Friday 6 July 2018
John Makepeace's career can be traced through a series of personal discoveries which resulted in him becoming one of the most significant British designers of the 20th century.
He says: “My life has evolved through the stimulus of discovery in a variety of disciplines. Each has opened new opportunities and new ways of thinking.”
John believes successful design will reflect the fundamental values of the designer. Adopting a style is less important than a clear personal philosophy to support decision making. “It means you're not bound by a particular style but are able to create an aesthetic in response to your own values. William Morris's designs emerged from the social concerns of his time. Perhaps our overwhelming question is how to address and express the need to minimise energy consumption.”
He was recognised for his efforts in extending and promoting the art of furniture design with the award of an OBE in 1988. His core principles were established early and they have guided him through his lifelong passion.
“Doing anything well involves questioning conventional solutions in a creative, meaningful way.
“Some eminent artists couldn't tolerate the impatience of young designers like me who wanted to break the rules. Furniture making is beset with conventions waiting to be challenged.”
John successfully mixes materials and techniques and his design skills could be applied to any material, so why choose wood? “I started working it when I was seven-years-old. It appealed to me from the start and I was comfortable with it.”
He discovered the potential to express his interest in the material during a visit to Hugh Birkett's workshop near Lapworth in 1950. It was where he first considered the possibility of a career in furniture making.
During his teenage years, John used the long summer holidays to seek inspiration in Europe and Scandinavia. “I liked what was happening in Denmark. It was a kind of trigger. Designers like Finn Juhl and Paul Kjaerholm were producing really imaginative designs that responded to people's needs.”
On completing his formal education he joined Keith Cooper in Dorset as a paying trainee. “Everyone was struggling in the 50s and I wasn't expected to survive as a designer-maker.
Keith suggested a teaching qualification so I did a correspondence course in the evenings alongside the workshop training.” John moved to Birmingham to complete his teacher training and remained working in local schools while continuing to make furniture at the weekends.
“I just missed conscription for national service so teaching in Small Heath and Sparkbrook was perhaps an equivalent experience,” he remarks.
With a burgeoning order book, John had no hesitation committing to full-time furniture-making, but not before a long-awaited trip to the United States. “I met a lot of designers, retailers and interior designers but the most valuable lesson was the attitude.
“It was a revelation to a young person brought up during and after the war: 'anything is possible'.”
Farnborough Barn emerged from a group of derelict farm buildings to become John's workshop, gallery and home. He initially focused his energies on small products for design retailers, individual commissions and interior projects for new college buildings in Oxford. “We developed a very successful folding glass-topped table and made them by the hundred but when we sub-contracted the making we sold them by the container load,” he recalls.
John's reputation as a designer began to flourish and commissions for complete interiors followed. Although the interior projects distracted him from his objective of designing and making furniture, they also led him to the founding Director of the Oxford Centre for Management Studies, the late Norman Leyland.
“Clients can often become mentors and he was a fascinating guy, a great teacher. I was intrigued by how I could access the business skills that he was teaching
executives which nobody thought that craftspeople needed.”
Artists are often bound by a peculiar attitude to business, believing that it compromises integrity, imposes on the creative process or constitutes a 'sell out'. John has a powerful riposte:
“Tell that to Norman Foster, Damien Hurst or Andy Goldsworthy! Artists can embrace business as an integral part of the creative process.”
In 1975 the Smithsonian Institute invited John to consider a proposal for a travelling exhibition but he was already nursing an idea to integrate his experiences to date. “As a member of the Crafts Council I'd seen what was happening in tertiary education and knew how difficult it was to earn a living making furniture.
I wanted to put something together from all the things I'd been fortunate to learn by chance.” The recession of 1973-1976 precluded financial backing for the proposed exhibition but John had already found a potential venue for his plans to expand the workshops and establish a college with access for the visiting public: Parnham House in Dorset.
“Parnham was offered at half the price it had been three years earlier. Everything about it was right and I was convinced it would work.” Every stage of the project became an immediate success; the Parnham name had achieved legendary status even before its closure in 2000.
The School for Craftsmanship in Wood, later known as Parnham College – or just as Parnham – created generations of makers who helped stimulate the current renaissance in cabinet making.
