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Growing furniture in the Peak District

PUBLISHED: 12:51 26 November 2014 | UPDATED: 12:51 26 November 2014

Square lamps branching out

Square lamps branching out

photographers

A Derbyshire man is taking the ‘grow your own’ idea to exciting new levels with his innovative new business in the Peak District hills

Designer Nichol Scott working on a chairDesigner Nichol Scott working on a chair

From an overgrown bonsai tree in his parents’ back garden in Matlock, an idea was sown in Gavin Munro’s mind that many years later would turn into a forest of furniture!

With a background in furniture design, a fascination with geometry in nature and a passion for ecology, Gavin was inspired by the work of early pioneers to the concept of growing furniture, an idea introduced by an American, John ‘Dammit’ Krubsack from Wisconsin who is famed for creating the ‘chair that grew’ back in 1903. Over the years several other people have achieved individual items of furniture but Gavin wanted mass production and currently has 500 pieces growing and developing.

Traditional methods of manufacture involve felling mature trees, transporting timber by heavy haulage to a saw-mill where it is cut up using machinery before distribution to workshops. Once there, carpenters and joiners cut the wood into even smaller pieces before reassembling them, generally involving large machinery. Mass produced joints and fixings are used as well as glues and chemicals to put everything together again as furniture, with the finished items then transported, yet again, to retail units and shops.

With a total rethink on normal production methods, Gavin considered this long-winded and potentially environmentally harmful process could be simplified by planting trees, growing them over a mould, grafting shoots together to create strong joints and allowing Mother Nature to do the majority of the work before harvesting their crop. He calculated this should slash the carbon footprint and energy consumption of normal furniture manufacture by some 75 per cent. Also, rather than emitting pollution, Full Grown’s eco factory actually absorbs CO2 and emits oxygen. There is very little waste; everything is recycled, reused or re-grown, with the added bonus of produce from the fruit trees and nuts from the hazel.

The finished itemsThe finished items

Together with his wife Alice and a small workforce of dedicated employees, enthusiastic helpers, family and friends, a site deep within the Peak District hills has been transformed into a biodiverse factory known as Full Grown (www.fullgrown.co.uk).

Here an impressive, neat and tidy line-up of willow, oak, apple, hazel, cherry, ash and sycamore is very slowly being nurtured and shaped. The carefully manicured rows of evolving furniture are rather a bizarre and unusual sight but fascinating when observed up-close.

The factory is a haven for wildlife and worms. Birds live in the hazel feeding off insects that buzz and burrow around the production lines. This shop floor is alive with nature both day and night. All manner of flora and fauna are positively encouraged, apart from caterpillars and rabbits!

Environmentally friendly in virtually all aspects, Full Grown’s concept should tick every green box!

Gavin and Alice Munro in their 'field of dreams'Gavin and Alice Munro in their 'field of dreams'

After persuading a couple of investors to buy into his idea, Gavin began the ‘green farming’ business in 2006. Comparable to creating a constantly renewing vineyard, the setting up process has been time-consuming and without financial reward. At first he had the support of a full-time job in web design. However, in 2012 when the concept became reality and Gavin was convinced it would work, he ditched the day job to become a furniture farmer and to concentrate on his crop, which is shaping up nicely. From 2015 onwards, this eco business will have a regular harvest each year from their environmentally friendly production line. The first items are almost ready and it is time to kick-start the launch of their products, market the idea and take pre-orders.

Each chair, table, lamp stand or mirror surround is unique and will be sold with a label of provenance and diary of its growth. These limited edition, carefully-crafted collectibles will not be cheap, but interest and orders have already been received from both at home and abroad.

Willow is fast-growing with items ready to reap in three to four years. Oak is by nature the slowest. It will take anything from six to ten years to produce a chair, but customers might have to wait a few years longer for the table to go with them.

By tweaking nature, using only time, a variety of frames and thousands of horticultural ties plus a few hand tools, Full Grown is creating unique and individual heirlooms and systematically sowing the seeds for future generations to enjoy.

However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. The very first planting was ruined by a rampaging herd of cows, and some of the actual moulding techniques have had to be refined when it was discovered that chairs actually grow better upside down. Very much a learning curve!

There is plenty of work to be done in the furniture field during spring, summer and autumn with planting, weeding, watering, clipping and grafting. Tens of thousands of shoots each year have to be snipped, clipped, moulded and manipulated. However, outside in the happy and healthy environment of the Peak District it is generally fun and fresh air for everyone involved, including Lina and Snippet the whippets, the Munro family dogs I met as they were chasing around the site in a friendly frenzy.

During the winter months Gavin and the team are more office based, utilising their technology skills to plan and design new pieces, market their ideas and deal with general administration.

In time Full Grown hopes to produce a whole range of wooden items, replacing plastics and artificial components wherever possible.

The production zone in early summerThe production zone in early summer

Gavin and the team are passionate about growing furniture and are eager to pass on their knowledge to others with an infectious enthusiasm. The ultimate aim is to share their revolutionary ideas and they aim to spread the word through interesting public speaking presentations injected with humour.

The world of botanical manufacturing revolves very slowly and time is of the essence. An ancient Greek proverb states, ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.’ In the case of Full Grown we could say, ‘A society grows great when young men plant trees to make chairs for anyone to sit on!’

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