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John Makepeace

by Helen Johnson

Published: November 2008

“ The thing I learned was that anything’s possible. That was a great discovery.”

John Makepeace sees his life as “an adventure, punctuated by a series of discoveries on the way. Wood was an early discovery, and design came in its train.” Each discovery has given him a wider understanding of design and his craft, and now John is looking forward to furthering his adventures through new projects. As a teenager, John expected to join the Church. But events, including school woodwork classes and a visit to a furniture maker, he says, “sensitised” him to wood. However, when John suggested a career in furniture making, he was repeatedly advised that he wouldn’t make a living from it. He says, “small craft-based businesses were dying on their feet in the mid 50s. When I looked for a workshop training, there were very few possibilities.” John trained with Keith Cooper in Dorset – but had to pay Keith for the privilege of working for him. John says, “A youngster can’t earn his keep, and Keith saw it as normal to pay – and that was before a ‘minimum wage’.”

Keith also warned that John wouldn’t make a living from furniture making, so John did a correspondence course in teaching handicraft. He enjoyed it, especially, he says, “the broad range of reading on the history of design, and the philosophy of teaching.”

John spent two years with Keith, then two years teaching in schools. While teaching, he spent weekends making furniture for his portfolio.

John then travelled around North America. He looked at furniture, design, and interior design, and met leading designers. He says, “In those days, you could meet people – there wasn’t that thing of ‘I’m too important’. It may be different now, but there was an openness there. The thing I learned was that anything’s possible. That was a great discovery.”

On his return, John founded his business. He says, “I had taken my folio to America and came back with orders. I started with modest ones and did anything for anybody.” John recalls, “There was a growing awareness of design then, largely because of the Design Council, founded in the mid-50s.”

He says, “I noticed most craft workshops at that time were making traditional designs, or almost copies of industrial design – but doing it by hand. The quality was better, but there was nothing about the design expressing that it was made by different methods, people or materials. But how do you bring that to life?” John says that early on, he was influenced by the mores of the Arts and Crafts movement, but the discovery of good architecture was a revelation. He says, ‘’There were some great contemporary buildings being designed, particularly for the Oxford and Cambridge colleges.”

John’s next discovery was business. He says, “Through designing and making furniture for the Oxford Centre for Management Studies, I discovered the creative dimension of capable business management. It made me more aware of business as an activity that could be steered – that one is not a victim.” Then came the Crafts Council. John says, Lord Goodman of the Arts Council, Lord Reilly of the Design Council, and Lord Eccles, Minister for the Arts, all visited my studio. That initial visit was when the Crafts Council was being planned, but I was invited to join it when it formed in 1972.” Why did the Lords choose to visit John? He says, “There was a lot of interest in my work, particularly from the press. Designer makers were thin on the ground and few worked in a contemporary idiom.” Serving on the Crafts Council involved John in education and training and, he says, “That directly led me to recognise the need for a college for furniture makers.”

John distinguishes between education and training. He says, “They’re easily confused, even today. Education opens up questions and possibilities in an abstract sense. Training closes down, focussing, and applies technology. The two are quite different in intent and effect.”

In 1976, John bought Parnham House in Dorset, and founded a furniture making school. He says, “the idea was that education and training would go on adjacent to my own studio, but separate. There was frustrated potential for furniture makers. The course fees at the time were more than Eton, but immediately there were twenty applicants for ten places.” The course was intensive, covering making, designing, and business, with a final exhibition at a prestigious venue. Students benefited from visiting tutors, as well as regular teachers. John says, “I was running my own workshop, running the college, and fundraising for future development. Life was full-on, seven days a week.” Despite this, John says, “The next discovery was forestry. I searched for a location for a school to integrate forestry with woodworking, and this led to Hooke Park, a 350 acre forest four miles from Parham.” John explains, “In a managed forest, 90% of the trees are removed as thinnings. Conventionally, these go for pulp or firewood. But if we can use them for building components, then we can make forestry sustainable. All the buildings at Hooke are about that.” Using timber in new ways meant that planners and building inspectors had nothing to base their decisions on. So, says John, “We did research projects with several British and European universities to develop the science. In getting those buildings approved, we established new principles that can be re-applied.”

John applies these principles of materials science and structural engineering in his own practice. He says, “Woodworkers tend to think their work is not pure if it is not all wood. But wood often performs better with other materials. Materials science helps us to understand the nature of materials and how they can be complementary to each other. That knowledge now informs my designs.” While working on Hooke, John was awarded the OBE. He says, “I got it for services to design. It was quite novel for a furniture maker to get an OBE. I was thrilled – it was a reflection of Parnham and the team there.” Eventually, though, John stepped back. He says, “I decided to hand over, so the Trustees appointed a new director in my place. It was a huge success, but I was exhausted: for twenty five years, I’d worked seven days a week. What I found most draining in the latter years was fundraising. I raised £5 million for the Parnham Trust.” John sold Parnham House. The school, which had relocated to Hooke Park, amalgamated with the Architectural Association. John offers three tips to new starters: “1. Doing simple things well is a vital foundation. 2. Decent photography is crucial. 3. If you are a good maker, it’s silly to pretend you’re a good designer if you’re not. Better to get alongside a good designer. Anyway, contractors get paid better than designer-makers!” And, he observes, “People survive despite undercharging. It’s a reflection of confidence – or lack of it. When I joined the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers (now the Chartered Society of Designers), I realised that design time had value. If you don’t charge for it, you simply demean your professionalism.”

Now that he has thinking time, John has plans for more adventures, and says, “I am now able to enjoy designing and making in a more relaxed phase; there is even time to travel again.”


John Makepeace OBE FCSD FRSA
takes commissions at his Dorset studio.
Contact him at:
www.johnmakepeacefurniture.com
T: 01308 862204

 
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