Deep in the English countryside, there’s a bizarre sight: rows of trees being grown into upside-down chairs, slowly taking shape over years of careful nurturing.
Around 150 armchairs, 100 lampshades and other items including mirror frames are being grown out of the ground in a highly unusual adventure in furniture design.
The brainchild of Gavin Munro, his Full Grown company has produced some early prototypes, with each item one solid, joinless piece of wood.
“It’s a bit like a vineyard. You’ve got a few years to get everything up and growing,” he told AFP.
And it is not simply a case of planting the trees and leaving them to it. There’s plenty of give and take between Munro and his plantation.
“They don’t grow into chairs on their own. At the same time, you can’t force them to do anything they don’t want to do otherwise they die back,” he said.
The 2.5-acre (one hectare) plot of rented farmland is situated in the rolling grassy fields outside the market town of Wirksworth in rural Derbyshire, central England.
On a farm also containing a micro-brewery, a smokery, flower cultivation and plenty of sheep, the rows of trees are growing around blue corrugated plastic frames.
Munro, 40, nurtures them and coaxes them into shape, through years of pruning, coppicing and grafting.
Willow can take four to five years to grow into a chair, whereas oak can take up to nine years.
Munro also works with ash, hazel, crab apple and sycamore.
– ‘Eureka!’ moment –
“A lot of the stuff we do is Stone Age. Since we were cavemen, we were cutting trees down at various heights,” he said.
“It’s an extension of the natural rhythm. Everything we do is based on what happens anyway and making the subtlest twist to that. Early on I was torturing them and ultimately it doesn’t work.”
Early experiments with chemical weedkiller caused more harm than good, so organic methods are used.
Powdery mildew is kept down with milk, while caterpillars are picked off.
The daily duties involve groundkeeping and going round the furniture with secateurs.
“At any given point, there’s a branch that’s in the right moment to do something and you’ve got to find it,” said Munro.
“For every 100 pieces, there are 1,000 shoots and branches that you want, and 10,000 that you don’t. It’s not necessarily obvious which one is which.”
Early experiences got Munro’s mind racing about what he could do with trees.
His mother had an overgrown bonsai which looked like a throne, while a bad back as a youngster meant his spine was broken and reset in hospital.
“That got me thinking about grafting and how things stick together.”
He graduated in furniture design in Leeds, northern England, and ended up making items from driftwood in California.
“I was stitching together bigger lumps and I had a ‘Eureka!’ moment: if we grow the things we want directly into the shape, there’s no waste,” he said.
“In 2005 I came back to the UK and got the chance to plant a few trees and see.”
– ‘Exercise in faith’ –
Nearly a decade on, the fruits of his labours are still up to two years away.
The first chairs will be harvested at the end of 2016 in the depths of winter, planed and finished, then sold the following year.
“I’m not going to see the consequence of this morning’s work for five years at the earliest,” he said.
“It’s a real exercise in faith to keep doing it. I’m sure it’s going to get easier when we get in the black.”
Fortunately an investor is on board while the furniture matures.
Chairs go for £2,500 ($3,950, 3,450 euros); lampshades start at £900 and hexagon-shaped mirrors at £450.
Pre-sales have largely gone to customers in France and the United States, but the telephone is also buzzing with orders from London, Hong Kong, Germany and Spain.
For the first eight years, word of the project did not stretch beyond the local area and “hill walkers that got lost”, said Munro.
“In the town, a few people really like it, a few think you’re nuts.”