John Makepeace is one of the most celebrated contemporary British furniture designers. Born in 1939 in Warwickshire, he developed an interest in wood working pretty much on his own. As a teenager, following classes in carpentry at prep school, he established contacts with local craftsmen who favored the Arts and Crafts movement. By 1959 he had secured an apprenticeship with Keith Cooper, a Dorset-based furniture maker and designer possessed, as his student recalled, of exceptional taste and an appreciation of quality workmanship.
Training with Cooper prompted Makepeace to travel to Scandinavia, precisely at a time crucial to the fate of the European decorative arts. As the success of industrial design threatened to eliminate traditional workshops, a counteraction took form with the ascendancy of an uncommonly talented group of Danish furniture designers like Steen Eiler Rasmussen and Finn Juhl, both of whom stood for individually crafted pieces. Makepeace was deeply impressed by what he encountered on his travels, and the professional direction of his life was set.
In the early 1960s Makepeace set up his own workshop and began making pieces to order. The fabricating and design of furniture had become for him a steady and profitable routine. Nonetheless, several years were spent in his early twenties as a teacher at an inner-city school in Birmingham, and while the experience was marginal to his primary interests, it would, as we will see, eventually prove vital to his career. In the remainder of the decade his expressive ends matured along with his technical mastery, and the design world responded accordingly.
By the mid-1970s Makepeace had become the most famous furniture maker of his generation in the United Kingdom, whereupon several factors led to a major career shift. He was now working on an increasingly larger scale, which necessitated more shop space. Moreover, his experience had brought him into contact with aspiring younger designers, who needed not only further training in the craft, but keener knowledge of business practices. And he had been a teacher.
In 1976 Makepeace elected to purchase Parnham House, with a view of turning it into a school, indeed a community, where master craftsmen would live and meet with students, while the curriculum would lay emphasis on instruction in entrepreneurial ends and means.
He found Parnham in grave need of restoration, which he carried out over the next several years with characteristic thoroughness. In 1977, even before the renovation was complete, the School for Craftsmen in Wood—an institution that had grown into his personal mission—was formally launched.
A term of two years was required prior to graduation, the first given over to the study of technique, the second to the pursuit of design. The curriculum is a subject unto itself, but one aspect of it merits mention, in view of the locale of Crab Tree Farm, some 35 miles north of Chicago, a city renowned internationally for the quality of its architecture. Makepeace’s school entered into a three-week exchange program with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that enabled Parnham students to make direct connections with buildings by such figures as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.