John Makepeace has made furniture for more than 60 years. His studio is known for the organic forms of its woodwork. In 1977, he founded Parnham College, a school for aspiring cabinet makers and designers. Viscount Linley, Konstantin Grcic and Steuart Padwick are among the notable alumni. Makepeace helped found the UK’s Crafts Council development agency and holds an OBE award for services to furniture design. Since the 1970s, when he created a popular coffee table for Heal’s, he has focused on commissions. One of Makepeace’s most recent projects was a washed oak desk for the Duchess of Devonshire.
Why did you choose to go into design? Had you always been interested by cabinetry?
As a kid, I loved woodwork. We also had a family friend with original Marcel Breuer furniture. That was wonderful because it opened my eyes to that whole [20th-century] period of design. I trained at a workshop in Dorset [in southern England] and at the same time qualified to teach, because the principal told me that I wouldn’t make money as furniture maker, so I had to have something to fall back on. That helped me a lot. I did much more reading and discovered a host of interesting abstract issues.
How would you characterise your style?
It’s post-Bauhaus. During training, I realised there was an overriding Bauhaus aesthetic in the UK that still wanted to express machines. I want to express humanity and activity, rather than machines. Most design is about supporting some kind of human activity. The other thing I am concerned with is materiality: what is the stuff?
Name your top three influences
When I was young I was very taken with the Arts & Crafts movement: William Morris, Ernest Gimson and Sydney Barnsley. Beyond that I was influenced by Frei Otto, the German architect and engineer. I attended his lecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1972 when he was building designs for garden festivals out of timber grid shells that spanned five acres. Also, Ted Happold, an eminent structural engineer. I worked with both of them on the new campus at Hooke Park in Dorset.
What has been your favourite project?
Setting up Parnham [College] must be one. In 1976, I was at a stage where I not only wanted to be running my own studio but I was also very critical of the state system of training designers and people going into business. I started Parnham in 1977. The idea was to bring together the disciplines that help people become successful designers, makers and entrepreneurs. You disempower people by separating the disciplines you need in practice.
If you weren’t allowed to, who would design a chair for you?
Joseph Walsh, who works near Cork. We’re good friends and I have huge regard for him. He’s young, largely self-taught and he’s making some wonderful furniture.
Is there anyone in your field that you particularly admire?
A name that is very much with me at the moment is Wendell Castle, who died recently. We were friends after I went to the US in the 1960s. I have one piece by him: it’s a music stand.
What is the one object you would never allow in your home?
It’s a curious thing, but as a principle I don’t like reproduction furniture of any period. It’s moribund.
Do you have any of your own designs in your home?
It’s almost a gallery for my furniture. We open the house and garden for group visits and for clients. We collect paintings, ceramics and some sculpture as well, so the furniture is all part of the scene. The house hadn’t been sold since 1730, when we bought it — extraordinary for a small townhouse.
What is the strangest request you have ever had?
One that comes to mind is someone rather eminent who wanted a Tyrolean beer tankard as a trophy made in wood. We managed to deliver it, but I doubt it would have been drunk out of except in a height of excitement.
What do you look for in a client?
I think people who are prepared to commission things inherently enjoy a sense of adventure. It’s much more common for people to want to see something and want to make a decision, rather than imagine something that’s better than something they’ve ever seen. The aim of design is to see beyond.
Could you name a favourite building?
The Allen Lambert Galleria by Santiago Calatrava in Toronto. It was quite early in his career, but it is the most wonderful space. Toronto isn’t the most inspiring city, but this is a beautiful intervention.
What gave you the idea for your first Heal’s coffee table?
The Heal’s table came about because we needed a table at home. Just eight bits of wood screwed together one Sunday at home. Initially, it was made in batches, then industrially, and was sold in Habitat by the container load. That was what convinced me that mass production was not what I wanted to spend my life doing.
What is the key to transforming a piece of wood into a memorable piece of furniture?
It’s about distillation of ideas: reducing something to a clear concept in structure and design. There is a host of design criteria one is looking to fulfil, from anthropometrics to behavioural science. You are creating an environment for someone’s pleasure. You want the dining table to engage someone. Furniture should be engaging.
What do you think is more important in design: form or function?
Function isn’t only physical and form is what we remember. So really they are all one because they are so complementary.
What is the next frontier for design, in your opinion?
What disappoints me is that people are using digital techniques to produce old ideas. So much is possible now. We’ve heard a lot about 3D printing, but for me that isn’t the way forward for furniture but great for model-making, engineering or for medical purposes. I love the idea of being able to draw a line in space and have a machine reproduce that form — that’s very exciting. I like the idea of making freestanding furniture that will be passed on. We had a lovely case recently where the parents invited each of their four children, ranging in age from four to 12, to commission a chair. What a brilliant thing to do.
What do you see as the overriding trend in your field at the moment — even if you don’t subscribe to it?
Contemporary furniture is so diverse. Natural materials are expensive to work [with], but there is international demand for the best. A combination of fresh ideas, beautifully made in real materials remain on trend. Alongside, new forms, materials and technologies are evolving. Over time, these will become more popular and affordable.
John Parnham is author of “Beyond Parnham”, a limited edition history of Parnham graduates’ careers and Makepeace’s own furniture ( beyondparnham.com)
Photographs: John Makepeace; LightRocket via Getty Images