John Makepeace: Beyond Parnham

John Makepeace: Beyond Parnham

Designer maker mover's over 40 years since John Makepeace OBE founded Parnham College in Dorset - the design school that produced some of the best names in furniture today. And the cabinetmaker behind the exquisite and often extraordinary furniture that is much coveted by collectors around the world is himself still hard at work.

Liberty table and chairs

Parnham College may have closed in 2001 but its spirit and teachings live on in its illustrious alumni who include David Linley, Sean Sutcliffe, Konstantin Grcic, Sarah Kay and Nina Moeller. A new limited edition book about the Parnham era, Beyond Parnham, sees Makepeace, arguably the finest contemporary cabinetmaker, reflect on his experiences and hears from more than 100 graduates on what their time there gave them. The book is privately published and 1,000 copies are available at £35 plus £5 p&p. Buy at or at The Design Museum shop in London.


Over the course of his long and illustrious career John Makepeace has been recognised for achievements in design and furniture making; and even though he sold Parnham College in 2001 (and which suffered a severe fire earlier this year) he’s continued to work and focus attention on promoting craftsmanship.
Makepeace’s remarkable work is represented in numerous collections including the V&A, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, the Museum fur Kunstandwerk in Frankfurt and the Arts Institute of Chicago. He now works to commission, undertaking exclusive projects each year.

His unconventional approach to making furniture has been a constant: ‘I have a strong rebellious streak - as an artist, designer and maker. I’m constantly searching for more eloquent concepts for furniture. My objective is to achieve freer, lighter, stronger and more sculptural forms expressed through each commission.’ His work represents a meeting of classic and modern, embodying superlative craftsmanship. Each piece is fascinatingly original - and quintessentially English.

Bright green leather... the Wimbledon range
John Makepeace at the Design Museum in London
Beyond Parnham is a limited edition book of 1,000 copies. £35 at
Born in 1939, Makepeace says he became enchanted with wood at an early age. Curiosity about how things were made meant he was constantly taking things apart or whittling away at wood scraps. He began carpentry classes aged just six and became fascinated with a nearby cricket bat factory he frequently visited. Aged 11 it was a visit with his mother to a furniture workshop that decided him on his career.

While an apprentice he was told not to expect to make a living out of furniture making. This ignited his self-confessed rebellious streak and he promptly set-up his own workshop; and it wasn’t long before the big London stores including Heal’s and Liberty were buying from him.

The 1970s saw him become a founder trustee of the Crafts Council. Its aim was to support and promote the work of artist-craftsmen, but Makepeace became keenly aware of the inadequacies in training and wanted to develop an educational model that would combine design and making skills with those needed to run a profitable business.

So in 1976, he bought Parnham House in Dorset, a magnificent 80-roomed Tudor manor house. His ambitious project was to provide larger studios for the growing team he employed, to establish separate residential, workshop and teaching facilities for aspiring furniture makers, and to open the historic house to the public with exhibitions of contemporary art and design.


'The history of British design in the 20th century has largely been shaped by the drive to reduce costs.'

Ripples. Extraordinary skill and craftsmanship is evident in all of John Makepeace's work
Wave chest by Makepeace
Petra sideboard
Mulberry 3 chair - Makepeace is know for shapes that confound our sense of what's do-able with wood
The creation of Parnham College was one of those rare educational wonders where a first class vocational education was on offer: advanced design and craftsmanship skills taught by experts in a remarkably beautiful environment. 
In the summer of 1976, Makepeace’s studio and workshops were operational and in September 1977 the first students arrived. The college prospectus contained both a warning and a promise. ‘While you are at Parnham you will be required to work hard. The minimum amount you can anticipate being in the workshop is 8am until 5.30pm. The day is extended until 9pm three evenings per week with the addition of a forum on Monday, drawing class on Tuesday and computer class on Wednesday. Fridays are spent in the classroom alternating between Wood Science and Design Culture sessions. One full day per month concentrates on business analysis and understanding what is involved in running a business.’

Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, while running Parnham, Makepeace also addressed the environmental issues around forestry. He brought together foresters, chemists, material scientists, structural engineers and designers to research and develop sustainable new technologies and building systems. They used forest ‘thinnings’: low value trees of small diameter removed to enable the better specimens to develop. 

‘All meaningful design starts from the human form whether it is a cabinet, table or chair..'

Parham House in Dorset, a beautiful Tudor mansion sadly badly damaged by fire this year
Mulberry 2 dining table

John Makepeace has always fought against the drive to make things as cheaply as possible: ‘The history of British design in the 20th century has largely been shaped by the drive to reduce costs. This has resulted in an impoverishment of furniture as an expressive medium.’

Artistically, the human form has been his guide: ‘All meaningful design starts from the human form whether it is a cabinet, table or chair. Furniture can fulfil a variety of needs, but more than anything it is an indication of contemporary culture and our participation in it.’

And he says that in a world where so much attention is given to the short-term and superficial, our relationship with design and fine craftsmanship is more important than ever: ‘Beautifully made and designed pieces that will endure and become signals of our time to future generations and are a necessary antidote to theeasily discarded culture that permeates our existence.’

Makepeace may be in his late 70s, but he continues to create fascinating work. In 2016 he completed a set of seven ceremonial chairsfor Plymouth University as well as exclusive commissions for private collectors and businesses.