November 2021 8 Min Read

Interview: John Pawson, Architect and Designer

By Josh Sims

John Pawson CBE is the world’s leading architect and designer in all things spare and stripped back. His monastic style has graced airport lounges for Cathay Pacific, sets for the Royal Opera House, shops for Calvin Klein and Jil Sander and hotels for Ian Schrager – he’s currently working on the Edition Hotel in Madrid. It has even graced an actual monastery, the Abbey of Our Lady of Novy Dvur, in the Czech Republic.

Pawson has also designed lighting for Wonderglass, crystal for Swarovski and he gave the interior of London’s Design Museum its welcome calm. Not that everyone appreciates his dedication to less. His sister once sent him a blank sheet of paper in the post. When Pawson called her to ask what it meant, she told him – much to her amusement – that it was his membership to the minimalists’ club.

Pawson in his home, located in Notting Hill.

You’ve often been described as a minimalist, though perhaps that’s not the best description for your work.

Well, I’ve never tried to disassociate myself from the word ‘minimalism’. In the beginning of my career, journalists tried to create what they saw as a movement, lumped a whole load of us together and called us ‘the minimalists’ – and, of course, the Hi-Tech people said, “No, we’re not.” I think they were uncomfortable, because minimalism is so often misconstrued.

For me, the words that come to mind are more the likes of clarity; the focus on what’s essential; a drive to make space. And what we design hopefully makes people feel good. It’s that physical feeling of having a space to move, to breathe; not being surrounded by stuff gives you a certain freedom. I don’t think you can just measure comfort in terms of squashy sofas. Give me a bench any time.

And the term ‘minimalistic’ tends to get bandied about rather liberally.

Yes. Minimalism is not just painting the walls white and having wooden floors – it’s a much more sophisticated thing than that. If you control the light in a certain way, use the right materials and proportions and scale, you then get to a state that feels really good. But that takes time and money and experience – and for people, your client, to go along with it as well. Quite a lot of circumstances need to come together for it to be done well. You see the word ‘minimal’ used all the time to describe interiors, then you see them and they’re not minimal at all.

A bench-style sofa in Pawson’s home in which his minimalist philosophy can be seen: proportion, light, and how it complements its surroundings.

Where does your draw to minimalism come from?

It’s felt. It’s instinct. Obviously 40 years of professional life adds up, but it’s not something you can write down or apply to make calculations. But [originally] I think it all came through my mother – her parents were Methodists and she had this natural love of modesty, of having less. She wanted me to be a missionary in Africa – that I wanted to go off to the best monastery in Japan was far too flashy for my mother. But then my father liked the best of things and I think I needed that balance, too. Combine that with growing up in Yorkshire, the Moors, and emptiness inevitably appealed. That, and I have an untidy mind. I can’t concentrate on anything for too long. My mind jumps around. I start one job and then move on to something else before finishing it. I’m very undisciplined and think that’s why I like physical order around me. If you think of barristers – they have piles and piles of briefs, a huge mess, but they’re incredibly precise and clear in their thinking. Well, I’m the opposite.

You described one recent project, brilliantly, as being to bring an apartment “towards a state of emptiness”...

I don’t think you need more than the absolute minimum, what’s necessary to do a certain function – whether that’s cooking or sitting or working or shopping or praying, for that matter. I’m about putting in only the stuff that’s necessary for the job at hand. But every client is different and has their own taste. It’s not policed – that would be exhausting. Thankfully, lots of my clients have a more refined taste than mine and you go to some places that are beautifully sorted out.

Towards an idea of “emptiness”: Pawson believes that minimalism and untidiness aren’t necessarily polar opposites, but one can bring about the other.

All the same, it must be frustrating to return to one of your interiors to find it full of cushions and throws.

Well, it’s interesting to see that however strong the bones of the architecture, you can still fuck it up. If you fill one of these spaces with stuff you don’t need, then you can’t see the wood for the trees; you can’t see the space. But that’s the client’s prerogative. There’s no contract. It’s usually when there’s been a change of hands and it’s not the original client. I think people should have a helping hand from a professional, but interiors are one area in which people feel they can do design themselves.

