing furniture after seeing that others had done this with chairs, stools, and sculptures. He had been making furniture from driftwood on the beach in San Francisco when the idea to grow dress directly onto structures was too efficient and beautiful not to try.
But Munro didn’t just want a hobby. His real ambition was to scale it up so that thousands of grown pieces of furnitures could be made at a time.
“To paraphrase Edison, we learned a hundred ways not to grow a chair,” Munro recalls of the early days on the woodland design factory he launched on his parents’ land. “After making the first frame we had a go with an experimental plot of a dozen pieces with the help of friends on their farm. The first year went really well so we planted 30 more. Almost immediately afterwards, cows escaped from the farm next door and trampled everything.”
So Munro started again on his now mother-in-law’s well-fenced in garden. After a couple of years the designs began to actually resemble chairs and tables. Around the hundredth attempt, Munroe says he had ash and willow chair forms.
“We learnt that trees are incredibly tenacious and must be worked with, rather than against,” Munro explains. “No amount of forcing branches would succeed nor would weedkiller and insect spray work successfully for the soil the trees lived in.”
By year six, Full Grown began to develop the first moulds that would allow both scale—a few hundred pieces—and the freedom to still experiment with patterns and shaping. The team started using recyclable sheet plastic to give the structures a basic shape, but again give them the flexibility to experiment with form.
“By coupling this with much better soil and ecosystem management we began to have healthier trees and wildlife helping keep pests in check,” says Munro. “Wasps, birds and other natural predators began eating the aphids and caterpillars.”
By 2016, Munro says that they discovered their first birds’ nest growing in a production piece. For the Full Grown team it was an exciting and beautiful moment to see all five birds hatching and growing in one of their wooden lamps.
“The improvement in ecosystem health and shaping techniques began to have a massive impact on the speed and quality of the pieces in production,” he says. “The first lamps took 4-5 years to grow, and with subtle changes a similar design may grow in 2-3 years.”
Though this may seem slow, Munro insists it is still much faster and more efficient than growing a tree for 50 years. It also allows them to avoid spending a lot of energy on tools and transporting, or cutting the wood into small bits before glueing and screwing them back together again.
Munro now has a small diverse team to manage the trees. They have been learning for up to three years, much of it counterintuitive for both horticulturalists and designers, involving unlearning previous assumptions. Munro refers to the process as “zen 3D printing.”
“Part of the idea of zen involves intuition and a connection with nature and the world around us,” he says. “They need working with, allowing the trees to grow in the best way for them, as well as for us. The 3D printing part is basically how trees grow, self-replicating themselves from the tips. They are object and printer in one photosynthetic bundle. We needed to combine the two to get the best results for our furniture, art, and structures.”
To finish the grown furniture and artworks, Munro and his team first peel away the bark to reveal the wood grain and colors. They sand away the bark into geometric angular planes, then oil the piece with wax oil before polishing it to a sheen. By adapting ancient techniques used before sandpaper, Full Grown use finer and finer hand planes and blades.
Eventually, Munro would like to make these blades with an onsite forge using charcoal made from Full Grown’s prunings and offcuts. And this is part of Munro’s larger ecological vision.
“Early estimates suggest this method takes at least 75% less energy and resources than traditional methods of manufacture,” says Munro. “The entire operation in the field uses the same amount of energy as ten 60-watt light bulbs used five days a week for a year.”
“Efficiency, strength and beauty,” he adds. “This is about the most subtle change to the natural world I can imagine so far that allows us to have to objects we use, while still maintaining healthy ecosystems.”