Making wooden furniture from scratch is a complicated process: you grow a tree for 60 or more years, only to chop it down, peel off its bark, cut it up into little pieces, and then finally join it all back together into a whole new shape. When such furniture is mass-manufactured, the process is hard on the environment. It wastes wood, and uses lots of energy for powering trucks, chainsaws, and factories.
Gavin Munro, a furniture designer based in Derbyshire, England, has found a simpler and more eco-friendly way to create wooden furniture: he uses specially designed plastic frames to mold young willow, oak, ash and sycamore trees into the shape of chairs, tables, frames, or lamps as they’re growing. Once they’ve matured, each tree has morphed into a fully functional furniture item made from a single piece of wood, no sawing or assembling necessary. Munro’s company, called Full Grown, aims to "rethink our relationship with trees and time," as the designer writes in an email.
Full Grown is currently tending a small furniture forest of 400 trees in a field north of Derby. "If we want the beauty of wood in our furniture, why do we bother growing trees for more than 60 years, only to chop them up into little bits?" Munro says.
After studying furniture design at university, "I was left with the desire not just to make things as beautifully as I could, but to make the whole manufacturing process—from acquiring the raw material to finished piece—as simple and elegant as possible, too," Munro says. Inspiration came when he was making driftwood furniture on a beach in San Francisco, and realized "it makes more sense to grow trees directly into objects." He remembered noticing the shape of a throne in an overgrown bonsai tree as a child, and then having to learn patience while sitting in a metal frame, waiting for a spinal fusion graft to heal. These memories formed the seed for Full Grown.
Using this method, growing an individual tree into a complete chair takes anywhere from four to eight years. "In essence, it’s an incredibly simple art," he says. "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." He likens the process to "a kind of organic 3D printing that uses air, soil and sunshine as its source material." After the tree has grown into the shape they want, they continue to nurture it as it thickens and matures before harvesting it in the winter. It's then planed and finished to show off the wood and grain inside. Each piece is as utterly unique as an individual tree.
Even though the basic process is simple, neatly organizing a small forest is not without its challenges. Munro is 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," Munro says.
They’re still growing now, but when harvested and finished, Munro claims the chairs will be not just fully functional and ergonomic, but actually more durable and longer-lasting than current wooden furniture. Since they’re grown, grafted and fastened into one solid piece, there are no joints that loosen over time. "These could last for centuries," Munro says. "We hope and trust that this will eventually become an improvement on current methods." Still, it remains to be seen whether the model could be scalable as a method of mass-manufacturing furniture—it doesn't sound like furniture forests will be replacing IKEA factories anytime soon.
The first chairs will be ready for purchase mid-2017, for about $3,700 each (Munro expects potential customers to be looking for unique art pieces), and the geometric pendant lamps and mirrors frames will be ready late Spring 2016. Full Grown has a handful of pieces left for pre-order at fullgrown.co.uk.
[via the Guardian]