But that ‘less is more’ philosophy can be hard to grasp, especially given our consumer culture now, right?

Society certainly is not moving towards an appreciation for having less stuff. There are always cultures and people in them that speak for the benefits of having less, not getting into ownership and recognising that there’s a certain freedom in that, a refinement. But it’s not for everyone. I mean everyone talks about ‘spring cleaning’ or ‘having a clear out’ and it is hard work. I’m not saying it’s easy to just have what you need. It’s a constant battle.

Is less really more? It’s an age-old battle that has reared its head in religion, and more recently, in the worlds of self-improvement and design.

Even for monks, if one story is true…

Well, yes. I was doing a monastery for Cistercian monks. The abbot and the prior turned up at the office and we discussed their project and then I invited them home for tea. Then I let them look around the house and the next time they came to the office they said, “Don’t you think this is a little too austere for us?” “Cistercian Trappist monks think I’m too austere. My god,” I thought. “There’s no hope for me.” But actually they embraced it.

'I don’t think you need more than the absolute minimum, what’s necessary to do a certain function – whether that’s cooking or sitting or working or shopping or praying, for that matter. I’m about putting in only the stuff that’s necessary for the job at hand.'

John Pawson CBE

It’s tricky for them because they never leave the grounds of the monastery normally, so you need to make it comfortable for them, so they have enough physical space not to feel closed in. Actually, I think it’s very nice for them because they don’t have any possessions – just their underpants and a watch, because even though they have the bell, time-keeping is quite important to them. They cut it quite fine between workshops and lunch and seven or eight services a day. They don’t even think of their underpants as being personal, though most of them seem to wear Calvin Klein.

Is that why people are wary of minimalism, or wary of those who espouse it?

What does surprise me is the level of emotion that minimalism seems to bring. People seem to think that because I do what I do, that is in some way a criticism of their acquisitiveness. They always say, “You’d hate my house – it’s so cluttered,” but to me it’s not a conversation – I’m very happy to go to their house. I’m not trying to change the world. The thing is that if you only have what you need your life will be clearer and easier, which is exhilarating. And if you say that strongly enough, the inference is that their life is the opposite, but that’s not the case at all.

A Donald Judd multiple (extrusion) on a wall in Pawson's house.

I assume you’re not a big shopper, then.

I don’t shop at all. Very kindly, my wife Catherine gets my clothes and invariably I have a fairly minimal uniform. Sometimes that doesn’t go right when she buys my shoes as well and, of course, they’re difficult to size. She sometimes gets quite irritable about it, when I tell her a pair doesn’t fit. She says, ‘Well, go and get them yourself then.” But shopping is such an anathema to me and I never understand why people adore it, why they find it exciting, therapeutic, pleasurable. To me, it’s just full of pitfalls of getting the wrong thing.

My wife will just buy a lamp if she needs a lamp. I’ll spend a lifetime looking for the right lamp and end up not having one at all. My wife likes materials and fabrics which is a good thing because it means she can do the rugs and things I wouldn’t normally have. And she’s kind enough to only have them in natural or white. She keeps threatening to bring in pink pillows.

A pared-back fireplace – everything in Pawson's environment gives the illusion of perfect control.

At one point you considered the monastic life for yourself, didn’t you?

I was 24, but might as well have been a schoolboy. I saw this amazing documentary about monks in a Japanese Zen Buddhist temple on top of a mountain practising kendo and thought, “If I could go there and train, I could reach enlightenment and that would be great.”

Of course, I got there, they sent me to scrub floors and I lasted about four hours, not four decades. It was an amazing monastery. But clearly that kind of life is only for those who get the calling. And, looking back, I don’t ever think I’ve missed my calling. I’m far too earthly. I love physical spaces. I don’t own much. But making buildings doesn’t really square with that kind of [monastic] life.

Pawson now – on a slightly different, but perhaps similarly austere path as his past aspirations towards monkhood.

Talking of God, is that where the details are?

