Gavin Munro is a British furniture designer and maker. He decided that rather than cutting up timber and joining it together, he would experiment with special moulds to guide branches into ready-made chairs, tables and lampshades. He prunes and grafts growing trees directly into shape.
He's currently tending a field of 400 tables, chairs and lampshades. Gavin mainly uses willow but also sycamore, ash, hazel, sessile oak and red oak, and crab apple. First crop to be harvested next year with furniture ready for sale in 2017.
Gavin Munro, working together with his wife Alice, grows young trees into specially-designed plastic moulds, pruning and guiding the branches into shape before grafting them together to form ultra-tough joints. Using this method he's already created several prototype pieces and has a field in Derbyshire. Gavin believes the technique - which has been dubbed botanical manufacturing - could one day be used to create sustainable and ecologically-sound furniture on a much larger scale.
He explains: '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 into one solid piece - I'm interested in the way this is like a kind of organic 3D printing that uses air, soil and sunshine as its source material. After it's grown into the shape we want, we continue to care and nurture the tree as 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.'
Gavin had the original idea while working as a gardener in San Francisco and making furniture from driftwood in his spare time. Remembering an old over-grown bonsai tree in his mother's garden when he was child which resembled a throne, he decided it would be faster to grow furniture directly rather chopping a mature tree into bits. As well as avoiding the need for nails, fixings and machinery, the designs should last longer than traditionally-made chairs as they don't have the weak points around the joins. Alice explains: 'Just like a broken bone will be a lot stronger where it heals, the points where the wood is grafted are extremely strong. It means you don't have joints which come loose like with a traditionally made chair so they should last a whole lot longer.'
The first prototypes were grown in Alice's mother's garden before Alice persuaded her husband to give up working as a gardener and web designer and focus on the project full time. Gavin, who has named his company Full Grown, has already harvested chairs, a table and lampshades and is currently working on more complex designs including a bookshelf and a chest of drawers. But it's not simply a matter of setting up the molds and sitting back and letting the trees grow into shape. The technique involves copious amounts of pruning, coppicing and grafting.
Most of the pieces have already been pre-ordered with the chairs selling for £2,500 each and the light shades priced between £1,000 and £1,500. 'The whole process takes place over seasons and years - between four and eight years to grow a chair for example. But when you look at how long and how much effort it actually takes us now to go from having no tree to 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 its own. I'm only making 50 or so pieces a 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,' said Gavin.
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