The father of British furniture design, John Makepeace, is about to have his visionary pieces exhibited in his first London solo show at Somerset House.
Emerging on the scene amidst the British craft revival in the 1970s, John Makepeace has been making innovative and exclusive chairs, chests and desks ever since. The upcoming exhibition celebrates Makepeace’s status in designing furniture as a contemporary art form and brings together twenty-five pieces from public and private collections in the UK and abroad. Among these are the famous ‘Mitre’ chair, made to celebrate the Queen and Prince Phillip’s Silver Wedding Anniversary and ‘Ripple’, a chest carved with wave forms from a tree originally planted in 1740 and harvested in 1980. Fond of sitting down, and particularly on exquisitely crafted and conceptualised chairs, i-D Online took a pew with Mr Makepeace and discussed minimalism, modernism and the British design scene.
Could you describe your style? I was reading an interesting piece yesterday about Milton Glaser and his rejection of modernism. It’s extraordinary because I hadn’t really thought of his graphic design that way, but it’s very much what’s happened with me. Still in this country we seem to be focused on the minimalism that came out of the Bauhaus and that’s extraordinarily inappropriate now there are machines that are capable of any aesthetic.
You were inspired by the Danish designers of the 50s and 60s? Yes, I think the Danes were the first to break out of that sense of minimalism and to respond to materials in a more organic way. They developed machine techniques that enabled them to produce a large number of very fine chairs.
Why do you think the Danes got it so right? I think it was probably in their nature. They’re very sympathetic as a nation, whereas in Sweden, one had a much harder, mechanistic approach. The Italians in many ways took over the baton from the Danes.
What do you think of the British design scene right now? I think a lot of the best design is happening in the contract field where price is a less dominant factor. Retail furniture seems very poor by comparison and it’s very often being imported.
Which other people in the design field do you admire? In some ways, they’re very obvious names, but when you see what Zaha Hadid is doing with materials in constructing free-form buildings, it’s a revelation compared to what was happening in architecture ten or fifteen years ago. Machines have become so much more sophisticated, so there is enormous potential for furniture to become more sculptural, lighter, freer and more interesting.
Do you have a favourite design of your own? One’s always excited by the things that you’ve been doing most recently, so I think the pair of zebras. It’s an interesting departure in terms of furniture using modern technology like laser-cutting.
How do you manage to create things that are both crafty and contemporary-feeling at the same time? One doesn’t set out to make things decorative, but to make things with a much higher level of functional efficiency than is common. At the same time, one wants things to have some character and guts to them.
John Makepeace – Enriching The Language Of Furniture is on at Somerset House from 16th March until 15th April.