The head master

John Makepeace is not just one of the UK’s leading craftsmen, he’s a visionary educator, as Parnham and Hooke Park demonstrate. José Manser investigates

There is a serenity about the sixteenth century Parnham House in Dorset which makes a piquant counterpoint to the tense, driven quality of John Makepeace Smith, for whom it is both home and workplace. These qualities are not immediately apparent, nor are they unpleasing. But to meet the man at the entrance to his house, smiling, soft-voiced and hesitant, it’s easy to perceive him as someone who has retreated to the country, where he enjoys an unstressed, flatteringly high-profile existence.

But John Makepeace (as he later, more famously, became) has never retreated in his life. Parnham, serene though it may be, is the focus of his ideas, his ambitions and his concentrated efforts. Beneath his quiet demeanour, he smoulders with determination and push. There are no slippers by the great fireplace here, instead there are identifying labels on all the Makepeace furniture in the principal bedroom. The house, which accommodates his school of furniture design, the studio where he makes commissioned furniture, a shop and a restaurant, is open to the public twice a week in summer. This is John Makepeace’s life, one in which he is helped and supported by his wife Jenny. And it is a rigorous and demanding one.

If the name of any one modern furniture maker has entered the nation’s vocabulary, it is Makepeace’s. Yet there are two quite opposing views on his abilities. Nobody disputes that he is a master craftsmen who has imbued all those he has educated with fine craft skills. But thereafter, one group reckons him to be a great designer. These people have produced considerable amounts of money to endorse their beliefs, commissioning him to make splendid one-off pieces of furniture for grand homes, board rooms, public art galleries and private collections. Journalists and critics in this camp extol the distinctive qualities of his work, which they predict will take its place among the antiques of the future. There is, however, a hard, dissenting voice raised in opposition to this view. It belongs to those of a more purist persuasion, for whom Makepeace’s furniture, with its recurring predilection for expressive, organic shapes, lacking the constraints of logic and rationale which they hold supreme, ignites fires of irritation and censure. It is significant and almost certainly due to the more powerful among such antagonists that, though awarded the OBE in 1988, and though a member of innumerable trusts and establishment committees, Makepeace has never been made a Royal Designer for Industry.

Makepeace then is no exception to the rule that original and outstanding work, whatever its sphere, is greeted with controversy. Though he must be aware of the debate which surrounds him, he seems too intent on the large tasks he has set himself to spare either energy or emotion in defending his cause.

As Jeremy Myerson vividly describes in his recently published biography, this scion of a prosperous Midlands family discarded early inclinations towards the church and, when his father died, any notion of going to Oxford. During childhood and youth, woodwork had been his serious interest, and he set himself on course to learn the trade of furniture-making, enrolling as an apprentice with the Dorset-based furniture designer and maker Keith Cooper. “There was no way back or out,” says Makepeace in the book. “Craft and making was my new morality.” Heeding Cooper’s warning that he would never earn enough as a furniture maker, he qualified as a crafts teacher via a correspondence course combined with two years practical experience in Birmingham inner-city schools. During this time he exploited his short hours and long holidays to establish himself as a craftsman.

When I interviewed him some ten years later in the early Seventies, he described that initial work as “jobbing for local people”. But with his intensity of effort, keen business sense and flair for self-promotion, these simple beginnings had been short-lived. By now he had his own home, a large separate workshop, eight employees (including a business manager) and had already made a considerable name for himself.

The ambition which drove John Makepeace to buy Parnham only two years later, when still in his mid-thirties, did not reflect a desire for money or material possessions. To this day his life, though spent in the most aesthetically agreeable of surroundings, is neither cushy, self-indulgent or flash. What he set out to do – and he did it with a singular ferocity of effort – was expand his working capabilities and the potential for displaying his furniture in a beautiful, appropriate setting. At the same time, he set up a type of residential educational establishment he felt this country lacked: one where the teaching of design and crafts techniques was integrated with learning the business and entrepreneurial skills he was convinced were vital for a craftsman to survive. At Parnham – a charitable trust – these dual activities have now been running successfully and in parallel for 20 years.

Parnham graduates such as Wales and Wales, David Linley, Nina Moeller, Konstantin Grcic and Robin Williams have made names of their own. There are Friends of Parnham and American Friends of Parnham who have been instrumental in arranging exchange schemes with students from the Art Institute of Chicago, eminent visiting lecturers and much financial support from both corporate and private admirers.

For several years now, the trust’s fund-raising activities have been focused on Makepeace’s important and most recent enthusiasm. Hooke Park comprises some 142ha of young broad-leaved and conifer woodland in countryside a few miles from Parnham. Makepeace’s engagement with wood as a resource to be used and indeed glorified is axiomatic. But at Hooke Park he is taking this passion one stage further, with an enterprise which sets out to find new uses for the forest thinnings which are traditionally cast aside and pulped or used for firewood. Exploiting the structural properties of these small diameter woods, a high-powered team (which included engineer Buro Happold and architects Frei Otto and ABK partner Richard Burton) designed an innovative building for the site, followed by a 600m2 training centre where students are to be educated in the new philosophy and its attendant techniques.

Eventually, there will be residential accommodation designed by another fine architect, Edward Cullinan. Currently, progress at Hooke Park has slowed down. For the first time, not least because of the malaise which has crippled the construction industry over recent years, Makepeace has encountered obstacles in his upward trajectory. They will be overcome.

Makepeace is a remarkable man whose talent for driving his ideas to their ultimate and successful conclusion is legendary. His most recent Creation Collection, with its interpretations of natural elements, demonstrates his evolving ecological concern, and his horizons are continually broadening.

Makepeace: A Spirit of Adventure in Craft & Design, by Jeremy Myerson, is published in hardback by Conran Octopus, price 35.

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