Gavin Munro, the man who grows chairs

Just occasionally a TEDx talk throws up something so unexpected, so left-field that you need time to take stock and evaluate what you are witnessing.

Gavin Munro delivered that experience to those fortunate enough to attend TEDxDerby in 2014 as he described the work of his organisation Fully Grown – a company that grows furniture in the foothills of Derbyshire.

No, you didn’t misread that. Needless to say Gavin’s talk How we can grow furniture is something you have to see for yourself.

A lot has changed in the six seasons since Gavin spoke at TEDxDerby with increasing media attention and global interest in the work of Fully Grown. We discuss his journey, sustainability, the art of patience and the perils of rabbits…

How We Can Grow Furniture

Let me start by saying that the concept of growing furniture from a single tree is one of the most remarkable ideas I have come across. Your story is unique and compelling. What do you remember of the response from the TEDxDerby audience back in 2014?

It was one of those moments. I thought a few people would like it a lot and most people would think I was weird. When I brought the prototype out and everybody clapped it totally threw me! It was nice that it was more accessible than I thought it would be.

The prototype chair you brought along astonished everyone but it didn’t quite look ready for the weight of an adult. Were you not a little nervous of losing it to some healthily fed member of the audience?

Completely! It was something we had in the shape of a chair rather than an actual chair. I’m still nervous about it now.

FullGrownChair

 

You described your business as a factory in a field. That’s an appealing prospect – at least in the warmer months. What do you do on a typical day?

Things have changed in the last two years from our “Factory In the Field” notion. It’s more of an ecosystem now. There are three things that go on: The general gardening – keeping down weeds, mowing, etc. Then there’s shaping and bending in the summer. In winter there’s the pruning. On top there’s all the usual activity you get with running a business.

After two years marauding cows and rabbits decimated your field and sent you back to square one. How close were you to throwing in the towel?

Oh not at all. Once it has happened you have to deal with it. It wasn’t quite as bad as it seems. I actually found it quite funny. The thing is I’m ready to throw the towel most days!

The sheer timescales involved here are just mind boggling to me. I write computer software. The lifecycle to write a few lines of code, run, get an error and fix takes minutes or even seconds. In your line of work you might wait a year to learn something that takes another year to change. You must have the patience of a saint…

You know what, I just don’t! I’m not patient at all. There are so many things to do that patience doesn’t come into it. For every 100 pieces that you’ve got there are 1,000 shoots that you want and 10,000 that you don’t that need pruning. In the beginning it’s difficult but in the longer run it won’t be. All horticultural stuff is like this. Compared to tree arboriculture it’s really quick. Trees can have a 50 year turnaround. It takes 10 years to set up a vineyard. What we are doing is comparatively not that slow. That said, I do find myself dealing with mistakes from 5 years ago.

The best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago. The next best time is now.

There was a quote in your talk: “The best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago. The next best time is now.” It took 5 years before your first chair prototype was ready. You presented at TEDxDerby after 8 years and still no products were ready for market. How can you sustain a business that invests time and money for maybe 10 years before producing anything saleable?

I’m about to harvest 14 lamps. I don’t know whether all 14 will make it to sale next spring. There will be more stock to harvest every year thereafter.

…but you have spent 10 years working on something without any return. How can you run a business in these circumstances?

I’m really frugal Tim! We’ve all worked for minimum wage. We have had investment since 2012 and now we have pre-orders. It was always going to take a while to start. At least now we have items starting to come out and people can see what’s on the way. It’s not a gamble.

What level of interest has there been from prospective buyers?

We have orders lined up. This summer has been absolutely bonkers. In April an article came out in The Times and it just set off an avalanche of interest. We’ve had loads of TV and internet coverage.

Are they more likely to be drawn to this first batch as bespoke furniture, an ecological proposition or artistic statement?

There are two camps. The art camp are having a gamble on it being a good investment or they like it purely as art. Then there’s the friendly camp that like the idea, want to have a product and support it.

A lot of interest has come from big metropolitan areas like London, New York, Paris and Hong Kong.

Gavin speaking

 

Since speaking at TEDxDerby you have been filmed by BBC Countryfile, featured in the Guardian and there has been interest in the international press from Germany to Japan. Do you feel that speaking at TEDx helped you to raise the profile of your work?

Oh totally! It was a really really good thing. I was so close to quitting because I was terrified of talking but it was definitely a major landmark in the chronology of things. I didn’t want to be the public face – I wanted to hide in the woods, but I couldn’t. TEDx was a real confidence stepping stone and it got the ball rolling with people talking about us.

Sustainability is a key driver for your business. Presently we wait 40 years for a tree to grow, then transport it and process it multiple times to make a product with a potentially short lifespan. The Fully Grown vision is of bespoke low-carbon pieces that last a lifetime – a process you described as “Organic 3D Printing.” Do you believe your ideas can have much impact in a world dominated by mass production?

It sounds a bit cocky but I do. We’re getting a good price for the first batch and our costs are going to decrease. With a balanced ecosystem there will be less need to weed and deal with bugs and it’s all going to become more efficient. You’re buying a nice object and every item will be different.

You have pledged to open-source the details behind your operations to encourage others down the same path. This really is a mission isn’t it?

Yes. It seems like a really efficient way to get from nothing to nice objects and if we are going to be human we are going to need objects.

There’s a growing Slow Movement involving people who want to take the time to create and appreciate things of value. Do you think that what you are doing fits in with this mindset?

I hope so! We can have everything when we want but now we are starting to realise that’s not cool. Some of the people that have bought from us actually seem to like waiting!

The only barrier to entry is basic hand tools and knowledge.

A quote from your talk was: “The only barrier to entry is basic hand tools and knowledge.” That may be true but you also need a reasonable plot of land and a commitment of time. Can you foresee some global community of furniture growers or will you be ploughing a lone furrow? (sorry, I couldn’t avoid the puns any more!)

Don’t worry – I gave up trying to avoid the puns ages ago!

Other people are doing it. There’s a guy in Oxford who is pretty much retired who has been growing stools. There are some Australians and Americans. It’s certainly not a new idea although we are probably doing it on the largest scale.

You have been on a remarkable journey which one suspects is far from complete. What have you learned from your experiences?

Soil is really, really, really important! I’ve come to realise that it’s not a factory in a field – it truly is an ecosystem. I’ve learned to appreciate the beauty of complexity. I’ve realised how complex some of the natural systems are.