Dorset furniture designer John Makepeace

PUBLISHED: 14:57 05 August 2016 | UPDATED: 14:57 05 August 2016


Furniture designer John Makepeace creates stunning individual pieces from his Dorset studio that grace homes and businesses across the world

Chatting to furniture designer John Makepeace and it’s clear - despite his years in the craft and his success - he remains a l’enfant terrible of the furniture making world.

“I’m a bit of a rebel,” he admits. At the same time his rebellion has kept him at the top of his game design-wise for decades. “I don’t want to do what’s gone before. I don’t want to go back over old ground - a lot of people are going back using old methods. But I’m a rebel and I don’t want to make what’s been made before.”

Instead his designs are the kind that the term ‘statement piece’ was invented for. As we speak he has just sent off a boardroom table to a legal practice in Los Angeles - a commission that came after they saw his work at an exhibition in Boston and he begins work on a very special commission - a chair that will be the centrepiece for the for the Master of the Carpenters Company founded in 12th century London and representing trade. The chair is created using 5,000-year-old bog oak – oak trees that were blown down and become buried in the ground for several millennia – but are still about 80,000 years away from becoming coal.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that a furniture designer should be inspired by wood. “The sheer diversity of the woods we grow in our landscape - our indigenous hardwoods produce wonderful materials,” he tells me. “There are only small quantities of indigenous hardwoods produced in this country - there’s no way it can be used on a large scale. We tend to keep a stock of our favourites: oak planted in 1740 and harvested in 1980 grown at Longleat. Other woods include ripple ash mulberry, yew cherry holly yew and ripple sycamore. “I tend to use exceptional indigenous timbers,” he admits. “Only small amounts are available and they should be used to make exceptional pieces.”

Despite using wood for furniture since man learned to whittle, there is still much to learn John says. “We don’t seem to have been very good at studying timber as a material - because the wood industry is so dispersed there doesn’t seem to be research.”

Sylvan ChairsSylvan Chairs

John will combine wood with resin, stainless steels and other high performance materials that create the perfect recipe for durability. Or to put it John’s way to reflect the beauty and economy of nature and ‘achieve strength most efficiently’.

Despite not wanting to make what went before, he has begun to collect. He has just invested in an antique - a 1695 cabinet with oyster veneer. It took him a while to make the purchase. But in the end the stunning design won out - perhaps the closest he can come to feel what owners of his furniture feel. “I think the real pleasure is in the relationship with the client,” he tells me. “You are working for someone who is investing in you to do your best.”

To own a piece of John Makepeace is to own a piece of history. Born in Warwickshire, John first saw furniture being made at 11 and visited the great cabinet makers of Copenhagen as a teenager. He was quickly recognised as a rising star in the world of furniture design and his work sat in Liberty’s and commissions in major museums and corporate and private collections around the world. Always keen to promote his artform, he became a founding member of the Crafts Council and trustee of the Victoria and Albert London. Forty years ago he landed in Dorset and bought Parnham House to set up a college alongside but separate from his studio. During his years there he helped to train a whole generation of furniture makers - some have gone on to be world-renowned figures such as multi-award winning industrial designer Konstantin Grcic.

Fifteen years ago he and wife Jennie moved to Farrs, a listed house in Beaminster, which had not been sold since it was built in 1730. He was awarded an OBE in 1988 for services to furniture design and has received many awards and distinctions both in the UK and overseas. Occasionally he will meet up with one of his old pieces - for restoration before being sold on - he remembers a pair of chairs sold for £10,000 and bought by a New York dealer who then sold them on for £57,000.

“Great furniture is an expression of its time. What we do now will become the inheritance of future generations,” he explains. “Developments in science, technology and the arts create new possibilities and these will differentiate us from earlier generations.”

Myrtle ThronesMyrtle Thrones

Materials are also changing and wood is going to become a more of a luxury in the future. Sustainability is a huge subject, and he considers not only the wood, but also the impact of energy used to create his pieces.

“I have been extraordinarily fortunate,” he admits. “Life seems to be a series of discoveries and each discovery can refine your direction.”

To arrange group visits to the house and gardens at Farrs contact Farrs is also open for the National Garden Scheme.


Tim Booth: A myriad of extraordinary hands - An image of his grandmother’s hands started photographer Tim Booth on an unusual portraiture project that, over the years, would capture a myriad of extraordinary hands

Wood Workers of Dorset - In a quiet corner of Dorset, Simon Thomas Pirie and his team are continuing the legacy of craftsmanship brought to the county by legendary designer John Makepeace.

Latest from the Dorset