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Environment

Organic 3D 'printing' - with trees

No screws, no joints, no weak points - Gavin Munro, a keen environmentalist, challenges conventional furniture manufacturing by using grafting techniques to shape trees directly into chairs, tables or lampshades.

Gavin Munro (right) with his furniture-growing team (Photo: Georg Matthes)

Gavin Munro (right) is making manufacturing green - literally

Gavin Munro shakes his head slightly, takes a deep breath and looks over his furniture showroom: a 2.5-acre patch of land in Derbyshire, England. In this lush green spot in the Peak district, Munro has planted 3,000 trees, one neatly next to the other. Willow, oak, sycamore and ash - all will be grafted into furniture.

"I think so far we have mainly made mistakes and learned from them," Munro says, and laughs as he explains how often he has failed to grow a proper chair over the past 10 years.

He continues through the rows of young trees. None of them looks even remotely like a piece of furniture - and so far the designer has only grown two prototypes. A chair too weak to sit on, and a shaky little table.

How on Earth, one wonders, is this project going to revolutionize conventional production, something the artist hopes to achieve? Is it cutting edge, or a fantasy?

Chairs for the harvesting

The answer can be found growing a little further into the plantation. Here, specially designed plastic moulds are used to coax the branches of about 150 willow trees in the shape of chairs.

Willows growing into chairs (Photo: Georg Matthes)

The first generation of Munro's willow chairs

"We put a few aside for preorders, and all of those are gone now - so there are quite a few people with a chair growing for them in the Derbyshire Dales," Munro says.

When the 39-year-old started his company Full Grown almost a decade ago, one of his goals was to found the world's most environmentally friendly furniture manufacturers.

Munro estimates that he uses only 25 percent of the energy compared to what is needed to produce a wooden chair by conventional means.

Instead of growing trees more than 50 years, chopping them down into smaller pieces, and then gluing them back together, all he does shape the growing process. Once in shape, the furniture thickens and matures without any support - a period of minimum 6 years.

Then the products are harvested and dried for another year. "They could - if looked after - last for hundreds of years," Munro is convinced. This prevents wastage and counteracts the throwaway mentality of industrialized nations. "It has to be more efficient," he adds.

Grown chair next to conventional chair (Photo: Georg Matthes)

Munro's "slow chairs" save 75 percent of energy over conventional production

Art, design, business - and environmentalism?

The breakthrough for the process of growing furniture was to turn things upside down. After Munro found that forcing four trees to grow into one piece of furniture simply did not work, the furniture designer instead cultivates the chairs head-up from a single trunk.

Munro says growing chairs is like 3D printing - with air, soil and sunshine feeding the woody material that acts as "ink."

"It started out as a kind of art project - but now we have an actual manufacturing process, a system that is repeatable and scalable," Munro explains. "In a nutshell, what we do is art and design and horticulture all mixed into one."

Munro is not the first designer to grow furniture - but compared to earlier advocates, he works on a much larger scale, and tries to produce as little waste as possible.

Standing next to a row of willow trees that grow into lampshades, he explains: "My team of gardeners and I have realized that the less we change - the less we interfere with nature - the more we benefit, as well as the little ecosystem we have created here."

Tree being shaped into a lampshade (Photo: Georg Matthes)

This lampshade-in-the-making might sell for $900

Scaling up production

The first chairs, which will be ready for harvest next year, cost about 5,000 euros ($4,400) apiece. Lampshades run 1,000 euros - but Munro hopes that prices will fall once his production method goes global.

"This can scale and work anywhere where trees can grow - it is viable all over the world, in the north of Scotland as on the equator."

And in this English grove, Munro and his team will be guiding and pruning thousands of shoots for years to come.

They still make a lot of mistakes, he says, as he disappears in a row of young ash trees. "But the idea is just too good to not pursue it," he shouts out of his little forest.

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