Cel­e­brate the mas­ter crafts­man

John Make­peace

Evening Standard - West End Final Extra - ES Homes and Property - - Front Page -

FUR­NI­TURE de­signer John Make­peace fell in love with wood as a small boy. Con­stantly whit­tling away at scraps, he signed up to carpentry classes aged six and of­ten called in at the cricket bat fac­tory near his home in Soli­hull in the West Mid­lands.

“I went to a fine-fur­ni­ture work­shop with my mother when I was 11,” says Make­peace, 78. And his fu­ture was sealed. The name Make­peace is now syn­ony­mous with Parn­ham Col­lege, the pi­o­neer­ing, highly in­flu­en­cial and glob­ally ac­knowl­edged fur­ni­ture mak­ing school that he set up in Dorset 40 years ago.

Aware of Scan­di­navia’s fur­ni­ture mak­ing prow­ess, Make­peace toured it to study the work of such great Dan­ish de­sign­ers as Hans Weg­ner and Arne Ja­cob­sen. “I ap­pre­ci­ated its hu­man­ity and their spe­cial cab­i­net mak­ing skills,” he re­calls.

Back home, he was ap­pren­ticed to Dorset cab­i­net maker Keith Cooper who told him he would never be a suc­cess, Make­peace cheer­fully re­veals. “But I have a strong re­bel­lious streak that took that as a chal­lenge.” He then en­rolled on an Ed­in­burgh-based busi­ness cor­re­spon­dence course that cov­ered de­sign his­tory. He taught craft and draw­ing skills in a sec­ondary mod­ern school in Birm­ing­ham and then took off on a tour of the US. In 1963 he con­verted farm build­ings in Ban­bury, Ox­ford­shire into his home and first work­shop, and in the mid-Six­ties he won an Ob­server kitchen de­sign com­pe­ti­tion prize of £600, which funded a trip to Africa.

“As an un­known it was tough find­ing cus­tomers.” But his idea of cre­at­ing a range of com­mer­cial prod­ucts man­u­fac­tured in small batches proved suc­cess­ful, sell­ing well at Heal’s, Lib­erty and Har­rods. This in­cluded a scar­let-stained woodand-glass cof­fee ta­ble stocked by Habi­tat that was a huge hit.

His suc­cess gave him the chance to re­turn to and de­velop his in­di­vid­ual ex­pres­sive, hand­crafted wooden pieces. He landed a com­mis­sion in the Six­ties to kit out 120 rooms at Ke­ble Col­lege, Ox­ford with be­spoke beds, chairs and wardrobes. In the Seven­ties he co-founded the Crafts Coun­cil, the na­tional agency to pro­mote Bri­tish de­signer-mak­ers, and was com­mis­sioned to make a din­ing ta­ble to cel­e­brate Lib­erty’s cen­te­nary in 1975. The re­sult­ing Arthurian-look­ing, limed-oak piece with a base shaped like branches re­flected his taste for nat­u­ral forms.

The Vic­to­ria & Al­bert Mu­seum ac­quired his 1978 birch ply, acrylic and stain­less steel stor­age unit with draw­ers that clev­erly swivel on a pivot. Fa­mous Make­peace de­signs in­clude his Eight­ies Syl­van chairs in oak and leather with back­rests shaped like writhing trees, and his idio­syn­cratic Nineties Trine chairs fash­ioned from yew, bog oak, stain­less steel and epoxy, each with a dif­fer­ent back­rest.

Pas­sion­ate to ed­u­cate, Make­peace has led ini­tia­tives with the V&A to en­cour­age ad­ven­tur­ous de­sign with speak­ers such as Amanda Levete and Thomas Heather­wick.

Forty years of cre­at­ing crafts­peo­ple: John Make­peace, left, at the De­sign Mu­seum in Kens­ing­ton for the Parn­ham Col­lege an­niver­sary

Right: Parn­ham House in Dorset, where early stu­dents in­cluded David Lin­ley and Bench­mark co-founder Sean Sut­cliffe

£870: Agnes high shelv­ing unit in oak by Kay + Stem­mer for SCP (scp.co.uk)

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