Furniture maker John Makepeace combined design, craft and business acumen in student courses offered at Parnham College, which he founded 40 years ago, in addition to running his own successful studio, bringing him an abundance of awards and plaudits
Words by Emily Martin
September 2017 is a momentous time for John Makepeace, marking as it does 40 years since he founded Parnham College – the educational phenomenon that inspired a generation of designers and furniture makers, influencing the world of contemporary design ever since.
This month is the launch of his latest book, Beyond Parnham, celebrating the college’s alumni that has given a lasting legacy to the world of contemporary design. The alumni include world-famous designers such as Konstantin Grcic, David Linley, Sean Sutcliffe, Juliane Trummer, Jake Phipps, and Verena Wriedt.
Parnham House, bought in 1976 by John Makepeace. It was sold when the Parnham College trustees decided in 2001 to amalgamate it into the Architectural Association
Over the course of his career Makepeace has been recognised for achievements in design and furniture making. In 1988, he received an OBE for services to furniture design. Many more accolades followed over the years, and in 2016 John was awarded the Prince Philip Designers Prize in recognition of his outstanding contribution to design, having been specially commended in 2010. The American Furniture Society presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 and also the Society’s Award of Distinction, and he was the recipient of the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers.
Work from John Makepeace includes the Chatswork Desk
The list of his awards seems endless. Makepeace’s fascination with wood began at an early age. ‘After the [1939-45] war our house needed some attention and it was the first time we were able to get hold of some wood, because of the rationing,’ he recalls. ‘So I not only enjoyed watching the carpenter, but I also got hold of the off-cuts. To me the tiniest piece of wood was quite a treasure.’
The Undulate table, in Sycamore
While experimenting with these little off-cuts and a penknife, Makepeace became curious about how things were made. He began carpentry classes when he was six and became fascinated with a nearby cricket bat factory that he frequently visited. ‘Quite often, when I got off the bus from school, I would divert and go around the workshop. The workers were always so kind and would always give me little pieces of off-cuts,’ he says. ‘I find it extraordinary what helps you find what you want to do in life, but I suppose more significant for me was visiting a furniture makers’ workshop and seeing all the super-quality furniture being made. And that just laid in the back of my mind for years.’
Detail of the Mace staff in Sycamore for the University of Bournemouth;
Though he had plans for university and a career in the church, the young Makepeace reviewed this career path when his father died and he became focused on the idea of a career as a furniture maker. At 18, he took a trip to Scandinavia and saw the work of the great Danish designers of the day, including Hans Wegner, Arne Jacobsen and Finn Juhl.
Mulberry 3 chair, for Rosaline and Henry Wong, Hong Kong
While an apprentice under Keith Cooper, he was told not to expect to make a living out of furniture making. ‘It only confirmed what I had been told by my family! And I thought that there was something wrong with this – I didn’t want to believe it,’ says Makepeace.
‘Scandinavia had alerted me to design, and in this country I could have become totally engrossed in making, but actually I recognised it was design that actually made the difference.’
Eventually, setting up a workshop in Banbury he soon earned national acclaim for his retail products for Heal’s, the Centenary Dining Room for Liberty’s and winning design competitions, including one set by The Observer to design a modern kitchen. Makepeace intended his products for retailers and designed for mass production, and he gained much media interest. Soon he had architects also enquiring after his services and, in setting up a consultancy, he was travelling all over the world for projects.
The Seventies saw him become a founder trustee of the Crafts Council. Its aim was to support and promote the work of artist-craftsmen, but Makepeace became keenly aware of the inadequacies in current training and wanted to develop an educational model that would integrate design and making skills with those needed to run a business. He had also become very interested in management and management training, and had noted a lack of training in running small to medium-sized businesses.
Graduation Chairs, for Plymouth University
‘I had also several people coming to work for me who were graduates from the RCA, or other top design colleges, and they all wanted to work with someone who could make things,’ says Makepeace. ‘They felt that being able to design needed balancing with making, and it’s interesting that these two skills are separated in education.
