Was born in Scotland and studied at the Glasgow School of Art. He was awarded The Leverhulme Prize on graduation. He spent some time as Resident Designer at the Young Vic Theatre in London.
For the first fifteen years of his career he worked mainly in dance with many of the major international companies. He collaborated with Jiri Kylian and the Netherlands Dance Theatre (Songs of a Wayfarer, Les Noces, Dreamtime, L’Enfant et les Sortileges, Piccolo Mondo, The Soldier’s Tale, Forgotten Land and Tanzschul); and Glen Tetley, The Fire Bird (Danish Royal Ballet), Wiegenlied (Vienna State Opera), La Ronde and Tagore (Canadian Royal Ballet) and Dialogues (Dance Theatre of Harlem).
He has also designed for the classical ballet repertoire: Swan Lake in Munich, Giselle (Royal Ballet) and Nutcracker (Birmingham Royal Ballet/Australian National Ballet) (nominated for Olivier award) both with Sir Peter Wright, and Le Baiser de la fee (Birmingham). In 2010 he designed Cinderella for Birmingham Royal Ballet. In 2010 he designed Asphodel Meadows (nominated for Olivier award) and in 2012 Sweet Violets with Liam Scarlett (Royal Ballet).
Latterly John Macfarlane has focussed on opera where he designs both sets and costumes. He works regularly with the German producer, Willy Decker, and with Sir David McVicar, Richard Jones and with Francesca Zambella.
He designed A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Cologne Opera), Julius Caesar and The Rake’s Progress (Scottish Opera); Peter Grimes, Agrippina, Otello and Don Giovanni (Brussels); La Clemenza di Tito (Paris Opera), Falstaff (Florence); Boris Gudunov (Amsterdam); Magic Flute, Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk (Olivier Award) and Gianni Schichhi (ROH); Idomeneo (Vienna Opera), Maria Stuarda (Metropolitan Opera New York), Elektra and Rusalka (Lyric Opera of Chicago), Hansel and Gretel and The Queen of Spades (Welsh National Opera won an Olivier Award), Euryanthe (Glyndebourne Festival Opera); the second part of The Trojans (English National Opera), Benvenuto Cellini (Grand Theatre, Geneva), War and Peace (Bastille, Paris).
In addition to his opera and dance work, John Macfarlane exhibits regularly as a painter and print maker in the U. K. John was created a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2006, is a judge of The Linbury Prize for Theatre Design, and is a Fellow of The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.