John Makepeace: Enriching the Language of Furniture

January 2011

Publication: The Times

For the past few decades furniture designer John Makepeace has been at the vanguard of that quiet revolution which has seen the re-emergence of quality British craftsmanship in wood.  Inspired in part by the ideals of William Morris and John Ruskin but influenced by everything from ‘green’ architecture and structural engineering to anthropology and behavioural science, Makepeace is much more than your average designer-maker.

 

A true visionary and a founder member of the Crafts Council, Makepeace was one of the first British craftsmen to espouse entrepreneurialism as an necessary adjunct to making: without the creation and expansion of markets, he has consistently argued, there is little point in fashioning products which do not sell. His vision therefore is ‘holistic’, all encompassing . It might have been for Makepeace’s particular modus operandi that E.M. Forster coined that prophetic phrase ‘Only connect…Live in fragments no longer…’ which foresaw the necessity of de-compartmentalising mental attitudes and disciplines. So, in such ventures as the Parnham and Hooke Park Colleges, Makepeace as pedagogue insisted on cross- and multi-disciplinary approaches, stressing his students’ need to understand such apparently unconnected subjects as forestry, design, business studies and wood-working.

 

Here, Makepeace’s career – firstly as a designer-maker and, later, solely as designer – is given a place in the limelight. Unbelievably, this touring show is Makepeace’s first solo UK exhibition.  In furniture design and making it’s relatively easy to sort out the dilettantes from the skilled and impassioned.  It’s clear that these extraordinary, classic, contemporary pieces are the work of a true master who has learned his trade the old-fashioned way: painstakingly, working his way through an apprenticeship, never taking ‘no’ for an answer.

 

This blend of skill and ingenuity, creativity and craft are found time and time again in these immensely varied pieces.  For Makepeace’s artistry is questing, energised; he is continually seeking out the new, pushing back the boundaries.

 

An early work, such as the ebony chair, Mitre – made for the Queen’s and The Duke of Edinburgh’s silver wedding anniversary – finds a later echo in Sylvan, made from English oak. Both pieces are suggestive of a tree’s growth – a notion enhanced by the appearance of being fashioned from single pieces of steam-bent timber. In fact, neither have used this technique and are instead made by inserting fillets into long linear cuts in the wood. In Sylvan, the supple, grainy oak twists as well as bends, acting as a metaphor for suppleness of its designer’s mind and his awareness of the totality of the term ‘function’ which embraces the psychological as well as the practical.

The Knot chair, made a few years later, takes some of these ideas in a different direction where back and seat slabs of bleached burr elm are joined by sinuous oak arms and legs.

 

As if to make the point that his work is never static, nor formulaic but, rather, a series of eclectic originals, Makepeace has included a pair of recent, ultra-modern, Zebra cabinets which make full use of the contrasting qualities of holly and black oak. Now in his early seventies (but looking ten years younger) Makepeace still seems ahead of the field. Catch him if you can.