Harvesting chairs: How an English craftsman shapes furniture from the ground up

Bending trees into chairs

Tucked into the green hills near the town of Wirksworth, in Derbyshire, England, there's a natural wonder: A two-acre field featuring a row of chairs, growing upside-down, each one a single willow tree. It's where art meets enterprise.

It's the brainchild of Gavin Munro, who began cultivating the chairs in 2012. "Once we know we're onto a winner we'll coppice them and sort of cut them down in the winter, and the new shoots that come out, [and] we'll then train them."

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Gavin Munro's "chair orchard." CBS News

Over time he's refined his technique, shaping the trees on frames, carefully pruning and grafting.

They're then taken into a drying room, where the solid, undeniably sittable chairs are prepared.

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Have a seat: Gavin Munro shows correspondent Liz Palmer some of the chairs he's coaxed from the soil.  CBS News

A chair like this will sell for about $6,500 – the sort of money you might put down for a work of art, which one chair was for a few weeks, on display at the Messums Wiltshire Gallery.

But it's designed as furniture to be used.

The chairs that are for sale are still growing; regular annual harvests will only start in 2022. But buyers seem happy to wait for delivery – up to nine years.

Munro said orders are put in for significant anniversaries. And plans are underway to expand the product range of the company, called Full Grown.

The experimenting never stops, with tree varieties like young sycamores. It's a science, and a little bit of an art as well, with roots in the early 20th century, when John Krubsack, a banker from Wisconsin, grew a single chair out of multiple trees.

Later, California farmer Axel Erlandson coaxed his trees into all kinds of weird and wonderful shapes, and opened a theme park.

Munro said, "He figured pretty much everything that we're trying to figure out, but he died without telling anyone how he did it!"

So Munro, trained as a furniture maker, had to figure it out for himself. About ten years ago, working in California with driftwood, he had a Eureka! Moment: "Why don't we just grow the tree into the shape you want, cut it down, and start again?" 

"It sounded so easy!" said Palmer.

"Yeah, how hard could it be?" he laughed.

Very hard, as it turns out.

Take these knobbly coils that one day will be lampshades: "We thought the lampshades would be a kind of quick crop," Munro said, lamenting, "There's nothing quick with trees.

It turns out that when branches are forced to grow horizontally, they slow down.

But at last, one was ready for harvesting.

Anne Clyne, a friend of Munro's, was thrilled to hang one of the very first in her dining room. "Hopefully we could one day think about having some chairs as well," she said.

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A Full Grown lampshade hangs in the dining room of Anne Clyne. CBS News

In his "chair orchard," Palmer asked Munro, "Have you ever been disheartened enough to think, 'I'm crazy'?"

"Oh, every morning," he laughed. "Then I come up here and think, 'OK, I'm really lucky.  We're all really lucky.' This is about as nice as an office can get! And then, we're off again."

Gently, lovingly bending Mother Nature into shape. 

        
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Story produced by Erin Lyall.