Last week, we caught a sneak preview of the John Makepeace exhibition at Somerset House. Makepeace is an industry maverick, championing bespoke furniture-making and sustainable practices in an age of hi-tech mass production – a man after Smith’s own heart, then, since we share a loathing of unimaginative replication and soulless sameness.
A founder member of the Crafts Council, John Makepeace‘s career spans six decades, during which he also found time to teach, travel and turn a listed property into a training college – you’ll recognise the ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ bowler-hat lights made by former student, Jake Phipps. You can see John’s exquisite works in public and private collections around the world (and, for the next month, in the Terrace Rooms at Somerset House). We asked the cabinetmaker and craftsman what makes him tick, and what ticks him off…
What first inspired you to become a designer?
As a child, I really enjoyed making things out of wood. As a teenager, I started seeing things that impressed me with their design, from kitchen implements in Holland to the stunning furniture being made in Copenhagen workshops by some of the great designers of the 1950s.
The mid-century modern aesthetic is undergoing a huge revival at the moment (we’re ardent fans at Mr & Mrs Smith), with designers from Ercolani to Eames, Arne Vodder and Hans Wegner making regular appearances in hip hotel interiors: which mid-century designers or artists do you most admire?
Certainly Danish designers Hans Wegner and Finn Juhl’s ergonomic designs (see Wegner’s Valet chair, left), which applied fresh production methods to the shaping of wood, allowing it to perform its function more imaginatively. Also Poul Kjaerholm and Warren Platner’s designs in metal (Platner chair, right).
What is your proudest achievement, and what keeps you going today?
Surviving as a rebel who enjoys challenging ‘conventional wisdom’, whether it is in the design of furniture, the ‘education’ system that too often narrows rather than broadens horizons, or the waste of material in the forest industry that makes it uneconomical.
Who do you think is doing the most interesting contemporary work?
Irish designer Joseph Walsh is producing some outstanding work.
What are you working on at the moment?
The exhibition has taken most of my time recently. I’ve completed a series of chests in solid ash where the surface has been sculpted to create light and shade; and the pair of Zebra cabinets in the exhibition use marquetry in contrasting woods to give three-dimensional form.
Also in the exhibition is a chest called ‘Cushions’, carved in rippled sycamore (above, second right). This serves the dual purpose of providing a comfortable seat and lots of storage space.
Hidden storage – the holy grail! If you could furnish the ‘ideal’ hotel room, what would it look like?
We stayed recently in a jungle retreat called Reni Pani in the Satpuras National Park & Tiger Reserve, in Madhya Pradesh in central India, which was close to ideal. Not only were the rooms very simple, the materials were local and the design was evocative of the local tribal culture – all carefully considered. This was complemented by the care of the two brothers, Faiz and Ali, who look after their guests superbly and without fuss. An outstanding feature was the terrazzo lining of the showers and toilets.
In an increasingly homogenous design landscape, you offer bespoke pieces, crafted to commission (a quality that always catches our eye, for example, the bespoke oak joinery at the new Montpellier Chapter hotel in Cheltenham, or the amazing Corvo chairs in the RSC Stratford’s new Rooftop Restaurant): do you think new technologies are stifling originality and craft?
What I find most frustrating is the level of expenditure on providing smart ‘fashionable’ fitted interiors where there is actually nothing of lasting quality or value that will not be dumped when the next owner replaces it. This extraordinary waste of material, energy and money is the antithesis of sustainability. It really does underline the case for commissioning free-standing items of character and quality that will endure and appreciate. New technologies can be an asset: they create all sorts of new and creative possibilities for distinctive contemporary design of outstanding craftsmanship.
During your career, you’ve travelled extensively – where have you felt most at home? Was there a country or city you felt an instant connection with?
Yes, it has been a recurring experience and I think it is to do with being among kindred spirits. It has happened to me in Denmark, the United States, and Japan at different stages of my career. On one of my first visits to India, it was extraordinary how easy it was to communicate with the craftsmen there even without any common language.
I came to Dorset from Warwickshire when I bought Parnham in 1976. That was an idyllic home set in its own valley among West Dorset’s rolling hills. The area remains a constant inspiration.
What’s the first thing you would show a new visitor?
The Jurassic Coast is just six miles away – walking beneath the cliffs at West Bay, eroded like an ancient city or as though in homage to some Indian deity, is a delight.
Share a fantastic secret from your at-home address book with us…
Nearby in Bridport there is a gallery called Sladers Yard, run by Anna and Petter Southall, showing contemporary craft, painting and ceramics (including Petter’s i tre furniture) in a fascinating building. There’s a café there, too. Petter trained in Norway as a boat-builder; his pieces are fascinating.
Describe your perfect weekend away…
Weekends away are a rarity, not least because both Jennie and I enjoy gardening, and weekends are my only time for developing the gardens here at Farrs, which we open in the summer for the National Gardens Scheme. One exception is an occasional weekend with friends who live in Cyprus, where we eat wonderful Greek fare and drink too much good wine.
And where’s next on your holiday wish-list?
Having visited India seven times now, a couple of times working as a consultant, it is time to see South Africa on our next winter break. We are both keen gardeners and there are some special private gardens there that we particularly want to visit.
What do you never leave home without?
My Lamy pen and a small Canon camera.
What’s the first thing you check out when you’ve checked into a hotel?
Test the bed! Other vital ingredients include quiet; natural materials; hot water; attention to detail and delectable cooking. Nothing elaborate!
Do you have any hotel hates?
Where’s the most romantic place you’ve ever been?
Why does Venice come to mind?
‘John Makepeace: Enriching the Language of Furniture‘ is at Somerset House until 15 April 2011, 10am–6pm daily. Admission free.