John Makepeace: The father of furniture design

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Makepeace's world-famous pieces can cost thousands – but that doesn't mean he lets his customers boss him around. Nick Duerden meets a very uncompromising craftsman

Back in early 2001, furniture designer John Makepeace found himself washed out, and craving a change of pace. The man frequently dubbed "the father of British furniture design" had, by this point in his life, been running his business for more than four decades, and had spent the last quarter-century overseeing the education of design students at his Parnham College in Dorset.

Referring to himself, as is his occasional wont, in the third person, he says: "One was rather exhausted, and needed some time off. In fact, I wanted to get my life back."

Though he did promptly scale down his public work, Makepeace, then 62, hardly now sought out an entirely indolent existence. Instead, he in many ways undertook one of his most time-consuming projects to date: the purchase of a piece of Dorset history, a £750,000 pre-Georgian mansion in Beaminster that dated back to the 1730s, and required much care and attention.

"It had never been sold before," he says, "but had passed down through the family for generations. As a consequence, it was in a rather – well, a rather interesting state when we took it over."

Makepeace spent nine months drawing up plans for its renovation, which was subsequently criticised by many villagers, concerned that something much-loved was about to be altered forever – objectors called it a factory and 281 locals, backed by Oliver Letwin MP, now a Cabinet minister, signed a petition against the plan.

Makepeace insists their concerns were unfounded. "We felt it important to keep to the true social history of it," he says, "and that is precisely what we did."

While he brought to it his habitual eye for detail, his wife focused her efforts on the two-acre garden, which, last summer, opened to the public and swiftly became a popular tourist attraction.

"My wife always was a keen gardener," he notes. "And me? Well, one likes to enjoy it at the weekend."

Ask quite how he and his wife manage to fill the mansion's 19 rooms all by themselves, and he chuckles guiltily. "Oh, all too easily, I'm afraid," he says. "A lot of them have a great deal of my furniture in them, of course. Although, at the moment, the house feels somewhat empty, but that's only because so much of my work is now up in London, for the exhibition."

John Makepeace is one of our most renowned furniture makers, and has spent the past 50 years at the forefront of British design. In a world of mass production and often unlovable functionality, he is a stubborn maverick whose work always did lean far more towards art than commerce. A great many of his products have remained one-offs, and purchased by collectors the world over, a factor that has made the mounting of his first-ever solo exhibition – at London's Somerset House – rather complicated.

"Not everybody was prepared to lend me the items, you see," he explains. "It seems they didn't want to let them out of the house. Why? Well, they have become rather valuable..."

He offers an example. Back in 1977, he was commissioned to make a pair of chairs to accompany a desk. He called them Mitre chairs, one in holly, the other ebony, and both beautifully regal. "I sold them for £2000," he says. Three decades on, and they are now valued at £100,000. "It's a rather unnerving feeling, to be honest, especially when one recalls just how hard it was to keep within the original budget."

The chairs, he is relieved to report, will be part of the exhibition, no doubt insured to the hilt. Other, more idiosyncratic creations of his, he will never see again.

The son of a prosperous motor trader, Makepeace was born in Solihull, one of five children. An early memory of home is being unaccountably obsessed with three pieces of family furniture, which he later learned had been made by his paternal grandfather. His admiration of them was anything but passing.

"I must have been little more than a toddler at the time," he recalls, "and by seven, I was very into woodwork myself."

A decade later he was visiting countries like Holland and Denmark to further research his interest in furniture design and, upon his father's death in 1957, he decided to forego his original intentions of a life in the church and instead make his hobby his profession. This wasn't necessarily an easy decision to take.

"In the 1950s, the arts and crafts movement seemed to be in terminal decline," he says. "To try to make a living in it seemed like it would be a struggle. But one did want to give it a go."

The struggle never materialised, and by the age of 22 his ornate designs were being sold in Heals, Liberty's and Harrods. Then, in the mid-1970s, a coffee table he had designed one weekend for no other purpose than to fill a space in the family home suddenly became a major commercial breakthrough.

"Heals ordered just six initially," he says, "but then they started ordering six a week, and before long the demand was overwhelming. Habitat came on board shortly after, and by then we were making them by the container load."

But Makepeace, never particularly commercially driven in the first place, ultimately decided he would far rather create sensual and daring objects that could never have been made by machine. And so he returned to his tiny workshop with his staff of four to do just that. And it was here, year after year, that design students continually flocked, each keen to learn the secrets of a master.

"They couldn't find the educational experience anywhere else," he says, "which I thought crazy, and very shortsighted. Where were our future designers, with crucial entrepreneurial skills, going to come from?"

With this in mind, he founded his own college in 1977, Parnham, which has since turned out more than 200 graduates in furniture design, many of whom have gone on to make their mark around the world. In the early 80s, by now an elder statesman in his field, he was exploring the environmental potential of forestry, and at the close of the decade was awarded an OBE for his efforts. In 2002, he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Furniture Society in America.

These days, at 72 years old, he maintains a mostly slower pace of life, but Makepeace isn't the retiring kind. He continues to create bespoke items for those who can afford it, and, perhaps inevitably, he doesn't come cheap. A pair of black oak and holly marquetry cabinets, called Zebras, is listed in the exhibition catalogue at £90,000. This does not appear to be a misprint.

Each new commission he undertakes, he explains, takes between six and 18 months to complete, the designer refusing to rush the job just as he refuses to accept any strict guidelines of precisely how one of his creations should look.

"If a client wants something very specific," he says, a smile creeping onto his face, "then Itell them to go elsewhere and get it made."

The message here is clear: when you order a John Makepeace, you allow John Makepeace to create as he sees fit. But then that's altogether his prerogative, no?

He flashes another shy smile. "Quite," he says.

John Makepeace: Enriching the Language of Furniture is at London's Somerset House until 15 April (www.somersethouse.org.uk)

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