05 October 2017

Gavin Munro
“It’s funny really – the more respectful we are of the natural world the easier and – rather helpfully – the faster this project becomes. Each time we ask a little less of nature it seems to give a little more”.

In essence, Gavin Munro is a designer who brings nature and craftsmanship, environmental sensitivity and a passion for design together. His Full Grown project involves growing and shaping young trees using specially designed plastic moulds and, by grafting and pruning, giving shape to a variety of furnishing pieces. Each of these pieces is, therefore, in some way unique and unrepeatable yet created in total harmony with nature.

Munro and his team have already grown a number of prototypes in a Derbyshire field, and are anticipating a harvest of around 400 pieces, including tables, chairs and pendent lamps in 2017, all already sold online.

As a result of developing his technique for Full Grown, Munro has also worked with Marteen Baas and the Groninger Museum in Groninger on the amazing Tree Trunk Chair project – presented at the 2016 Fuorisalone – a time-travelling chair harvested from a tree trunk. A tree has been planted in the museum garden and left to grow for 200 years; its trunk contains a chair mould, over which the tree will grow and mature and only at the end of the set period – in two centuries’ time – will the mould be removed and the chair revealed, like a sort of message in a bottle from a far-distant past.

Your work is inextricably bound up with an ecologic approach to design, what was the spark that ignited Full Grown?

The first seed was sown when I was a young boy playing in the garden, I noticed an overgrown bonsai tree had the distinct appearance of a chair. I think this may have been the beginning of a life-long love of shape and pattern spotting.

A few years later when I went through several operations to straighten my spine I had lots of time to ponder. There were long periods of staying still, some of it in a hospital that was built into woodland with lots of windows and plenty of time to observe what was going on and reflect on both the beauty of the woodland just outside the window and the kindness and competence of the hospital staff at such an impressionable age.

There seemed to be definite physical and social links between the natural world and the community of a well-functioning hospital ward and by the time I started furniture design at University it had developed into an interest of “what does it take to get our objects into our work and homes?” and while Form follows Function is perfectly valid, it seemed worthwhile taking time out to look at Function – “do we really need this object for a decent life?” and “by having this object what is the effect on the people who produced it?” and “what is the effect on the parts of the natural world where the materials were sourced?”

How is the “harvesting” of tables, chairs and lampshades coming along? What will be the next stages of the project?

It’s exciting days with the harvesting, we’ve just got the First Edition Pendant Lampshades finished and being exported around the world. There are also a few of the test pieces from 2007 ready to start sanding and there are some of the first chairs coming out as models - still too thin to sit on but grown enough to see where we’re headed and to go to exhibitions and museums. The next stages are to refine our current designs and create new ones for this season’s growth. We’ll also be heading back into the field to prune the trees, look after the soil and get our hands dirty doing some gardening!

The big picture is planting dedicated farms. We’re talking with someone in Germany for our first satellite farm in Europe.

Your Kickstarter funding campaign for Full Grown went really well. Did you expect it to be quite so successful? Do you think crowdfunding can redefine the designer/public relationship, giving the latter a more active role?

I am still a little surprised by it all. It was lovely to see how much people wanted to be involved with the project and our closer relationship to nature. We’re now looking into crowdfunding our first dedicated design farm.

It certainly does seem that crowdfunding is already enabling a more direct and friendly relationship between designers and the public. The feedback itself has been very good at illuminating the difference between what people say is good and what they’re prepared to put actual money into.

As a designer and as a craftsman, how has the way you approach your projects changed given the need to respect nature’s necessarily slow timeframe? How has this influenced you as a person?

It’s funny really – the more respectful we are of the natural world the easier and - rather helpfully –- the faster this project becomes. Each time we ask a little less of nature it seems to give a little more.

Personally this makes me feel connected and grateful – no matter everything we have achieved as a species we are still deeply reliant on 6 inches of top soil and the fact that it rains. It’s half pleasure at getting the opportunity to be so close to the soil and half horror at how very much we are needlessly damaging the very nature that sustains us.

Would you like to make your skills available to a large company or do you prefer to think of yourself as a free spirit?

We’d be happy to work with the right companies – the aim is to share and spread this concept and get it out there. We’ve been developing a culture of collaboration right from the outset and its been the solid team that’s built up over the years that is the backbone of Full Grown.

How do you think the world of design will evolve in relation to the increasingly present and pressing need for sustainability. What has already changed and what still needs to change?

Well, in the current climate, I really hope we’re not going to have to get good at designing stone axes again!

We’re not going to be able to rely on cheap oil, materials and labour for too much longer. The big challenge is addressing inequality and the real actual cost of our lifestyles.

It seems to me we are only just starting to get past merely paying lip service to environmental sustainability. I have a lot of faith that the world of design has the creative capacity to respond to environmental change, it’s a question of can we evolve quickly enough. It has to be pretty hard to take on board all the factors of sustainability because our lives are not really set up for it and the changes that need making seem difficult. I’m starting to think that one of the main factors is time. We don’t have enough of it and then just buy things to make up for this. I’d love a 3-4 day week!

What really needs to change is our economy is based on growth rather than how good all our lives are. In terms of Design that starts with fewer but better objects…

On the other hand, what has changed for consumers? From your own experience, what do they expect from design and how have they taken on board the concept of sustainability in relation to their homes?

I think as consumers there is both much more choice and awareness going on. We’re starting to understand that we don’t actually pay the full price for the things we consume. Food and clothing being the best examples so far in terms of being aware of what the actual consequences of what we buy really are i.e. sweat shops, chemical fertilisers, the overuse of oil based plastics and wasteful transport and packaging.

What is your relationship with your home? Is there a domestic space you regard as your comfort zone?

Thankfully we’re blessed to live in a small community where the whole town feels like a comfort zone. I’m very fond of my home though as I’m prone to being a recluse – at the moment it’s particularly comforting listening to the rain on the windows and crackle of the fire with our beautiful whippet (hound) curled up happily.

Could you describe your workplace? How is it organised, what is indispensable, what helps you concentrate?

Our workplace looks like a cross between an orchard, vineyard and sculpture studio. It’s where the real beauty comes into play. Last year we had our first family of birds nesting in one of the sculptures.

What’s indispensable are good clean sharp pruners and our observant team paying attention. The main skill is being there at right time to shape and form each branch. In terms of concentration I seem to alternate between fear and love. I find both certainly focus the mind.

Is there an object in your home or in your studio that you simply couldn’t bear to part with?

I’m not so sure about that, I do have some wonderful kitchen knives and a bowl from our wedding I’d be sad to lose. But I think it’s the wonderful people around me I couldn't bear to part with.

What are your dreams for the future of Full Grown over the next few years?

Our dream for the next few years is a mixture of spreading the idea, refining our techniques, developing our excellent team and setting up the first bigger scale furniture farm.