Celebrate the master craftsman
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)