Meet John Makepeace, the furniture designer who never stops asking why

Driven, ambitious, with an endlessly enquiring mind and a desire to constantly test boundaries, John Makepeace is no ordinary furniture designer/craftsman, so, when he opens the door to his beautiful, Grade II listed home in Beaminster, Dorset to welcome me in, I am surprised at his unassuming demeanor. I forget that Makepeace, who was originally destined for Oxford and a career in the Church, has made a career of surprising people.

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On 18 September 2010, his first ever solo exhibition, sponsored by the Arts Council, opens at The Devon Guild of Craftsmen, after which it will continue on a national tour of the UK. "John Makepeace – Enriching the Language of Furniture" brings together 25 pieces from public and private collections in the UK and abroad, some not previously seen by the public, including recent designs made in limited editions from a single tree.

Most of the designs that will appear in the exhibition have now been rounded up from their various locations across the world, and I feel quite privileged to take a tour of Makepeace's home, where pieces such as the Ripple Chest, c. 1993; the Trilogy desk, c.1990; and the famous Mitre chair, c. 1977 are happily ensconced in a bedroom, office or dining room, as though they have always been here. It is nice to have them back, Makepeace says, but, he observes, "the pieces that I no longer own, I haven’t lost them necessarily, it just means that someone else is looking after them."

Makepeace's career began in the last year of school, when, following the death of his father, he began to re-evaluate the conventional path that had been picked out for him. From a young age he had taken carpentry lessons and, aged 11, paid a visit to a furniture workshop, where he remembers being impressed by the quality of the workmanship. "My first interest was in wood," he says and, with the parental pressure off, a career as a furniture-maker beckoned.

Makepeace travelled widely during his early career, absorbing the emerging Scandinavian influence on design in Denmark via the work of designers such as Hans Wegner, Arne Jacobsen and Finn Juhl, and, finding the "can do" culture of America a refreshing alternative to the gloomy post-war atmosphere that he had grown up with in Britain. Ever the curious young designer, after winning a kitchen design competition in The Observer in the mid-60s, Makepeace used the money to travel to Nigeria and Morocco, where he studied the local mud buildings: "very beautiful and circular - they look as though they belong in the landscape."

Those who achieve the greatest success, it seems, are always questioning why: why isn't something working? Why can't this be better? Why does this happen the way it does? It is a question that Makepeace has never stopped asking.

While an apprentice with Keith Cooper, a Dorset-based furniture designer, he asked why individual craftsmanship was copying the industrial aesthetic that was emerging in Britain at that time, and sought to break away from it. When told that he should not expect to make a living from furniture making and was struggling to gain commissions, he again questioned why, and set about designing products which could be made in batches for design retailers. When his reputation began to grow following his work for Heals and Liberty’s, he resisted the temptation to follow the "industrial" option, instead pursuing a more expressive vocabulary through individual commissions.

Later, as founder trustee of the new Crafts Council, Makepeace found himself asking why the current training available for artist-craftsmen was so inadequate and set about developing an educational model that would integrate design, making and business management as a single discipline. This model was applied in 1976, following his purchase of Parnham House, an eighty-room Tudor manor house in Dorset, where The School of Craftsmen in Wood was set up to offer superb vocational training. The school turned out top class designers such as David Linley, Guy Mallinson, Tim Wood and many others and "just seemed to be blessed from the start," says Makepeace, "it was a charmed existence."

His next venture, Hooke Park College, was his most ambitious yet: a working environment, buried deep in a 330-acre wood, in which students could learn how to fell slender forest thinnings and convert them into exquisite hand-crafted furniture. The dream was to transform thousands of acres of neglected English woodland into centres of craftsmanship, and in doing so re-integrate wood with its sustainable uses. For a while, it worked, but in 1992, the business ran into trouble over a batch of furniture sent out to Habitat, and later closed amid financial difficulty and much bad feeling and finger-pointing.

It was a painful time for Makepeace, who still looks quite anguished by the whole thing. "I was really torn up about it at the time," he says, but is pleased that, after the Architectural Association took over the Parnham Trust and Hooke Park in 2002, the place was revived.

Since resigning as Director of Parnham Trust and moving to Beaminster, Makepeace has worked on a number of commissions abroad while restoring the 1730 house and garden with his wife, Jennie. "I have my own life back," he says.

Today, you will often find him sitting quietly in the tiny reading room, which he built amongst the grass garden (which he designed himself) contemplating nature or his latest piece. You can be sure that this eternally questioning, ambitious and industrious giant of British furniture design will not be twiddling his thumbs. Be sure to catch his exhibition when it begins its tour this month, and be eternally grateful that such a prodigious talent wasn’t wasted on the Church.

Emily Jenkinson is interiors writer for furniture and interior design website mydeco.com.

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