God is in the details. It’s an old saying, but true. Small things matter and it’s a combination of them all that creates the calm and un-jarring space. If you don’t get the details right, your eyes are caught by them and the overall effect is ruined. To that end, quality is important. All of our stuff relies on very exact tolerances. If the floor isn’t level or the door isn’t square, it won’t work – and, not having skirting and so on, there’s nowhere to hide. If you pull it off, the benefits are there, but it’s tricky.

You’ve built an impressive following on Instagram for your photos of the details you see as you travel. Is that surprising?

It is, because I don’t think people do see the details, generally. For most people, it’s more about the big picture; the overall feeling. If you go to a dinner, it’s the ambience, the drinks, the food and the people – most people don’t start looking in the corners. But there are those who do. When we did the Calvin Klein stores, you’d have architects coming in and sitting down for two hours just to look at the details. You’d wish you could have charged them as you could charge them for the clothes.

From the way that light falls on a wall to the smooth sweep of a staircase railing, Pawson’s Instagram captures beautiful details in unlikely places.

You’ve described your work for Calvin Klein, a fellow minimalist, as your big breakthrough. It came rather unexpectedly, didn’t it?

The people in the office, some of whom I’ve worked with for decades now, had a habit of winding me up by telling me such-and-such was on the phone, so I told them to go away, but in more direct terms than that. Anyway, they were insistent: “No, really, it’s Calvin Klein.” He’d called me through his secretary in New York and I was patched through and I said to him, “Well, next time you’re in London you should pop by.” And he said, “Well, actually, I’m just outside your door…”

'Small things matter and it’s a combination of them all that creates the calm and un-jarring space. If you don’t get the details right, your eyes are caught by them and the overall effect is ruined.'

John Pawson CBE

It was very exciting because then he was one of the most famous people around – and my life definitely changed as a result of meeting him. It gave people the confidence to hire me – as Cathay Pacific did almost immediately afterwards. Working with him, I’ve learned a lot about how things are done at the very best level. He always exhausted me. I couldn’t keep up.

Ensuring the standards required of your designs must make for some other much more fraught relationships on occasion, though?

It gives me horrors to remember it, but I was doing a Waddington [Custot art gallery] on Cork Street [in London] and I’d been inside saying to the contractor, “Change this and that” and “That’s not good” and “Nor is that…”. I think they’d been doing their best. But I must have been rude, because the contractor just lost it and out came this punch. Of course, you don’t know what’s hit you because you’re suddenly on the floor looking at the sky. From then I was very careful about trying to deliver my snagging list in an unemotional way – and to make sure there was someone standing between me and the contractor.

The exacting, carefully constructed nature of Pawson’s work is evident in the lines and creation of his designs.

But if minimalism requires precision, how do you ensure that without being terribly picky?

Well, I’ve never thought ‘compromise’ was a good word. People tell you it’s very important, but I never thought it was. But obviously building is an imprecise business and things happen on site. The best architects are the ones who can adapt daily and still deliver something exquisite. If a wall is six inches out of place, well, that’s not necessarily the end of the world. But an un-level floor probably is. The end product may not be exactly as you drew it, but as long as you can count it a success, that’s what matters.

You’ve said that you’ve always wanted to design a chair, but have never taken up the challenge. And now you have.

A chair is just so highly complex to produce – it needs to be something that’s comfortable and elegant and light, that looks good and that people look good in [it], and which is new too. I think a lot of those Danish designers [of the 1950s-1970s] did a great job and it’s very difficult to improve on those, but that doesn’t seem to stop every designer from trying, right?

One of Pawson’s upcoming projects in the form of a chair – we can surely expect it to be suitably minimalist and elegant.

Now we’ve made a bentwood chair for a Spanish company. It’s still a prototype. It seems to be doing the trick. But I want to be absolutely sure that when people see [the final design], they feel it’s original – that it may remind them of other things, but overall they can see that it’s come from us. So I’m happy with it – so far, anyway. Obviously, there will need to be tweaks to it – all those details, maybe even the colour. Yeah, yeah – colour, mate. Well, black and white are both colours, you know…

We would like to thank John Pawson for speaking to us and sharing the philosophies behind his work.