John Makepeace: Officer of the British Empire, professor, nurturer of new talent, master of design and disrupter of the status quo. We explore the inspirational furniture maker’s legacy 40 years on
Wandering around the Design Museum, you begin to get an idea of the revolutionary way designers shape the way we live. How the dining table was transformed into a curved piece of plywood, or how the humble wooden rocking chair ended up as a cantilevered piece of plastic. Much of this is due to John Makepeace OBE.
The unnassuming 78-year-old furniture maker greets me in a quiet room on the second floor with a cheery smile and light handshake, a vibrant magenta shirt the only hint to the rather unorthodox approach he has to life in general.
Born in Solihull in 1939, Makepeace’s fascination with carpentry began at an early age, much to the surprise of his family. “I found that because I was the youngest – the last of five children – I was quite solitary. I amused myself with all sorts of woodworking, misusing the tools that were there. Eventually I was given a chisel and it progressed from there.”
Makepeace enrolled in an apprenticeship with Dorset-based furniture designer Keith Cooper, earning 15p an hour, alongside studying a distance learning programme in teaching that introduced him to the philosophy and theory behind design. “It was a really vital moment. I was obviously keen and worked quite hard in the daytime,” he recalls, “and then in the evenings and weekends I studied this course and learnt the curriculum.”
Trips abroad to Nigeria, Morroco and Scandinavia provided further education to help focus his eye on form. “I would say what changed things more than any other visit was going to Denmark as a teenager,” says Makepeace, “and actually realising that what they were making at that time was the best. I saw individually made items for the first time in my life. They understood the body, and their shapes were responsive to that.”
Makepeace’s first port of call when starting out on his own was to head for retailers. He arranged a meeting with a furniture buyer at Heal’s, but instead of showing a portfolio of his work, Makepeace brought in a table he had made. While he waited for his appointment, customers in the store began to marvel at the simple design – eight pieces of wood screwed together with a glass top that could be dissembled for ease of transportation. Heal’s ordered six immediately.
“A fortnight later they ordered another six,” marvels Makepeace. “The numbers went up and up, and eventually the volume was greater than we could cope with, and we started manufacturing them in what was then Yugoslavia.”
Other retailers followed suit, such as Habitat and Liberty, but department stores weren’t the end game. Makepeace won contracts for universities, offices and eventually individuals who wanted to order one-of-a-kind pieces.
“Do simple things well. It’s a good idea to start with doing very basic things perfectly, because that becomes a platform for constant grace.”
This success led him to be the only furniture maker commissioned by the Carpenters’ Company guild, for which he crafted a three-legged chair. “The back leg gives you lumbar support, which is so crucial and so often missing,” he explains. “The construction is quite sophisticated: the arms have multiple layers that bend and twist and become part of the back.”
Makepeace was awarded an OBE by Her Majesty the Queen in 1988 in recognition for his work at Parnham College in Dorset (and later Hooke Park campus), which he founded 40 years ago to provide integrated courses in design and management for aspiring furniture makers (alumni include the likes of David Linley). “It’s quite an interesting situation: having a concept, realising it, and then 40 years later people saying how it has affected their lives,” he says.
The college once received the Duke of Edinburgh for an offical visit and Makepeace recalls a dinner with His Royal Highness the Prince, dropping into conversation how much he would love to design something for Buckingham Palace. Philip suggested he copy one of the original tables in the household, but Makepeace declined, saying he could only do a contemporary work. “One has to have principles,” smiles Makepeace on turning down royalty. “Life is too short.”
Design for Makepeace is a “human language”, guiding the way people react to one another. He experiments with this in the 18th-century home he shares with his wife Jennie in Dorset. “When we sit people down for dinner, we have 12 different chairs around the table so people have already made some sort of selection about which chair they want to sit in.”
His home is also an opportunity for him to continue supporting a new generation of designers through commissions – young silversmiths, goldsmiths and blacksmiths have created everything from the gates of his home to a vase for his table. It is so impactful that the house and garden have been made open to the public.
And if a student were to leave his college with only one lesson learnt, what would that to be? “Do simple things well. It’s a good idea to start with doing very basic things perfectly, because that becomes a platform for constant grace.”