The father of British furnishings on 40 years of Parnham College | Life and magnificence


It began with a desk: a low, glass-topped timber sq. designed to be simply dismantled and folded right into a crate (see image beneath). Sold by way of Heal’s within the early 1960s for the princely sum of £6, it was furnishings designer John Makepeace’s first massive success. It additionally marked the start of a profession that will see him evolve from a maker of mass-market hits and large-scale institutional commissions to fantastically crafted one-offs.

In the 1980s he was awarded an OBE, partly for his a long time of graft and craft, but in addition for establishing Parnham College, a coaching faculty in Dorset that opened 40 years in the past this month and whose revolutionary method quietly remodeled the panorama of British furnishings design.

The Makepeace revolution really began lengthy earlier than Parnham – and even longer earlier than that foldaway desk. “I used to play with wood endlessly as a child,” he laughs, recalling his postwar upbringing. “And wood was quite precious in those years. To get a piece of skirting board was a really big deal.” Makepeace grew up in a home crammed with furnishings crafted by his grandfather, a cabinetmaker, though his early profession ambitions lay elsewhere. “I thought I was going to go into the church,” the 78-year-old remembers. “But a friend suggested going to Denmark for a holiday, where I started to see what contemporary designers were doing. And that was that, really.”

Table talk: John Makepeace’s breakthrough table design, sold at Heal’s for £6.

Table discuss: John Makepeace’s breakthrough desk design, bought at Heal’s for £6. Photograph: John Makepeace picture archive

That journey ignited a ardour that will see Makepeace by way of an extended, thankless interval of apprenticeship, in a time when Britain’s furnishings trade was languishing within the doldrums. After a number of rejections, he persuaded a Dorset cabinetmaker to take him on and practice him – “for a fee”, he sighs. “I think it was £3 a week” – and shortly he arrange on his personal, incomes acclaim as a maker of items that mixed smooth fashionable traces with considerate element. By the mid-1970s he’d change into one in every of Britain’s most revered designers, however then he did one thing surprising.

“I was very conscious that a lot of the students that came to work for me weren’t getting what they wanted from college in the way of practical experience or training in management,” he says. “Education was sliced up into specialisms, but if you’re going into business, it’s never just one discipline you need.”

Bidding to create a extra purposeful perspective on design schooling, Makepeace arrange the School for Craftsmen in Wood, which opened its doorways within the grounds of Parnham House, a dilapidated Tudor manor, in autumn 1977. To realise his ambitions, Makepeace roped in eminent supporters, reminiscent of violinist Yehudi Menuhin and theatre director Peter Hall, and introduced collectively an eclectic mixture of designers, craftsmen and academics to form a curriculum with a uniquely holistic method.

Sitting pretty: the Embrace seat by John Makepeace.

Sitting fairly: the Embrace seat by John Makepeace.

“Parnham was an extraordinary place,” says Steuart Padwick, a first-generation scholar. “One day you would be focusing on making perfect dovetail joints, the next you’d be creating shelters in the woods from bamboo and rhododendron trees.”

“I learned that you have to be more than a designer and a maker to make a business work,” says fellow alumnus Sean Sutcliffe. “John was quite exceptional in his vision of teaching this.”

Early response to the Parnham method was constructive. “We had 20 applications in the first fortnight,” Makepeace says, failing to say that 1 got here from future Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. “It was a sea of visitors: Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, you name them! It caught the magic of the moment. But it’s only in retrospect that you can see it. I was just the one putting things in place.”

Comfort zone: Steuart Padwick’s Rubens chair.

Comfort zone: Steuart Padwick’s Rubens chair. Photograph: Giles Christopher – Media Wisdom/John Makepeace picture archive

In addition to Padwick, who designs for on-line retailer (“Such a lovely idea,” Makepeace enthuses), and Sutcliffe, who went on to work with Terence Conran, Parnham’s success tales vary from David Linley to industrial designer Konstantin Grcic. The faculty’s alumni are scattered the world over, producing work for purchasers as numerous as Boeing, Adidas and IBM. But most, maybe inevitably, have adopted the trail pioneered by Parnham’s founder – that of the impartial furnishings maker.

Makepeace’s imprint on our lives and houses may not be as immediately obvious as Terence Conran’s earthy modernism, Tom Dixon’s retro traces, or Lucienne Day’s elegantly playful textiles. His work has by no means had an immediately recognisable signature. But the designer’s affect is deeper than you may think, thanks each to the generations of makers skilled at his faculty, and to the instance of his personal quietly profitable profession.

“John was our inspiration,” Padwick says. “And I’ve had more and more respect for him over the years. He’s a grafter with incredible energy, and shows no signs of slowing down.”

Lofty ambition: Sean Sutcliffe’s Cathedral seat.

Lofty ambition: Sean Sutcliffe’s Cathedral seat. Photograph: John Makepeace picture archive

Proud as he’s of what he achieved at Parnham, Makepeace is trying firmly forward. He is enthusiastic about sustainability, clever forestry and using native timbers, however he’s equally obsessed with new applied sciences, from 3D tree scanning to digital carving. “It’s so exciting,” he says. “It’s really an expression of our times. I’ve been able to do things that were never possible before.”

He pauses and leans in, considering over what he’s mentioned. “But it all still comes down to form, material and expression. That doesn’t change.”

To reserve a replica of Beyond Parnham, the celebratory ebook curated by John Makepeace, go to

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