I was recently very privileged to meet, and spend almost an hour talking to, ‘the father of British furniture design,’ John Makepeace, ahead of his first solo exhibition, which opens at Somerset House on 16th March 2010. I am pleased to report that he was both fascinating and lovely.
Invitation to John Makepeace: Enriching the language of furniture
Here’s what we talked about…
I believe you first saw furniture being made when you were just eleven. How did this come about? Do you remember what you felt at that time?
A kind of tingling – I thought “this is wonderful”. I suppose as a teenager I was fascinated by the quality of things, the excellence of the choice of materials and the ‘making’. Craftsmanship was something I could recognise. I was already wood-working, so I was hugely impressed by people who could do it properly. It was miles away from a career at that stage. I became aware of design much later; in the second half of my teenage years, when I went to Scandinavia. Later, after my visit to America, I came back convinced anything was possible, which in the early 1960s was still a pretty odd thing to think.
Hooke Park Workshop
You were a founding member of the Crafts Council in the UK. Why was this important to you?
I’d opened a gallery next to my studio and by that time I was very much aware of the Design Council and the Arts Council and that the Minister for the Arts, Lord Eccles, had a strong interest in craft. For the opening of the gallery all three of them arrived; Lord Eccles, the Director of the Design Council and the Chairman of the Arts Council, so I was very encouraged to think that what I was doing was of some significance. Lord Eccles asked me to be a founding member of the Crafts Council. I became very concerned with the field, particularly looking at education and how colleges improved and promoted the work of artist-craftsmen, which was the brief for the Crafts Council. I thought they did a pretty bad job! Not least because education, or at least what we call education in this country, seems to narrow people down into a specialism, whereas education to me means widening things out, so you see the connections. That’s what stimulates new thinking.
Was that widening of focus the thinking behind the college at Parnham?
Yes very much so. I’d been fortunate because I’d discovered crafts and I’d discovered design and then I was involved with the furnishing of the new Mansion college at Oxford and came to know the Director. I thought it was crazy that this college was designed for the senior members of the biggest companies – why couldn’t crafts people have access to this sort of discipline? From that moment I was quite clear on what I needed to do. Crafts people needed three things; skills, imagination and entrepreneurial direction. What tends to happen in education is that we train people away from other disciplines. Too often designers and crafts people tend to think that business is dirty, or that they’re creative, so they can’t do it – which is crazy, because that’s where it all happens. It was important that we chose students with ability and then gave them these skills.
How does it feel to be referred to as the ‘father of British furniture design’?
Naughty I think! I’m not very comfortable with it. It comes out of that fact that I’m old enough, I suppose. I’ve been involved for 50 years, so one ought to be the father of something!
How does it feel to be putting on your first solo show, to look back over all the work you’ve produced and everything you’ve achieved over the last 50 years?
I’m not really looking back – it was quite hard work! Certain things have been very exciting; to survive as a designer and furniture maker, especially through the early years, which were very tough.
And then to be able to rebel successfully; in order to set up a college, then to address some of the issues in forestry, constantly in my own work to say “I know that’s the traditional way, but I don’t actually believe it.”
I love the sense that the conventional wisdom is probably wrong. Because that’s the platform for innovation.
What are you most proud of?
The chapter at Parnham was a revelation; as a designer-maker, to have a concept and a vision and find that people would support me, that students were prepared to take the risk and pay what were quite high fees at the time. The whole thing became an amazing caravan. Anyone we asked to come and lecture would come. We had really good students; people who wouldn’t traditionally have thought of becoming makers as well as designers and going into business. Looking back at some of the programmes from the 1980s; you could put them on now, and still be proud.
There were only 22 students; two groups of 11 and they were fully residential. That was of huge benefit. They started with breakfast at 7.30am, got to work at 8am and had a really full working day.
There were three parts to it; the college, the studio with ten people working for me, and the house open to public. I still don’t understand why colleges aren’t open houses – it was very grounding, and stimulating having older people, people with different experiences coming in.
You’ve been awarded an OBE for services to furniture design, a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Furniture Society (USA) and you’re an Honorary Fellow of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen. You were recently nominated for the Prince Philip Designers Prize 2010 and received a Special Commendation – what do accolades like these mean to you?
It’s very good for the field, for example being nominated for the Prince Philip Designers Prize. The last thing I’d expected was for a designer furniture maker to receive that kind of honour. I think it’s really good for furniture making, although I’m not sure it came as much out of my furniture as the other things I’ve been involved in that have allowed me to challenge design practice in many ways.
The title of the exhibition is ‘John Makepeace – Enriching the Language of Furniture.’ What does that mean? What is the language of furniture? How does one enrich that language?
I suppose when I started there was still a prevalence of minimalism deriving from the Bauhaus and trying to find an expression for machinery. As a craftsman, I thought “why would I want to adopt minimalism as an aesthetic, when things aren’t determined by machinery; they’re determined by what’s best for the purpose?” Because of this approach (minimalism) we have gradually demeaned the range of possibilities in furniture. One of things you’ll see from the exhibition is that I’ve explored a lot of different fields in order to try to give them new relevance. The component of craft is hugely important in any field, whether it’s film or fashion. Let’s not be shy of individual expressions, after all we and our clients are individuals.
Does the world need another chair?
Absolutely! Chairs are individuals to me; every client is different, and every situation is different. To me a dining room is ‘populated’ when it has chairs in it. Chairs are about people – there are a lot of very different chairs in the exhibition, probably the most famous of which is the Millennium chair.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in furniture design?
Collaboration is a very desirable ability. Designers tend to think of themselves as the arbiter. And actually, bringing other people in, especially top professionals if you can access them is hugely valuable. And I don’t mean top design professionals, I mean professionals from everywhere else, from anywhere else, because everybody has a contribution to make. I think the whole practice of design suffers because of this narrowness of design and design education.
And finally, what’s your favourite colour?
The exhibition ‘John Makepeace: Enriching the language of furniture design’ is at Somerset House 16th March – 15th April 2010.
Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.