John Makepeace Furniture Designer and Maker
John Bryan, Former Chairman of the Board of Trustees,
The Art Institute of Chicago
An interview with John Makepeace, furniture designer & maker
- Can you recall how or why you became a maker?
As a child I loved whittling wood with a pen-knife. Using it as a lever, I broke the blade then sharpened the end. When hammering it, the blade would fold and cut my hand. So, next Christmas I was given a chisel. At eleven, I remember visiting a furniture maker and was hugely impressed by the quality of his work. That stayed with me through my teenage years whilst I was heading for a career in the Church. In my last year at school, my father died and this prompted me to reassess my future. The search then began to find a workshop training.
- What would you say are your main influences when conceiving a piece of work?
Most of my work is commissioned. This involves a detailed discussion with the client in order to understand what they would like. In the process, a lot of other information is gathered but not necessarily articulated. A subsequent letter to the client attempts to crystallise my perception of the brief.
Wherever possible, this is expressed in verbs rather than nouns and adjectives as this helps to eliminate preconceptions. We might all have an idea of what a 'desk' might look like, but if verbs are used - write, file, store etc - there are many different ways these activities can be achieved. In other words, the writing of the brief can really contribute at the creative stage. There may be many influences all working simultaneously. Nature itself is a constant. From a designer's point of view, evolution demonstrates Nature's capacity to develop elegant and efficient structures.
The human form provides endless inspiration. Artists draw it, but chairs all too often ignore what is vital to our comfort and feeling of well-being. Whilst rectilinear forms are expedient for machine production, they bear little relevance to what we can readily reach and see at a desk. So anthropometrics are a valuable source.
Rarely does other furniture prove inspirational. I'm more interested in the people, the building and how the project can enhance the immediate environment.
- What comes first - the materials or the design idea?
Design ideas spring from an varied matrix of information and experience. Occasionally, a natural feature can influence a design, like the curved trunk of yew used for the 'Bow' bed - see image to the right. As we carry a diverse stock of indigenous woods, it is possible to work out the details of a design with a particular tree in mind. If we do not have what is needed in hand, then specialist merchants will source suitable logs.
- How do you choose your materials?
I select woods from indigenous woodlands and gardens which are extraordinary because of their colour and grain but not available in commercial quantities. These rare and distinctive timbers are ideal for the making of individual pieces.
Choices may also be limited by the size of the mature 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 1720 and harvested in 1980.
- How long does the wood need to be cut and resting before you can use it - can you explain more about this process please?
In the growing tree, the timber is fully saturated. It shrinks dramatically during seasoning, the process by which the moisture evaporates until it is in equilibrium with the surrounding atmosphere. This can be partially achieved by spacing the boards with fresh air circulating between them, but further drying is necessary to reduce the moisture content to 8% or less of the gross weight to ensure stability in a centrally-heated interior. This is done in a kiln where the humidity and temperature are controlled. Natural seasoning will take about a year for every 25mm of thickness, whereas kilning will dry timber from 'green' in a matter of weeks.
- 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 have an indefinite life and last for generations, the making does take a considerable amount of time and energy, neither of which is readily renewable. Sustainability is enhanced by designing and making objects of enduring quality and use. This issue will not be resolved until there are more effective ways of evaluating what we mean by sustainability.
- 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 in adding value is the design. However fine the craftsmanship, this is of limited significance by comparison with the concept.
- What would you say are your values and ethics when it comes to designing?
Seven 'imperatives' come to mind:
- honesty of design and construction.
- respect for materials / use of indigenous timbers.
- espousing science and technology to develop new possibilities.
- application of material science to enable the properties of each to complement the others.
- making objects of our own time for current and future generations.
- doing simple things well as a basis for continuous learning and growth.
- giving craftspeople the opportunity to excel, so building competence and confidence.
- And when it comes to choosing wood and other materials?
Having worked with craftsmen in Developing Countries, it seems to me that they need help to add value at source, rather than exporting their raw materials.
Parts of Europe have a long tradition of managing their forests with a constant yield of indigenous hardwoods supplying national manufacturing industries.
In Britain, 90% of our timber is imported. This dates from the time that extensive areas of our forests were cleared to fuel the Industrial Revolution; the manufacture of timber products moved to the ports where timber was entering the country. This destroyed the infrastructure of the internal timber-growing and manufacturing industries which has never recovered. However, there remain some well managed forest estates producing excellent indigenous timbers. The use of such materials is to be encouraged if we wish to see managed woodlands in our landscape.
- Can you describe from beginning to end how a piece of furniture - let's say a chair - is made? Describe where the design concept came from, what influenced you, how you decided on the wood or other materials or colour, how it was made and by whom and for who - what processes did you employ etc?
- 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 (Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers). My consultancy work in the Third World has been a valuable experience. Working as a client with world-class architects, structural engineers, material scientists and foresters has given me some broader insights to related spheres of knowledge.
- Why do you think the brand 'John Makepeace has been so universally successful?
Travel has formed an important part of my education, first as a student then as a consultant. Exhibiting extensively has prompted international commissions. There may be some truth in the notion that there is enhanced recognition at home if your work is collected more widely. The fact that Parnham and the College rapidly became known around the world made a difference too.
- What do you regard as your greatest success in your career to date?
Success is, by its nature, precarious. The most rewarding moments in my career so far have been those 'discoveries' that subsequently changed my direction.
For example: seeing fine furniture making for the first time at eleven; visiting Danish designers during my teenage years; going to America and realising 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 for me whether in my work as an educator, building client, designer or furniture maker.
- What is/are your greatest threats?
As a positive person, threats have never really featured in my thinking. The health of body and mind are longer term threats.
- How have things in the industry changed in the 50 years of your making?
