by Pallavi MehraJan 08, 2021
Furniture design has evolved into a refined art form. Often conceptualised as unique objects that are equal parts functional and aesthetical, furnishing has gone beyond being a mere accessory. Always considered a part of the decorative art, there is a visible shift in the guiding ideology of furniture design as high art. One is as likely to see a piece of furniture in an art gallery as one is to see it in a showroom. There is an inherent synergy of form, craftsmanship and usability when discussing these diversified objects. Another layer, and an increasing concern, is the ecological impact of manufacturing. While not isolated to furniture design, one cannot shy away from the volume of waste created by the industry. Presenting an alternative to how one can produce objects are Alice and Gavin Munro, through their company Full Grown. Challenging accepted methodologies of crafting, the UK-based Full Grown has adapted old techniques of plant sculpting to growtheir collection.
The idea grew from what the team calls their initial three seeds. The first one was planted when, as a child, Gavin Munro, the Managing Director of Full Grown, saw the shape of a chair within an overgrown bonsai tree. The second was from Gavin’s personal experience realignment framing for a spinal injury. These two experiences sow the philosophies that form the studio’s foundation. These ideas continue to germinate and grow overtime. Finally sprouting into its current avatar while working with driftwood furniture, Gavin saw the inherent natural beauty of the raw material. This journey is what finally brings us to the idea to mould growing trees into furniture. Gavin elaborates on this moment, “For us the Eureka moment was spread over time after considering many of the aspects of growing furniture through design school and eco-building work; it was when searching for driftwood on a beach in San Francisco. The pieces of wood were lying on top of each other in what would ultimately become the layout for a driftwood table. The thought struck: ‘why chop these pieces of wood into smaller and smaller pieces when we can just grow directly into the shape we need? It has been proven that it is possible, can we make a repeatable process out of this? How hard can it be?!”
When asked about the inspiration behind adopting this methodology, Gavin reminds us of the extensive history of this technique, “There is quite a long history of shaping trees. The ancient Greeks possibly grew a kind of woven stool and the Chinese definitely dug big holes and put rocks in to shape tree roots into the shape of chairs. More recently, in 1901, John ‘Dammit’ Krubsack shape grafted 28 box elder trees together over an 11-year period to then have a chair that he could sit on. In the more recent times, Chris Cattle, Richard Reames, Peter Cook and Becky North developed the idea much further”.
Armed with the knowledge that it can be done, Gavin set about establishing practical parameters and conditions to grow this furniture forest. Taking into account various climatic and ecological factors, he takes us through the thought process, “We decided on the tree species after very careful consideration of many aspects of tree growth. We wanted trees which were already happy and well adapted to the climate in which we wanted to grow them. It’s no good selecting a tree which would be perfect in another climate, in a location without running water or power. We did not want to have to reproduce the climate conditions for that tree, it wouldn’t be robust enough to withstand the procedures we would be putting it through. We needed trees which would send out shoots after a severe pruning, a method used for millennia in lowland temperate Europe to guarantee firewood supply, called coppicing. The other important thing is the ability to graft so it can grow together into one solid piece. Some of UK’s Hedgerow species have proven to be excellent for this, namely hawthorn, ash, beech, hazel and of course, willow”.
Each individual piece of furniture is grown from a single tree that has been guided using a frame to direct its form. Currently Full Grown has three limited edition chairs - The Dietel, The Edwardes, and The Gatti. Gavin discusses the difference between them: “Each of these has been grown in willow, Salix viminalis; using our one tree method, they were harvested at different stages of their growth. The Dietel was an initial prototype, which cannot be sat on, but does show that the concept is possible. The Edwardes Chair was the first that can be sat on but you need to be careful. It’s comfortable and we were pleased with the shape and the beginnings of the finish we are aiming for - kind of ‘mid-century geometry meets nature’. The Gatti is our sturdiest prototype to date, something that’s starting to be an example of what can be achieved by aiming for collaboration with nature.”
The studio is also experimenting with other species and forms. An early prototype of the Wiltshire Chair grown in ash, Fraxinus Excelsior, is owned by the Museum Van Boijmans in Rotterdam. Gavin mentions, “It has yet not reached the right stage to make a viable chair. We think that they should start to harvest in the mid-2020s”. On the other end of their experimentation is a lamp sculpted from the same species, which Gavin credits for being ‘light, flexible and easy to grow’. However, after harvesting the current lamp cultivation, they intend to discontinue this range. “We will be concentrating our efforts in the direction of chairs and then eventually tables to go with them,” concludes Gavin while informing what we can hope to see next.