John Makepeace, the Furniture Artist at Somerset House

With a career spaning 50 years and a knighthood in recognition of his international status in creating furniture as a contemporary art form, John Makepeace (71) has long been known by collectors as one of the most original designers around, whose work is shown in museums around the world, including the V&A in London and the Arts Institute in Chicago. His first ever solo exhibition, which opens at Somerset House on 16 March 2011, brings together pieces from public and private collections in the UK and abroad, some not previously seen by the public. Here, the man known as “the father of British contemporary furniture” talks to Chic-Londres about his unique craft.

How do you compare yourself with other British designers such as Terence Conran and how would you define your style? Terence Conran and I have quite a lot in common as he was originally very involved in wood furniture making and I actually did many pieces for Habitat over the years. But my approach is very different, as most of my work is done on commission, with pieces of furniture conceived as an enduring object, made specially to be right for the person who is buying it. I am not a retailer: I treat furniture making as sculpture, so it takes me about eight weeks to create a chair and I only do 12 to 20 pieces of furniture per year.

Where do you get your ideas from? My work is rooted in the history of furniture, although I like the dynamism of responding to contemporary needs. For me, function and art are compatible, so my designs are always made in regard to the needs of the body as well as beauty. When I am talking with clients, I want to know what activity they want to carry out in this space and to express the person’s individuality, not just mine.

Why is wood your material of choice? I also work with aluminium and bronze, but I still find wood the most interesting, not least because there are never two pieces of wood which are exactly the same. Wood has a life of its won and I like the idea of trees being turned into objects which will last forever. I work a lot to promote wood as a material for construction, which gives it a much higher value than being turned into paper and works better to manage forests in the long term.

Do you consider yourself first and foremost as a furniture maker or as an artist? I am primarily a designer for whom aesthetics and function are the same. An object designed without regard to function is a pain in the neck and I don’t subscribe to some artists’ belief that there is a conflict between functionality and art. My passion is to create masterpieces that enrich people’s lives and the language of furniture.

John Makepeace: Enriching the Language of Furniture, from 16 March to 15 April 2011 at Somerset House, The Strand WC2 (Tube: Temple/Charing Cross)