A book has been published marking 40 years since a world famous design school was set up in west Dorset to train a generation of talented contemporary designers. Joanna Davis reports.

THE spirit of a grand Dorset home which was destroyed by fire is living on through the work of students from its namesake college - which is celebrating 40 years since courses first began.

Parnham House in Beaminster, which was ravaged by a major blaze in April, was once home to Parnham College, which opened its doors to design and woodcraft students in September 1977 and later moved to Hooke Park in Beaminster.

It was founded by John Makepeace OBE and was thought to be 'an educational phenomenon' which turned current design and woodcraft pedagogy on its head.

The college's milestone is being marked by the publication of a new book, put together by John, which shows the massive impact Parnham College had on contemporary design.

Beyond Parnham is a 180 page book detailing the college's innovative vision and cultural legacy, with personal reflections from the designers and the tutors who trained them.

The book was officially launched at the Design Museum in London on September 5 with an esteemed line-up of speakers talking about the importance of making, design and the future of craftsmanship.

The college's 200-strong alumni includes world famous designers such as Konstatin Gric, David Linley, Sean Sutcliffe, Juliane Trummer, Jake Phipp and Verena Wriedt.

John said: "When I left school there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to become a fine furniture maker.

"After many rejections I eventually found a Dorset workshop that would teach me."

He then took a distance learning course that would qualify him to teach technical drawing and woodworking in schools. John started his first workshops aged 21.

His School for Craftsmen began in April 1977, just nine months after John moved to Parnham House. Parnham had been empty and decaying for almost three years when John first looked it over with a view to setting up a creative community there.

John had to sell everything he owned to finance the purchase and eventually brought the manor house and garden back to life. Courses began in September 1977.

The vocational education on offer was set up to be the very best on offer.

The college prospectus contained both a warning and a promise: "While you are at Parnham you will be required to work hard. The minimum amount you can anticipate being in the workshop is 8am until 5.30pm.

"The day is extended until 9pm three evenings per week. One full day a month is spent concentrating on business analysis and understanding what is involved in running a successful business of your own."

Guest speakers often visited the college, ranging from leading designers to artists and makers.

John said fine craftsmanship, foundations of design and the ignition of entrepreneurship were all given equal educational weighting at Parnham.

"The zeitgeist that flourished at Parnham came from encouraging innovative thinking across all disciplines - this was the lightning in the bottle."

Although Parnham House has 14 acres of grounds, it wasn't the right location for John's longer term plan to further enable student learning.

In 1983 he bought Hooke Park, a 350 acre forest four miles away, to create a new educational campus. Here, students learnt to understand the nature of forest produce so they could design and manufacture structures that exploited its best properties.

Parnham College moved permanently to Hooke Park and was amalgamated into the Architectural Association in 2001.

Former Parnham student Sarah Kay, who studied at the college in 1996, said: "A high percentage of my year were in our late 20s/early 30s and had left different careers behind. In terms of my being a woman, it made no difference whatsoever, we were all treated the same Parnham was extraordinary."

Teacher Greg Powlesland, who came to the college to give a guest lecture on ancient North American woodwork, later took up the post of design tutor.

He said: "Teaching highly motivated and fascinatingly diverse students was a privilege - an education for student and tutor alike."

Former head of student house Judith Russill said: "Coming to Parnham was a revelation and education - my eyes were opened to the joy and excitement of beautifully designed and crafted furniture."

Last year John won the Prince Philip Designers Prize in recognition of his work as a designer and outstanding contribution to the industry. He also received an OBE in 1988 for services to furniture design, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Furniture Society (USA) in 2002, the Society's Award of Distinction and the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers.

He said: "As an artist, designer and maker, I seek to devise solutions that connect an organic renewable material to physical and psychological needs."

John continues to create fascinating work from his workshop at Farrs, Beaminster, and recently completed a set of seven ceremonial chairs for Plymouth University graduations.

John Makepeace furniture is known for working in series - developing a theme for each piece. A good example of this is John's 'flow' set of four chest of drawers, all made from the same tree of ripple ash, one of the few uses of wood featured in the V&A exhibition The Power of Making.

John is now planning the sponsorship and endowment of a national educational initiative for young designers.

He said: "I am constantly searching for more eloquent concepts for furniture. My objective is to achieve freer, lighter, stronger and more sculptural forms expressed in each unique commission."

Copies of Beyond Parnham can be ordered from the website beyondparnham.com