"John Makepeace is second to none. ...he produces furniture which is classic and modern at the same time - and represents workmanship at its very best. "
Sir Christopher Frayling

 

An interview with John Makepeace, furniture designer & maker

           

Can you recall how or why you became a maker?

At eleven, I remember visiting a furniture maker and being impressed by the quality of his work. That stayed with me through my teenage years.


What would you say are your main influences when conceiving a piece of work?

At the start I was moved by Williams Morris’s philosophy. Intuitively, as a designer of individual objects I could relate more readily to Art Nouveau rather than the industrial aesthetic promulgated by the Bahaus. Rather than designing to express machines, the driving forces are now a blend of humanity and technology. I want to make objects that engage us through their form, structure and materials.


What comes first - the materials or the design idea?

Design ideas spring from a varied matrix of experience and exploration. A natural feature can influence a design. We carry a diverse stock of indigenous woods, so it is normally possible to check the feasibility of a design with a particular tree in mind.


How do you choose your materials?

I select extraordinary trees from indigenous woodlands and gardens. The choice of timber for a specific project may be limited by the size of the tree. Whilst oak, ash, elm and sycamore can be large, cherry, yew, holly and mulberry tend to be smaller and shorter. In hand are trees of all these woods including some magnificent oak planted in 1740 and harvested 240 years later in 1980.


How long does it take to season timber?

In the growing tree, the timber is fully saturated. It shrinks dramatically during seasoning. The boards are spaced so that air can circulate between them until it is in equilibrium with the surrounding atmosphere. Further drying is necessary to reduce the moisture content to 8% of the gross weight to ensure stability in a centrally-heated interior. This can be done in a kiln where the humidity and temperature are controlled. Natural seasoning will take at least a year for every 25mm of thickness.


Do you work in a sustainable way? Explain.

Sustainability is a complicated issue. Whilst the materials we use come from managed woodlands and the objects made will last for generations, the making does take a lot of time and energy, neither of which is renewable. Hence the importance of designing and making objects of enduring quality.


What part of the process excites you the most?

There is something wonderful about the whole process. Each stage makes different demands and this variety is life-enhancing. Very few careers combine so many aspects ranging from working with clients, craftsmen and suppliers, design and research, design development, the challenges involved in making, exhibiting and running the business side. I have no doubt that the most important element is the design concept.


What would you say are your values and ethics when it comes to designing?

A few thoughts come to mind:

  • Sharing the client’s goals with a passion
  • Quality of design and craftsmanship
  • Use of indigenous timbers for their best properties
  • The integration of art and science to achieve new possibilities
  • Function, structure and expression

And when it comes to choosing wood or other materials?

All materials have distinctive properties. Whilst the variety of indigenous woods is my first preference, wood is not ideal in all circumstances. The complex curves in the arms and back of Serendipity chairs are more suited to casting, either in aluminium or bronze, from the wood patterns we make for the foundry. The use of indigenous timber supports the planting and syliviculture needed to grow trees, such a vital part of our landscape, quite apart from their environmental contribution to health and diversity.


Can you describe how a piece of furniture, let’s say a chair, is designed?

The Trine chair was commissioned by some Belgian clients for their kitchen. One proposal was a three-legged chair where the curvature of the back leg would provide positive lumbar support. The idea was to reduce the elements to five, three legs, a seat and a back. The legs would be solid yew, whilst the seat and back would be plied in a curve to achieve strength in both directions. To reduce weight and ensure comfort, these would be sculpted to reveal the alternating layers of yew and bog oak.

To connect the seat to the legs, small wooden brackets under the seat would be joined by multiple steel and epoxy connections.

We then made a mock-up, as we frequently do as a vital stage in developing chairs, and this proved astonishingly effective both in structural terms and the immediate feeling of well-being when the clients visited to view the design and check it out in practice.


What makes you different/ unique from other furniture makers?

Maybe I'm unusual as a maker in being adopted by the design profession over many years. My consultancy work in the Third World has been a valuable experience. Working with world-class architects, structural engineers, material scientists and foresters has given me some broader insights to related spheres of knowledge. Perhaps the strength of form and clarity of detail indentify my work. Rather than employing conventional elevations in design I think of in terms flowing lines within a volume. Whilst this is more challenging to make, the benefits are self-evident. In recent years, the adoption of digital design has assisted this way of thinking.


Why do you think you have been successful?

Early recognition brought high profile commissions. I have also been fortunate in meeting inspirational people, often as clients, who have introduced me to what were, for me, new dimensions that I have been able to pursue.


What do you regard as your greatest success in your career to date?

By its nature, success is precarious. The most rewarding experiences in my career so far have been those 'discoveries' that I have subsequently been able to embrace. For example: seeing fine furniture making for the first time at eleven; visiting Danish designers during my teenage years; going to America and learning that 'anything is possible'; working with top-flight architects on Oxford College buildings; discovering that creativity is not the sole preserve of artists, but permeates good business and professional practice; the inadequacy of state education for designer-makers going into business; the principles and economics of forestry; the science of timber and complementary materials - each of these has been a catalyst.


How have things in the industry changed in the 50 years of your making?

Rationing after WW2 only ended in the 1950's, incomes were modest and living conditions were sombre. The Design Council was a rare oasis, and events like the Festival of Britain encouraged the hope for a brighter future. The furniture manufacturing and retail industry were focused on 'traditional' design, although some exceptional Scandinavian furniture was beginning to appear. The crafts were threatened with extinction, but the Craft Centre in Hay Hill sustained a beacon for the values advanced by the Arts and Crafts Movement. There has been rapid increase in specialist design and manufacturing businesses, supplying the contract market and increasingly selling online. Media and public awareness of design has grown exponentially. More recently, advances in computer capacity have revolutionised the availability of information and design methods.


Have your practices changed to keep up with new technologies?

Drawing by hand and model-making are still vital to me in generating ideas. Handling and flexing materials can inform in ways not feasible on screen. Once a form is taking shape, working on screen becomes more effective. I now work with a digital engineer whose speed in making adjustments enables effective design development, and when required generate a three-dimensional digital cutting programme. More often, it is about refining lines in space and proportions. This provides the information that translates into presentation drawings, which are tantamount to a photograph of the finished item.


Were/Are you an inspirational teacher?

It seems that my furniture, my practice, Parnham College and Hooke Park have inspired a lot of people, but none of these have been achieved without those who shared my vision.


Did you have an inspirational teacher?

Not at school, but since then I have worked with a number of inspirational mentors, as friends, clients, and professional collaborators.


What do you enjoy doing apart from designing and making furniture?

Travel; we have visited the tribal areas of Ethiopia and Central India. There are also several charities that we try to support. Collecting contemporary art and design. Garden design and building. Tree-pruning (30 acres of young woodland).

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