It is hard to believe some of the changes over the last fifty or so years. 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 contemporary Scandinavian inflences were beginning to appear. The crafts felt threatened with extinction, but the Craft Centre in Hay Hill sustained a beacon for the values advanced by the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Furniture for the retail trade is now largely imported. There has been a rapid increase in small specialist design and manufacturing businesses primarily involved in contract work. Media and public awareness of design has grown exponentially.
More recently, advances in computer capacity have revolutionised the availability of information and consumer choice, financial and stock controls, manufacturing systems and design methods. However, the impact of these shifts has not fundamentally changed the work of designer-makers, simply added new techniques that lead to new possibilities in design and production. .
- Have your practices changed to keep up with new technologies?
Working on my own since 2001, I have been slow to adopt technologies practised by staff beforehand. I now work with a part-time design assistant, who puts my design proposals onto computer. In some cases, these can connect directly to numerically controlled production systems. I do believe that the methods of drawing significantly influence how we conceive ideas.
- From all your pieces which is your favourite and why?
I have recently begun to work in series, where there is a theme being developed. For example, some carved pedestals have led to the 'Flow' series of four chests of drawers all made from the same tree of ripple ash (see 'Windsor', 'Sand' and 'Flow' and images of 'Flow' and 'Sand' to the right). These all explore the idea of breaking into the surface of solid timber to reveal its three-dimensionality. The patterns run round the object to emphasise the point that these are free-standing sculptural objects.
The construction breaks with convention in that the grain runs horizontally around the four sides and is therefore in harmony with the action of the drawers. All the materials are indigenous: English oak drawer runners, hornbeam guides, holly drawer-sides and cedar linings - all chosen to utilise their best properties.
Another contender as a favourite is the 'Leaf' series of large dining tables with three legs - one dominant and two others flowing from the vein pattern in the table top (see 'Mulberry' and 'Spring' and images of these tables to the right). The lobes of the leaf provide spaces for each person, the edges are sculpted away and naturally prompt a level of engagement and curiosity as the table appears to float.
- What are the benefits of being a maker?
Through my experience as a maker, I have an instinctive feel for materials and processes. This helps to build the confidence to enable one's rebellious inclinations to challenge conventional practice and to find fresh solutions.
- What are the disadvantages?
The balance between training and education is critical. An over-emphasis on technique can constrain the ability to think independently.
- Did you have an inspirational teacher?
Not formally, but practice has brought me into contact with a number of inspirational mentors either as clients or professional advisers. They have been instrumental in the 'discoveries' which have been a constant factor in my career to date. See 14 above.
- Describe the commissioning process you employ. What aspect do you enjoy most and which do you fear the most?
(See page on commissioning and 10, above).
Most aspects of working on commissions are enjoyable, especially discussing new projects with clients, wrestling with the multiple design issues, selecting the specific materials, refining details during the making and the critical analysis on completion.
- What do you enjoy doing apart from designing and making furniture?
Travel; we have recently visited the tribal areas of Central India.
Collecting contemporary art and design. Garden design and building.
Tree-pruning (30 acres of young woodland).
- If you weren't a furniture designer and maker what would you have liked to be?
- Is there anything else you would like to add?
It has become increasingly apparent, from seeing the work of thousands of design graduates, that the quality of their ideas is hampered by an inadequate understanding of materials and processes. Practical, hands-on experience of materials can stimulate the more abstract ability to generate exciting concepts. The two are mutually beneficial.
I hope my work will encourage others to consider a career as artists and makers of extraordinary furniture.
'Trine' - Commissioned by clients in Belgium for their kitchen in an Art Nouveau house (we had already made the table) - see image to the right.
The brief for the six chairs called for a design that would complement the house, be comfortable and informal. The idea of a three-legged chair seemed appropriate, but we needed to prove to ourselves that this could be stable, strong and and comfortable. We wanted the seat to be structural, so there were issues about the method of joining the seat to the legs. The stresses on a chair are greater than any other piece of furniture. There was also the thought that it would be exciting to arrive at a design that was light, and comprised only of five basic elements - three legs, a seat and a back.
To achieve the necessary strength in the seat and back, they would be made like a plywood with alternate layers at right-angles. The curved legs would be cut from solid wood selected so the the grain follows the curve.
With the design ideas now becoming more definite it was time to make a mock-up to test the comfort and structural concept. Contrary to expectation, the curvature of the back leg gave excellent lumbar support.
The back and seat curvature, crucial to good posture, were modified so that each could be sculpted through the layers, reducing weight and expressing their layered structure. We now needed to seek the clients' approval of the design and the proposal to make the chairs in yew and 5000 year-old bog oak. All was duly agreed.
The seats and backs were made of 2mm thick layers of yew-wood, alternating with 1mm thick bog oak, eleven layers for the seats, thirty one layers in the backs. Each of these layers was made up of several widths joined edge to edge to make up panels the size of the seat and back. These were then glued and pressed over a curved mould, using a vacuum pump to extract the air from the air-tight bag around the mould and the laminations'.
To give additional thickness to the seat platform, a small turned disc of yew was recessed into the underside to provide additional anchorage for the nine stainless steel pins and epoxy that formed the joint for each of the front legs. Again using the strength of the seat, a small bracket of yew was added to the underside at the junction with the back leg; epoxy resin and a number of stainless steel pins gave the strength needed at this critical point. The joint at the top of back leg to the back itself was similar.
It was then time to sand all the surfaces ready for polishing. The design stage took nearly a month, and the six chairs took four months to make. (James Ralph) The technology here is a direct result of the Collaborative European Research Programme initiated for the project at Hooke Park.
A number of other careers have appealed to me at different times. It is not clear to me how good I would have been at any of them: Architecture, Landscape Design, Interior Design, Gallery Owner and Design Retailing - but they do indicate an enduring fascination with design.