How to Grow a Chair: An Interview with Richard Reames

How to Grow a Chair: An Interview with Richard Reames

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Using ancient grafting techniques and a few basic tools, Richard Reames shapes living trees into furniture and sculpture near his ho­me in Oregon for clients worldwide. He is the author of two self-published books, How to Grow a Chair: The Art of Tree Trunk Topiary with Barbara Delbol, and Arborsculpture: Solutions for a Small Planet, published in 2005. His work was on display this summer at the World Expo in Aichi, Japan. Joshua Foer spoke to Reames in July 2005 by telephone.

How does arborsculpture differ from bonsai or topiary?

Arborsculpture is the art of shaping tree trunks to create art and functional items through bending, grafting, pruning, and multiple planting. Bonsai is the art of miniaturizing trees. Some of bonsai's basic techniques, such as bending branches and pruning, are similar to arborsculpture. Topiary was originally defined as ornamental gardening, so you could say, to be technical, that arborsculpture is a branch of topiary, but the word topiary is more commonly used to describe the shaping of foliage. In that sense, topiary is almost the opposite of arborsculpture in that you're only trimming the foliage, whereas in arborsculpture, you're only working with the trunk. Of the various tree arts, arborsculpture is most closely related to espalier, a technique that began in France as a way to grow quality fruit in small areas, like inside castle courtyards. They'd grow fruit trees up against the wall and shape the branches so that they were evenly spaced and parallel, maximizing the amount of fresh air to each piece of fruit. I like to say that arborsculpture is like espalier on acid.

Tell me about some of the arborsculptures you've grown.

I have grown many chairs and benches. I have a 30-foot spiral poplar tree that goes up 8 feet, splits into two trunks that spiral around each other, and then is grafted back together at about 16 feet high. I have a nice spiral staircase growing right now in oak. I planted a circle of birch trees years ago and just recently spun them all clockwise a few feet and grafted the tops together. It's a small gazebo.

Can you walk me through how you'd grow a chair?

For a chair, I select perhaps a dozen flexible, long, unbranched saplings and I plant them in a pattern. I can then bend them along a frame into the shape of a chair or a bench and do the initial grafting. The majority of the work can be done all at once. The frame holds the trees for a few years until the tree casts that form through its growth. It's just a matter of the trees getting older and growing together with some gentle pruning to keep them growing in the right direction.

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