And if we could get design, making and business together, then that would be doing a real service. I decided to set up a college alongside the business, while keeping them separate.’
In 1976, John bought Parnham House in Dorset. The purchase of this 80-room Grade I listed Tudor manor house was to achieve three objectives: to provide larger studios for the growing team he employed; to establish separate residential, workshop and teaching facilities for aspiring furniture makers; and to open the historic house to the public with exhibitions of contemporary art and design.
By the summer of 1976, Makepeace’s studio and workshops were operational in their new premises and in September 1977 the first cohort of students started their course. ‘We had 20 applicants for the first 10 places,’ he says, ‘and for a fee-paying course, which initially cost £3,000 a year – as context Eton was £2,400 a year.’ It was hugely popular and prospective students weren’t put off by the fees or by the amount of work they expected to do.
The college’s prospectus of 1998 read: ‘While you are at Parnham you will be required to work hard. The minimum amount you can anticipate being in the workshop is 8am until 5.30pm. The day is extended until 9pm three evenings per week with the addition of a forum on Monday, drawing class on Tuesday and computer class on Wednesday. Fridays are spent in the classroom alternating between Wood Science and Design Culture sessions. One full day per month concentrates on business analysis and understanding what is involved in running a successful business of your own.’
Through the Eighties and Nineties, while directing the college and running his own studio, Makepeace addressed some of the forestry industry’s most pressing economic concerns and explored its environmental potential. He brought together foresters, chemists, material scientists, structural engineers and designers to research and develop sustainable new technologies and building systems. They used forest ‘thinnings’ – low-value, small-diameter trees removed to enable the better specimens to develop.
‘By 2001, I was exhausted and I asked the college trustees to appoint a director,’ says Makepeace. At this point the new campus at Hooke Park, also in Dorset, had completed transferring the school from its Parnham House location. ‘I had raised £6m [for the new facility] as well as designing, running the college and raising money and over-seeing the development of the new site. That was three to five years of quite hard work, and I was ready to drop,’ he recalls. The trustees opted instead for an amalgamation with the Architectural Association, which Makepeace says was ‘sad’. ‘I hated the idea of the trust not continuing, because I think to connect forestry to design and manufacturing makes so much sense,’ he says. ‘Connecting to architecture is equally important, but it was not in my original perception.’
He describes it as a ‘bereavement’, but having sold Parham House and moved it to the new Hooke Park location, life had moved on for Makepeace. But it’s clear he remains frustrated.
‘The world needs a Parnham more than ever, but I see it as a cyclic thing where we seem to lurch from one madness to another. I don’t believe that the furniture industry is half as dynamic as it should be,’ he says. ‘There’s some really good people in the industry, but they don’t get their act together about where they are going to be in 20-30 years’ time. And individual companies say that they don’t want to fund research because it’s in their interest and wouldn’t want to share it. We’ve got this blind spot about the future.’
Since 2000, he has been leading initiatives with the V&A to encourage more adventurous design. Longer term, he plans the sponsorship and endowment of a national educational initiative for young designers.
He also continues to create fascinating work. Having completed a set of seven ceremonial chairs in 2016 for Plymouth University his more recent commissions include for Rosaline and Henry Wong in Hong Kong, and for an international legal practice in Malibu. His iconic work is represented in numerous collections including in the V&A, London, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the Museum für Kunstandwerk, Frankfurt and the Arts Institute, Chicago.
‘Some of my early pieces were designed where I was using machines because they were batch products’, he notes. ‘More often, recently, I have been using machines differently. I don’t think we any longer have to have an aesthetic that expresses machines; I think that sense of Bauhaus, looking to give expression to the new age, has passed as actually the new age can do anything. Instead, I am looking for humanity to become the point, rather than machines determining form, and asking the question: “What are our feelings?”
‘I am very interested in using digital design and working with a digital engineer to get a programme, though the making of 3D objects is hugely extensive as they are one-offs. It’s all worth it in my mind, but one needs to extend the language so that digitally produced pieces become an extension of craft.’