Written by Emily Lu
In 1988, Britain’s most distinguished furniture maker, John Makepeace, was awarded an OBE by the Queen of England for his services to design. While in China as a special guest at the first ever Design Shanghai show, he took the time to give VANTAGE an exclusive interview.
Born in 1939, John Makepeace is Britain’s most distinguished furniture maker. Architects, museum curators, companies, universities and private clients have beaten a path to his door. Besides, he established the famous Parnham College and made unparalleled achievements in education.At the current phase of his career, he still works with a small number of private clients around the world.
As “the father of British furniture design” and the first recipient of the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers Lifetime Achievement Award, you do not have to have read up on Makepeace’s background to know that the gentlemen before you is distinguished in some way. His fine furniture, with its unique and whimsical design, speaks for itself.
Makepeace’s success can be attributed to his talent as a designer, craftsman, and also as a manager. As an educator in furniture crafts, Makepeace’s students have included such luminaries as the Queen of England’s nephew, Lord Linley, who is now the UK Chairman of auction house Christie’s, and the celebrated German designer Konstantin Grcic, whose designs can be seen in many of Shanghai’s trendy bars and restaurants.
Makepeace bought and renovated Parnham House, a grand estate in Dorset, South West England, in 1976, turning it in to his School for Craftsmen in Wood. Meanwhile, he continued his own business, catering to a growing clientèle of sophisticated, design-savvy Americans and Europeans. Concerned with the sustainability of timber grown in the UK, he purchased a 350 acre woodland named Hooke Park in order to better understand and utilise indigenous timber.
First Stay in Shanghai
Technically, this is not Makepeace’s first time in Shanghai, although his earlier experience was simply a stopover in 2004 before a connecting flight to Kunming. Ten years later, Design Shanghai gave Makepeace a reason to come to Shanghai for real. Participating in this short but unique exhibition, he presented three beautiful pieces of furniture. Together with Zizaoshe founder Song Tao, he gave a lecture on Design and Craft, and later at the Poly International auction, Song bought Makepeace’s ‘Serendipity’ chair – a luxurious armchair made of 5,000 year old bog oak. Another extraordinary piece was ‘Zebras’, a pair of marquetry cabinets made in white holly and black oak with scarlet lacquered interiors. However, this classic yet quirky piece failed to sell at the auction this time round and I saw at the auction the faintest flash of disappointment on his face. Nevertheless, on returning to his booth, he smiled at my concern: “Oh no. I’ve already sold my chair, right?” Rather than arriving in Shanghai with the haughty attitude of someone who expected the crowds to fawn over him, Makepeace has instead expressed his surprise that so many people recognized his work at the Design Shanghai show, as well as the general enthusiasm the visitors had to see some of the best furniture design in the world.
Adventure in Wood
The youngest of five children to a prosperous motor trader, Makepeace was the only one who followed in his grandfather’s footsteps as a furniture-maker. At the age of seven, he started to try working with a chisel, which led to his first ever piece, a small boat, which later “sailed away” from Solihull, Makepeace’s birthplace. He never went to college, but spent two years studying furniture making in a craftsman’s workshop, where he worked extremely hard. By the age of 22, he had already designed for various famous furniture brands. However, not interested in just selling his design as many other designers did, Makepeace determinedly pursued a more creative career. “I feel it’s quite fulfilling,” he muses, “that you take something from nature and make something of enduring quality out of it. I think I’m hugely privileged to have that career.”
“You can’t do it if you don’t understand the material. And you only understand the language of wood by doing this year after year after year…we say at least for 10,000 hours, which means five years to gain fluency.”
According to Makepeace, wood has properties that we don’t explore enough in most commercial furniture and it might not be so familiar to many other designers. Among the rare kinds of woods he use in his furniture are holly, cherry, yew and mulberry. Makepeace is never afraid to step out of his comfort zone, but he has always kept his adventurous spirit in check in a classic British way. In the same way, his furniture never lacks a spectacular whimsy of soul, but each piece is marked by sensitive craftsmanship and his devotion in quality.
“Many international brands claim to be ‘luxury’ but have nothing to do with ‘luxury’. They don’t have real value, but are just very beautifully advertised. I think it’s much more luxurious when somebody does something for you, and it’s only for you, not something that could be sold all around the world as something very valuable.” Makepeace asserts that true luxury is unique and individual: ultimately bespoke luxury is about finding the best solution for your specific needs.
Most of Makepeace’s work is privately commissioned for important personal collections in Europe, the USA and more recently in Hong Kong. Since each piece of his furniture is a one-off design, when Makepeace held his first solo exhibition in 2011, he had to borrow 25 pieces of his own creations from various public and private collectors, many of whom were reluctant to expose their valuable furniture to such a process, worth some of the highest prices in the world. Subsequently though, the exhibition toured around Britain for more than six months and caused quite a stir. Most pieces on show had never been seen in public, including the famous “Mitre” chair, made to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip’s silver wedding anniversary in 1976.
In 2001, Makepeace handed over Parnham College to a new director who moved the college to Hooke Park where it amalgamated with the Architectural Association. He himself moved with his wife to Farrs, a pre-Georgian mansion in Beaminster, Dorset. Working five days a week, he is able to enjoy doing physical work in his garden at the weekend, and even occasionally have a vacation. Life has become much freer than the previous 25 years of his career, but he still proves equally dynamic. In addition to daily design work, he manages and conducts a small team, as well as replies to students’ emails to give advice on their theses, and open his garden for group visits.
“I am not very good at stopping. It’s really important to have a dream that enables you to work all hours. I don’t feel exhausted because I so much believe in what I do.” Today, Makepeace makes 20 pieces a year, and was recently presented by Prince Philip with a Special Commendation for the Prince Philip Designers Prize.