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Published: September 2017

Beyond Parnham

John Makepeace

Designer and Furniture Maker

Winner of the Prince Philip Designers Prize 2016

OBE, FCSD, FRSA and founder of Parnham College

September 2017 is a momentous time for John Makepeace, marking 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. 

Over the course of his career John has been recognised for achievements in design and furniture making, but has shied the limelight notoriously not seeking interviews. 

In 1988 he received an OBE for services to furniture design. On the bestowal of this prestigious honour, John said, "It is unheard of for a furniture maker to receive an OBE, I'm of course thrilled, but it is a reflection of our work at Parnham and the team here."

Many more accolades followed over the years and in 2016 John won the Prince Philip Designers Prize in recognition of his outstanding contribution to design, in 2010 he received the Special Commendation. Adding to this, The American Furniture Society presented John with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 and also the Society’s Award of Distinction and the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers. 

John's iconic work is represented in numerous collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the Museum fur Kunstandwerk, Frankfurt and the Arts Institute, Chicago. He now works to commission, undertaking exclusive  projects each year. 


His unconventional approach to making furniture has been a constant throughout his career: "I have a strong rebellious streak - as an artist, designer and maker. I am constantly searching for more eloquent concepts for furniture. My objective is to achieve freer, lighter, stronger and more sculptural forms expressed through each unique commission."

John's award-winning work represents a meeting of classic and modern, embodying craftsmanship of the highest standard. Each piece of furniture, stand-alone or as part of a collection, is highly original and quintessentially English.

Born in 1939, John became enchanted with wood at an early age. Curiosity about how things were made meant he was constantly taking things apart or whittling away at wood scraps. He began carpentry classes at the age of six and became fascinated with a nearby cricket bat factory that he frequently visited. Aged 11, he went to a furniture workshop with his mother and the quality he saw helped decide his ambitions. 

Though he had plans for university and a career in the Church, the young Makepeace reviewed this career path when his father died and became focused on the idea of a career as a furniture maker. 

Aware of the superb furniture being made in Scandinavia, John travelled there to see work by the great Danish designers of the day: Hans Wegner, Arne Jacobsen and Finn Juhl. For the first time, John saw work combining innovative design with technical prowess.  

While an apprentice under Keith Cooper, he was told not to expect to make a living out of furniture making. This must have ignited his self-confessed rebellious streak, as the young craftsman promptly set-up his own workshop. John soon earned national acclaim for his retail products for Heal’s, the Centenary Dining Room for Liberty’s and winning design competitions, including an Observer challenge to design the perfect modern kitchen.

Prior to this, John’s curiosity about architecture intensified in the late sixties designing ‘total interiors’ for both offices and accommodation for fellows and students at Oxford colleges. He also came to recognise that creativity is not the preserve of artists but permeates all disciplines, not least business management. Winning the Observer design competition in the mid-sixties, allowed John to use the £600 prize money to travel to Africa to study the mud buildings in Nigeria and Morocco.

The 1970s saw him become a founder trustee of the Crafts Council. The Council’s aim was to support and promote the work of artist-craftsmen, but John 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 required to run a business.


In 1976, John bought Parnham House in Dorset, (that sadly has been in the headlines recently due to the devastating fire), the purchase of this eighty-roomed 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.

The creation of Parnham College was one of those rare educational wonders where a superb vocational education was on offer: advanced design and craftsmanship skills taught by experts in a stunning environment. 

The College gave a lasting legacy to the world of contemporary design through the ongoing work of its illustrious alumni that include world-famous designers such as Konstantin Gric, David Linley, Sean Sutcliffe, Juliane Trummer, Jake Phipps, Verena Wriedt and many others.

In the summer of 1976, John’s studio and workshops were operational in their new premises and in September 1977 the first cohort of students started their course. The College prospectus contained both a warning and a promise. ‘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,’ (Parnham College Prospectus, 1998). 

Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, while directing the College and running his own studio, John Makepeace addressed some of forestry’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 trees of small diameter removed to enable the better specimens to develop. The award-winning buildings that resulted at the Hooke Park campus are proof of the highly  successful multi-disciplinary collaboration.

John Makepeace has been a challenger of design throughout his career, of this he said, "The history of British design in the twentieth century has largely been shaped by the drive to reduce costs. This has resulted in an impoverishment of furniture as an expressive medium." 

"All meaningful design starts from the human form whether it is a cabinet, table or chair. Furniture can fulfil a variety of needs, but more than anything it is an indication of contemporary culture and our participation in that." 

"In a world where so much attention is given to the short-term and superficial, our relationship with design and fine craftsmanship is more important than ever."

"Beautifully made and designed pieces that will endure and become signals of our time to future generations are a necessary antidote to the easily discarded culture that now permeates our existence."

John continues to create fascinating work. Having completed a set of seven ceremonial chairs in 2016 for Plymouth University and more recently, exclusive commissions for Rosaline and Henry Wong in Hong Kong and an international legal practice in Malibu; John Makepeace Furniture also works in series, where a theme is developed in each piece, a good example is the ‘Flow’ set of four chest-of-drawers, all made from the same tree of ripple ash, one of the few uses of wood featured in the momentous V&A exhibition, 'The Power of Making.'

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.



Beyond Parnham 

The story of an educational phenomenon that inspired a generation of designers and furniture makers: forty years on, they reflect on their careers.

“Beyond Parnham is an exceptional resource both for professionals seeking complementary talents and for those who appreciate design and fine craftsmanship” 

Curated by John Makepeace OBE, FCSD, FRSA and founder of Parnham College.

Limited edition • published September 2017 • exactly 40 years since the official opening of Parnham College • £35.00 plus £5.00 P&P

For information about the book and to reserve your copy, please email [email protected]  

Copies are also available for sale from the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Design Museum.


The 5th Sept at the Design Museum 

Beyond Parnham will officially be launched at the British Design Museum on the 5th Sept  2017, 18:15-19:45. 

Join an esteemed line-up of speakers including Richard Sennett, John Makepeace, Glenn Adamson and Catharine Rossi in a talk about the importance of making, design and the future of craftsmanship. 

For details and to book your place, please see or visit  


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