A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing furniture designer and maker John Makepeace about his illustrious career, his involvement in sustainability and education, and his forthcoming exhibition at Somerset House in London. The interview was published today in Inside the monthly newsletter produced by World Interiors News.
In today’s fast-paced, ever-changing world, there are not many people that can lay claim to a career that spans decades in a single industry. Particularly in the design field, where tastes change rapidly and styles come and go as quickly as the seasons change. But there are always a handful of people who manage to defy the fleeting nature of modern society, withstand the test of time and remain relevant throughout the ages. And John Makepeace is one of those people.
With an illustrious career behind him, Makepeace can now pride himself on 50 years at the forefront of the British furniture industry. The success that he has achieved over the years has led him to have one of the greatest possible accolades bestowed upon him: acknowledgement as ‘the Father of British furniture design’.
His career began back in the 1960’s, but his interest in furniture making dates back to his early childhood when he first discovered woodwork. This interest then extended into the realms of design and Makepeace says that Scandinavian design had a great deal of influence on his early career. “Scandinavian designers moved ahead from the rather modernist approach to something that was more humane. Their furniture in the 50s and 60s was becoming very comfortable, and this was something that they had been rather quicker on than the UK. They recognised that machines were capable of doing so much more than producing rectilinear furniture. So they were able to create furniture that was more organic in form and more responsive to human needs. And that has been a major influence on me,” explains Makepeace.
His enthusiasm for design later developed into a curiosity for architecture, which subsequently led him to collaborate with a number of architects, including the likes of the ground-breaking trio Ahrends, Burton and Koralek. Makepeace says: “My interest has been collaboration with other disciplines, because I very strongly believe that most innovation comes out of collaboration across disciplines.”
And this innovation is undoubtedly one of the reasons that have allowed Makepeace to forge himself a career that extends far beyond the UK market: 50 percent of his business now comes from abroad. But when asked what exactly he believes has led him to become known as the Father of British furniture design, Makepeace identifies three main factors.
Firstly, he says, it is down to his rebellious nature. “I don’t like making things that are conventional and I don’t like using techniques that are purely traditional. I really think that there is always a better answer.”
But he also believes that his involvement in education had a large role to play. In 1976, Makepeace bought Parnham House in Dorset in order to provide larger studios for his growing team, to establish separate residential workshop and teaching facilities for aspiring furniture makers, and to provide space for public exhibitions of contemporary art and design.
Makepeace had become keenly aware of the inadequacies in training at that time and wanted to develop an educational model that would integrate design and making skills with those required to run a business. “What that college was about was really bringing together an education in design, in making and in business management,” explains Makepeace. “Education tends to focus on training and in training designers within our arts college system, we were not giving them the business and manufacturing skills that they would need to become entrepreneurial. Training people in a single discipline is never enough. We need a variety of skills to survive in business.” In that sense, he says that the foundation of Parnham College was to a certain extent a rather paternalistic initiative on his part.
And Makepeace should be very proud of what his college has achieved. Many of his former students, including the likes of Sean Sutcliffe of Benchmark, Konstantin Grcic and Wales & Wales, have become leaders in their field.
But there is also a third aspect that has contributed to the success of Makepeace’s career and that is his involvement in forestry and sustainability. In 1983 he bought a 350-acre forest four miles from Parnham. Hooke Park became a centre for research and training where Makepeace taught students to understand the nature of forest produce in order to design and manufacture products that exploited its best properties.
This was demonstrated by the campus buildings at Hooke Park, which were created by a team of structural engineers, architects, material scientists and chemists all working on a series of pan-European research projects to develop new technologies for the improved utilisation of thinnings in the construction of buildings.
It is these three aspects that have combined to bring Makepeace international acclaim and that have won him a number of awards in recognition of his achievements. One of his proudest moments though came in 1988 when he was awarded an OBE for services to design. “In a way, the OBE back in 1988 was recognition of the effectiveness of Parnham,” says Makepeace.
But he says he was also very proud to have been nominated for the 2010 Prince Philip Designers Prize. Nominated alongside other high-ranking design greats such as Bill Moggridge, Vivienne Westwood, Eva Jiricna and Zaha Hadid, Makepeace says that although he did not win the prize, he was happy to have received a commendation. “Bill Moggridge who won it has been hugely influential through his development of the laptop. One wouldn’t expect to win against something of such global significance,” he says modestly.
After five decades in the industry, Makepeace has come to the conclusion that the profession of furniture designer and maker is perhaps the ultimate career and one that he finds to be broadly fulfilling. “It is a creative activity, it deals with people, it’s a physical activity and it is involved in business. Every aspect of it contributes to a balanced life,” he explains.
And what better way to celebrate 50 years of practising the ultimate career than to hold an exhibition showcasing the very best of your work? ‘Enriching the Language of Furniture’ is John Makepeace’s first ever solo exhibition and brings together 25 pieces from public and private collections in the UK and abroad, some not previously seen by the public.
“Because I was running the college for 25 years it made sense over that period to show with the students and although many of our shows were quite high profile it means that I have consequently never had a solo show before,” explains Makepeace.
The touring exhibition will arrive in London on March 16th where Makepeace’s work will be displayed at Somerset House until April 15th.