Engineered Nature

By Caye Burry

This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.

The Nelson chair has no parts. No confusing assembly instructions with cartoon drawings of
androgynous stick figures wielding hammers and screwdrivers. In fact, there are no nails, screws,
adhesives, or joinery at all. It is one continuous, solid piece of wood, gently grafted together only when necessary during the growing process of its source tree.

The chair comes from a 400-acre farm in Derbyshire, UK, and is the brainchild of Full Grown founder Gavin Muro. What looks like a vineyard from afar is actually a field of trees whose branches are being slowly manipulated to fill blue plastic molds shaped like furniture and lighting fixtures. Muro conceived of the idea more than a decade ago, inspired by childhood memories of an overgrown bonsai tree and months spent in the hospital having his spine realigned by a metal brace.

After studying furniture design and growing his first prototypes in his mother-in-law’s garden, Full Grown was born. The catch? The Nelson chair sells for $12,000 and takes years to produce. While Muro’s innovation is undeniably impressive, it is far from accessible. Despite laudable intentions, Full Grown advances the notion that well-made, durable products are a luxury to be afforded by few, incapable of affecting change on a macroscale.

Yet in Muro’s defense, Mother Nature doesn’t heed our production timetables or sales targets. Full Grown’s products require immense patience and meticulous care. In 2017, Muro found himself short on funding because his crops took longer to cultivate than projected. He turned to Kickstarter to save his furniture orchard with a crowdfunding goal of £10,000. He raised nearly three times that. “We want people to relate to our project in the way they might relate to wine makers and whisky distillers,” reads the Kickstarter narrative. “It will take several years for our crops to reach maturity, but they will be worth the wait.”

Full Grown’s marketing tagline is: “Redefining Luxury with Trees Patiently Grown into Art and Furniture.” It doesn’t scream instant gratification for bargain barrel-oriented consumers, but that’s not what Muro is after. His Shaker-inspired products are marketed as fine art, with a price tag to match. The chairs are statement pieces, solid and sturdy — though they certainly won’t offer the same level of comfort as your favorite recliner.

Perhaps the blame can’t be entirely laid at the feet of Full Grown or Mother Nature. Shopper mentality has been heavily influenced by companies like Zara and IKEA that emphasize on-trend style and affordability while indirectly encouraging disposability. Remember that heirloom dresser your great-great-grandmother passed down to your mother? Will your Billy bookcase outlast your grandkids?

Consumer consciousness has begun to turn the tide, but it will take a typhoon for eco-friendly, durable, affordable goods to become the norm. As a Fast Company headline put it in 2018, “Stop buying crap, and companies will stop making crap.” But as long as fashion and technology change with the seasons, there’s little incentive to produce — or buy — quality products.

Several brands have beaten the odds by marketing sustainably made goods that will last “forever,” but the price of admission for the eco-conscious lifestyle is still often out of reach. Google “ethical fashion brands,” for instance, and you’ll be directed to Everlane, which sells a pair of $98 espadrilles. Google “sustainable furniture,” and you might land on the website for Haiku, a brand that sells “beautiful and affordable eco-friendly furniture” — like a coffee table for $819. (And that’s the sale price.)“Handcrafted” and “fair trade” are all too often code words for expensive.

But not all hope is lost. Consumers can, at a minimum, seek out Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)- certified wood (Williams Sonoma brands Pottery Barn and West Elm offer products stamped with the FSC logo, for instance), reclaimed or sustainable materials like mango and bamboo, and companies that eschew harmful chemicals and limit excess carbon emissions. Shopping upcycled or vintage furniture, available through sites like Chairish and Etsy Reclaimed Furniture, is also a respectable choice to extend the life cycle of a piece.

These options lay in the middle of the spectrum between fast furniture and Full Grown’s inspiring, yet insufficient, solution to the eco-consciousness conundrum. Muro’s dreams of scaling up globally are likely to remain elusive without reducing prices. But it’s no secret that sustainable supply chains and manufacturing processes simply cost more. They require the human touch — and time. And as long as time is money, we’ll be forced to contend with the price of durability. After all, chairs don’t grow on trees. Or do they?

unMUTE Group Statement

Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost — flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?

Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences — indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave — go unshared.

On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if — in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality — those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?

If you’re curious, please unMUTE.

About SVA MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism

The SVA MA in Design Research, Writing and Criticism is a one-year, intensive MA program well suited to the circumstances of established professionals, in addition to graduates wishing to continue their studies at an advanced level. In providing the research tools and journalistic techniques for researching, analyzing, and critically interpreting design, the program amply prepares its graduates for future-facing careers in research-driven design practices and institutions, in journalism and publishing, or for continued studies in a design-related subject.

We are now accepting applications on a rolling basis. Successful candidates will be granted significant scholarships. Apply here.

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SVA MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism

SVA MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism

We’re a two-semester MA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City dedicated to the study of design, its contexts and consequences. Aka DCrit. ✏️🔍💡