Brief Encounters: Veronica Simpson

Veronica Simpson is in a field in Derbyshire to see the progress of a scheme for a furniture business that is literally growing up.

By Veronica Simpson

Imagine if, while driving through the English countryside on a summer’s day – past the glowing wheat fields, green pastures with grazing cows, or muddy acres where pigs are happily truffling about – you suddenly came across a field of chairs. Yes, that’s not a typo: chairs; the things you sit on. Well, the folk of Derbyshire will shortly be having precisely that surreal experience, thanks to Gavin Munro.

Munro trained as an artist and furniture designer, then spent years in both Scotland and California, honing the art of building with natural materials, creating eco-friendly houses and unique driftwood pieces. A decade ago he was struck by the notion that there might be a way to harness the forces of nature to grow what we want out of wood, rather than the more circuitous process of growing the trees, then hacking and slicing them about to refashion them into something else. He planted his first potential furniture seed in a pot in his mother’s garden in Derbyshire.

Now, he has an entire field growing chairs and lampshades nearby, with the harvest of this marking the first full-scale fruition.

Full Grown Chair PrototypeFull Grown Chair Prototype

Says Munro: ‘It’s taken a while because the first things that you do take two or three years before you can see whether that’s worked or not. So, it was five years before we really started knowing what we had…and then it took the next five years to realise how complex it was putting it into practice.’ Experts in arboriculture and agriculture have been roped in, as well as people with business and start-up expertise.

But the main skill, says Munro, is in ‘letting the trees themselves take the lead, with us being present at the right times to make the most subtle changes to create the furniture that we want – essentially a kind of Zen 3D printing.

This care and attention is then carried through to the finishing process where we get to reveal the beautiful wood inside and combine clean, crisp, geometric finishes with the natural wood [the piece] came from.’

Using mostly willow, new shoots are guided around frames that Munro and his Full Grown team have designed. Joints are made by grafting branches together. When the item has reached the shape, size and thickness that the team want, it is harvested, dried and finished in various ways. Chairs and lampshades have been the first products developed, but tables have been created.

New woods such as ash, sycamore, hazel, crab apple and red oak are also being deployed for experimental pieces this year.

Over a period of four years a piece of furniture can be grownOver a period of four years a piece of furniture can be grown

That the initiative has reached this stage at all is thanks to Munro’s patience and vision, as well as a number of generous and business savvy friends and family, most notably close friend, Hugo Edwardes, who gifted Munro a lump sum to get proceedings off the ground.

There is currently a core team of around four people working towards the 2017 harvest, from shaping and husbandry to marketing. The team expands to nine people in summer. Says field manager Ed Lound: ‘So far we’ve funded this largely through pre-orders of our grown pieces, as well as our investor and some very charitable friends. We’ve also been running a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter.’ (details on

International interest has been strong, says Lound: ‘We have customers in the USA, Singapore, Hong Kong and all over Europe.’ And valuable profile and visibility has come from collaborations with the National Trust and with the National Museum of Scotland, which acquired the earliest chair prototype for its permanent collection.

The design community has been quick to embrace the idea, both for its innovative methodology and the beauty and distinctiveness of the finished pieces. Lound says: ‘We’re currently in the process of collaborating with Maarten Baas on his 200 Year projects. Some of our earliest customers were designers in New York, and we’ve exhibited with Ars Electronica in Berlin, Tutti Cortex and Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam, Makea Tu Vida in Barcelona and Madrid, as well as numerous others.

Gavin has also been honoured with an invitation to deliver the keynote speech at the European Academy of Design Conferences in Rome later this year, with the theme of the conference being “Next". It’s been incredibly rewarding to see the support of others in the field of furniture design.’

Over a period of four years a piece of furniture can be grownOver a period of four years a piece of furniture can be grown

Prices have had to be high to start with – a ‘Raw Spiral’ lampshade is currently retailing on the website for $552. But Lound hopes that, eventually, the methodology will be so replicable that ‘we will be able to create something for everyone one day.’ In the meantime, the company is dreaming of other applications, he says. ‘It can be applied to many, many different things. A lot of people want to grow houses, which would be brilliant. That is an area that needs extensive research however. You can even take it down to growing modular pieces for insertion into traditionally manufactured products – for example, growing a dashboard in one piece for a Rolls-Royce or a Morgan. The possibilities are incredibly exciting.’

Indeed they are! Not, perhaps, as a replacement for traditional furniture design, but as a valuable alternative that could help manufacturing and consumption to something far more wholesome, distinctive and treasurable.

Working on something exciting? Submit your project to Design Curial.

Submit project to DesignCurial