Hong Kong interior design

Hongkongers in queue for Briton's grow-your-own furniture

Furniture designer graduates from making items with driftwood to training, pruning and coppicing live trees to grow into the shapes of chairs, tables and other items

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 6:53am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 2:11pm

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. Patient Hongkongers are among the first to have placed pre-orders for these unique items of furniture, which won't be ready for another few years.

About 150 armchairs, 100 lampshades and various 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, jointless piece of wood. "It's a bit like a vineyard. You've got a few years to get everything up and growing," he says.

And it is not simply a case of planting and leaving them to it. There's plenty of give and take between Munro and his charges. "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 says.

The one-hectare plot of rented farmland sits in 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 and his wife, Alice, nurture them and coax 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.

"A lot of the stuff we do is Stone Age. Since we were cavemen, we were cutting trees down at various heights," he says. "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."

The daily duties involve ground keeping 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," says 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 that looked like a throne, while a bad back as a youngster meant his spine had to be 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 says. "In 2005, I came back to the UK and got the chance to plant a few trees and see."

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, planed and finished, then sold the following year. Individual chairs will sell for €3,450 (HK$29,150).

Pre-sales have largely gone to customers in France and the US, but the telephone is also buzzing with orders from Hong Kong, London, 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", says Munro. "In the town, a few people really like it, a few think you're nuts."