Alumni include Mark Boddington, the managing director of Silverlining Furniture, and Konstantin Grcic, a rising star in international product design.
It was also a period of significant creative ferment for John. Supported by his workshop team, he designed some of the most iconic pieces of furniture of the last century.
“Parnham was an extraordinary chapter, seeing a vision become reality. It was the product of a very capable and motivated team working their socks off, but it had a magical quality nonetheless.”
The Parnham curriculum included projects to develop products from coppice material at Longleat. John learnt that forest management included removing 90% of trees as 'thinnings', a secondary crop with little commercial value.
The Parnham Trust decided to construct the buildings of the new Hooke Park campus from the thinnings.
“To obtain Building Regulation Approval we had to initiate research into their structural properties. There were no building codes for the proposed structures so we had to prove the calculations required by the Department of the Environment,” he recalled. A series of collaborative research projects, involving several European universities, investigated every aspect of the structural properties and chemistry of the material under tension, bending and lateral loads.
“The blend of disciplines was essential in generating information for the design and calculations. As each new technology evolved it was demonstrated through the construction of a building.”
The results were applied to replace conventional rafters in a residential building and 75mm-diameter poles were bent to cover a 15m span in the workshops. Supports were also designed to carry the loads of a turf roof on the Westminster Lodge.
“It's encouraging to see some of the technologies developed at Hooke being adopted in furniture making, particularly the combination of materials like steel and resin for joints where timber alone is prone to fail,” he added.
John resigned as Director of the Parnham Trust in 2000 when it moved to Hooke Park under a new director. Parnham House was sold the following year and Hooke Park was handed over to the Architectural Association for their practical courses.
John recalls: “The Trust was a huge
part of my life; after 25 years I was shattered. It took a while for me to regain my momentum.”
Collaborating with his wife Jennie, John turned his attention to the restoration of Farrs, the 17th-century house which is now their home. It also houses a magnificent timber stock, an array of prototypes and John's design studio where he can focus on the design and production of commissioned furniture.
John is fascinated by the evolution of furniture structures and is happy to embrace technical developments in computer modelling when pushing the limits of his own designs. “We designed a table that was 16ft long with a central lattice column and needed to check that it wouldn't flex more than 6mm if you sat on the end. We were advised to increase an element in the grid from 6mm to 9mm to absorb those stresses. That was spot on.”
The potential for this powerful technique is no less impressive when structures do fail. “We investigated a chair design which was fine so long as the grain fibres followed the components precisely. When a chair broke it became clear the fibres were not following the apparent grain pattern on the surface. It was a success for pure engineering principles.”
John has plenty of opportunities to apply his principles at his current studio in Beaminster, and returning to the theme of values over style he considers his portfolio. “There are some recurring themes in my work. We cannot better nature but we can learn from how it evolves strong forms with extraordinary economy.”
“There's an interest in the relationship between the object and people. Perhaps we push materials in a way that's unusual for the period. There's innovation in terms of function and I try to involve craftsmen in extending the limits of making.”
John happily defers to the expertise of his craftsmen in questions of making. Clive Baines was a key figure in the Makepeace studios and now runs his workshop near Dorchester. “I have a close relationship with Clive which allows me to concentrate on design and the client relationship. Delegation is a privilege, allowing each person to perform at their peak whilst retaining their independence.”
He conjures a useful analogy: “I see myself as composer and conductor, the makers are the instrumentalists. I develop and interpret the score and they concentrate on the delivery. We need each other,” he said.
John pursues his enthusiasms, absorbs their lessons and uses them to inform his work. The business demands most of his time but he always finds space to extend his horizons.
“I've never tired of presenting work to the public. I'm planning an exciting project, an exhibition in New York. It's about developing a way of living that brings together a number of my current ideas.”
When testing the boundaries, John looks to his own sense of values to evaluate the success or failure of a design.
“I value integrity in a creative object, balance in form and structure, the choice of material, its weight and resonance and, of course, the craftsmanship and innovation.”
John's own assessment of his design philosophy is clear: “I respond to ideas and that's where I increasingly stand.”
Remember that USA versus Parnham watershed? John still has plans for a New York Collection, so come on, we are looking forward to you meeting the challenge – you've done pretty well everything else!