Beyond Parnham – a remarkable legacy

PARNHAM House at Beaminster is in the news this year – not because of the disastrous fire in April, but because 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the furniture design school founded by John Makepeace.

The fire, widely believed to be arson, made headlines around the world. That fame has far more to do with John Makepeace and his remarkable achievements than the significance of one Elizabethan manor house in a small Dorset town.

The legacy of Parnham is a tribute to the vision of John Makepeace, who for decades has been one of the world’s foremost furniture designers, and to the brilliance of the alumni who have carried the skills they learned and their own individual talents and expertise to many countries.

John still lives in Beaminster, at another historic house, which, like Parnham, he and his wife Jenny have restored as a home and a showcase for great contemporary art and design.

Some Parnham graduates – including Guy Mallinson and Simon Thomas Pirie – also still live and have established their workshops and businesses in Dorset.

The power of the Parnham/Makepeace ethos and commitment to great design linked with entrepreneurship ensures that from Dorset to Hong Kong, Los Angeles or London, anyone who is interested in furniture and contemporary craft knows and respects these names.

After training with a furniture maker in Dorset, John developed his vision of a centre where students would come to study wood-working and furniture design and uniquely also develop entrepreneurial skills.

Parnham was always about more than making tables and chairs – wonderful though the furniture designed by the hundreds of students over 40 years undoubtedly was. It was about a whole vision of craft, design and building a viable future for the graduates.

With very little fanfare – articles in The Times and the Telegraph – the idea of the furniture design school at Parnham was launched in April 1977. Within a month there were 20 applications – twice the number John was looking for. “It was as if it caught the feeling of the moment,” he recalls.

It was an intensive two-year course, leading to a graduating exhibition. “They got used to the idea of working hard, working with time in mind.”

John’s rigorous vision, right from the start, was that craft and design skills were important but not enough on their own. The students would also have to be able to plan and run their own business.

The effectiveness of this philosophy has been consistently demonstrated by the success of the alumni of Parnham College – and of the subsequent development at Hooke Park, where the emphasis was on sustainable approaches to working with, and finding new markets for, wood and forest products.

The idea of celebrating the 40th anniversary by gathering former alumni together, and publishing a book, was first mooted in mid-2016. Initially working only with  postal addresses, more than 160 Parnham graduates were contacted. In April this year, there was a reunion at the Design Museum of 125 former students, who came from all round the world. The devastating fire happened just a week later.

The story of Parnham College is told in Beyond Parnham, which was published at the beginning of September, with contributions from more than 100 alumni.

It is a limited edition, beautifully produced (of course) rich in personal reflections by John Makepeace, with fascinating anecdotes, memories and insights into what made the college so important in the history of late 20th century craft and design – and how its legacy continues to inspire and influence current and future designer-makers.

There is a foreword by Sir Christopher Frayling, former chairman of Arts Council England and of the Design Council. Other contributors are Robert Ingham, who was principal of Parnham College and design historian Lesley Jackson.

The alumni featured in the book work across the spectrum of contemporary design – in industry and retail, luxury yachts, grand houses, civic buildings, interior design and individual furniture makers.

They include Juliane Trummer, Konstantin Grcic, Sean Sutcliffe and David Linley.

To order a copy of Beyond Parnham, contact John Makepeace at Farrs, Whitcombe Road, Beaminster, Dorset, DT8 3NB.

Pictured: Millennium chair, Ripples, Forum table and chairs, all by John Makepeace; Parnham House; students at the college; John Makepeace in his office.