People: British furniture makers – John Makepeace

By Stefanie Gerdes
September 21, 2018

John Makepeace’s career spans more than 50 years. Specalising in the design of furniture and interiors from his home and studio in Beaminster, West Dorset, he set up Parnham College in 1976 and was awarded an OBE in 1988 for his services to furniture design.

How do you think British furniture is perceived – and how has this changed?
The quality of making by designer-makers is generally good. Some also have strong design skills, and they tend to have a higher profile in the media which is changing perceptions.

What do you think the history books will say about furniture in the 21st century?
Contemporary design is our legacy to future generations. The significant innovations of our time will become landmarks in history. Function, structure, and expression change in response to relevant developments in the economy, science, and the arts.
I would like to think in the 21st century people will have less furniture – each item will be more distinctive and of higher quality.

What challenges did you face at the start of your career compared with today?
It has always been difficult to find new customers. Not one exhibition is ideal; they are all costly when combined with the expense of making items speculatively.

How has the community of British furniture designer-makers influenced you?
Early on, I really admired the furniture by Ernest Gimson and the Barnsleys.
The great Danish workshops in the late 1950s showed the potential of combining hand-made with more sophisticated machine processes.

Who or what are your biggest inspirations?
Furniture construction and processes have changed little since the 17th century, except they have been mechanised. The big advances have arisen from the work of material scientists and structural engineers whose combination of materials has enabled new possibilities in wood. I worked closely with the late Professor Frei Otto and Professor Sir Ted Happold on the Hooke Park campus development. Technologies that were pioneered there have fed into the designer-maker vocabulary.

Who are your main customer type and what do you sell the most of? Has this changed since you first started?
The change has been enormous. In the early 1960s, Britain was still rather dreary. Visiting the USA was a revelation and immensely stimulating; I learned anything is possible.
The media helped establish my reputation, which led to furnishing the interiors of new college buildings in Oxford, boardrooms, and items for the permanent museum collections, which led to better commissions.

Do you think it’s easier or harder for the new generation of designer-makers?
More than ever, survival requires a variety
of entrepreneurial skills. Design, making, communication, and the financial controls make demands on all our abilities and are consequently hugely fulfilling.

What piece of advice would you offer someone starting out in the industry?
Learn to look after every aspect of
the enterprise.