TALK: with Furniture Grower Gavin Munro

Wednesday 29 August 2018

It was the shadow of the branches of a bonsai tree that looked like a throne projected against the sitting-room wall of his parents’ house in Chesterfield, that first inspired Gavin Munro to ‘grow’ chairs. Aged only five when he first saw them, it was years later, recuperating from one of a number of operations trying to straighten his back afflicted by scoliosis, that Munro realised that he could make a chair without lifting a single nail, plane or chisel. Just by letting trees grow and subtly directing the direction the branches went in, could, over a period of 8 to 15 years, result in a chair.
“It was when I was recuperating that I learnt patience,’ he said. Speaking at Messums Wiltshire where he has installed a magical tree cum chair that looks like something out of an Arthur Rackham book, Gavin outlined how he brought together horticulture, design and ancient techniques and modern technology to create an entirely new kind of mass manufacture of furniture as well as a new aesthetic.
Having spent a year in London in the early 1990’s Gavin went to live in San Francisco where he made buildings out of straw bales and tables out of drift wood. It was while he was there that he had what he calls his Eureka thought; ‘why not just shape and graft a tree as it grows?’
During his talk he ran through the dozens of implements, tools and vehicles usually required to produce a single plank of wood. ‘I realised that the current system is really slow and inefficient and uses lots o f resources that doesn’t leave much room for nature’ he said.
Gavin started growing four trees but told the tale of how his first crop was decimated by a herd of cows. As a result, he moved his trees to the seclusion of his mother-in-law’s garden where they were safe within a fortress of sturdy beech hedges. By stealth he built up his factory out of a range of trees all growing at different rates and spinning out furniture at different times. The sycamore and hazel chairs take around four to six years to grow; the oak, seven to ten years whereas apple wood tables can take ten to thirteen years. In the spring of 2008 he cut his first chair since when he has acquired 2000 acres in Derbyshire and planted 1000 trees, all slowly being shaped into tables, chairs, bird boxes, beds, hammocks, even bicycle wheels. Particularly impressive was a new range of lampshades that Munro has developed, soon to be on sale at Messums Wiltshire.
‘What’s developing is a horticultural design language,’ he said. ‘It’s uber-green. It’s the value added cash crop and my hope is that it is redefining our relationship with nature. It’s like a Zen form of three dimensional printing,’ he says.
Gavin estimates that he is now tweaking around half a million branches a year, building up a business that needs nothing but sun, soil and water – and the patience of a stone buddha.

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