The word carries weight like balance or flow. It’s now become synonymous with a whole host of lifestyle-related phenomena that legendary architect John Pawson singlehandedly helped build.
Growing up in the undisturbed moors of Yorkshire, Pawson soon realised his whisper on an extended sojourn to Japan in his mid-twenties. Surrounded by the beauty of pared-back Buddhist monasteries and contemporary Japanese design, Pawson returned to England inspired enough to start his own studio in 1981. Since then, his simplistic and functional approach to space and light has attracted swathes of private clients and legendary lifestyle icons from hotel legend Ian Schrager to fashion icon Calvin Klein. The latter gave him his breakthrough when a fledgling Pawson was asked to design Calvin Klein’s Madison Avenue flagship store in New York. More recently Pawson was asked to lend his minimal magic to London’s uniquely angular Design Museum. Pawson is under no illusion that his line of work is saving lives, but he likes to think that the spaces of peace and tranquillity that he creates can at least make our increasingly hectic lives a little better. We meet John at his King’s Cross studio on the release of his most recent book Spectrum, a magnificent exploration of colour and light via the lens of Pawson himself.
"Japan doesn’t look like a 16th-century Japanese film set – the cities are hideous, in a nice way, and Zen Buddhism is only a very tiny part of it."
You have said that to achieve enlightenment in the best monastery in Japan early on was one of your intentions. I feel like that has formed a thread throughout your life and work, this kind of elegant zen. Could you talk a bit about this Eastern influence?
Looking back it has been a question of following the river. I didn’t plan my life. I guess like a lot of people I didn’t have an overriding ambition as a boy to achieve some goal. I always liked architecture but I didn’t think that I could become an architect.
I turned up in Japan because I had been watching this Tony Richardson documentary about a place where the monks practise martial arts as a discipline, called Kendo. It was all shot really beautifully – long shots through cedar trees, practising at dawn – so as a 20-year-old it seemed like some sort of escape from my troubles. So I ended up in Japan and of course, it turned out completely differently than I’d thought; I lasted one night in the monastery. You know, Japan doesn’t look like a 16th-century Japanese film set – the cities are hideous, in a nice way, and Zen Buddhism is only a very tiny part of it.
Design Museum, 2016, Kensington, London
What I’m trying to get at is this sense of delicacy and sensitivity that you see in Japanese culture?
Yes, of course. For me, it’s probably the most attractive visual culture, in terms of 16th-century architecture and art. It’s exquisite. Although contemporary Japanese design is fabulous too. But I was also drawn to Egypt, France and Cistercian monastic design from the 12th century, Roman and Greek. The thing about Japan is that, as a culture and as a country, I went for a week and stayed 4 years because it’s my favourite place.
I love India but I’ve had bad experiences there. I went with a client to look at a site to do a hotel and we were in a really bad car accident so he was actually killed on the way there. That was in 2002 but it feels as if it was yesterday. It was gruesome, really bad.
Were you in the car as well?
Yes. The driver was doing around 80 miles an hour, which is fine, except he didn’t realise he was going that fast. He braked to avoid these trucks but it wasn’t soon enough, so he had to swerve off the road but there were trees so he swerved back onto the road and we just flipped over and over. We hit a rock that cut through the roof and got poor Mark. The driver was thrown out the car, broke everything and I don’t think he ever really recovered.
Anyway, on all different levels Japan is special to me, and obviously that had an influence on my work. But there were a lot of influences from before, with Methodist chapels, the Yorkshire moors and the industrial buildings in Halifax as well, and Japan was just one thing. But obviously it’s such a strong culture, and it’s so gorgeous, that most people fall in love with it.
John Pawson’s studio, Kings Cross, London
Let’s move onto your philosophy, do you live very minimally yourself?
Well in the office we hang on to stuff. I used to throw all my files away and then it was pointed out that I had a legal obligation to keep them for 10-15 years. Also the people working with me thought it would be good for the archive, not that I’m interested in all that legacy stuff.
Would you mirror what your father did, so your whole life could fit into one box (alluding to his late father’s last belongings left in a green box in his studio)?
Yes because I think he was doing me a favour. My sons and daughter wouldn’t have the time to go through things so it would all just stay in a room somewhere.
I remember going to the Museum of Modern Art. We were shown around all the conservation areas and the storage, and then there was this one tiny room with no windows. It was Mies van der Rohe’s archive, with all his drawings and papers and diaries – it was crammed. If you could ask me one thing that I would like to have done in my life, it was to see Mies’ archive, so this was like the holy grail. But the guy showing us around had the most terrible body odour – it was so bad in this tiny room that I couldn’t breathe. So I had this awful dichotomy but in the end I just had to leave. Of course I could arrange to go back, and maybe now they are all in an air-conditioned facility but there was no ventilation in the room when I went.
You must be aware of the important body of work that you are leaving to the world?
It’s nice of you to say and it may be true, but the thing is you don’t think about that yourself, or at least I don’t.
I remember giving this talk at the RIBA 20 or so years ago. I arrived and there were all these people in the lobby, it was absolutely jam-packed, and I was just wondering what on earth they had come for.
"People used to come to my studio and expect to find a line of monks, everyone with shaved heads and wearing black."
You seem quite self-effacing in most interviews I’ve seen you in – is that an act or do you truly think that way?
Well I’m not saying I’m stupid, but that is genuinely what’s going through my mind. I remember that because it’s a concrete example of turning up, being nervous and knowing I was doing it but being suddenly confronted with all these people I just couldn’t equate that with them coming to see me. They all seemed as if they should be giving the lecture, not me. Every week or so I think about what I have got and why I am in this position I suppose.
Is there ego involved in your work?
Yes, you can’t avoid that. The other funny thing is that I do find an interview quite an odd thing because, as much as I like talking about myself, it’s quite nice to just listen as well.
Someone came to your home to write a piece about you, which I found very interesting, and they said that ‘at times John resembles a refined schoolboy, always looking to see what he can get away with, like his fellow old Etonian Boris Johnson, whose sister Rachel also happens to be Pawson’s neighbour’, in terms of your work. It goes on to say ‘he is pro having his cake and pro eating it; asceticism and hedonism but with elegance.’
Well hopefully that’s not about the work when they talk about trying to get away with something. I think the enduring philosophy and the fact that it isn’t a style or facile thing, that the architecture comes from a belief in things and wanting to get them right, that is really serious and takes concentration. But being English you have to appear light-hearted in conversation, even though up until 6 pm it is a grind. So I suppose it’s that.
People used to come to my studio and expect to find a line of monks, everyone with shaved heads and wearing black.
Do you ever have moments of doubt?
Sure, but if I’m rational, the important thing is for the work to be as good as it can be. That’s what we try to do. Of course it’s not going to be anyone else’s work but we do our best and it’s a comprehensive portfolio of things that have stretched the idea in different ways.
St. Moritz Church, Augsburg, Germany, 2013
I like the way you have traditionally described your portfolio as ‘everything from a spoon to a monastery’.
People don’t buy it necessarily, and I’ve said this before, but when we did the saucepans I was analysing the bits and I think there were 32 different things to design – from the junction of the lid to the handle, to the pot and the base etc. I just wish we had time to do more stuff.
Considering the fact that most people don’t have the means to appreciate design in the same sense that your clients can, do you think there is an awkwardness with design in that respect?
I know what you mean, but everything is design; it’s not necessarily all good but it is all design. Everyone’s taste is slightly different as well. At the end of the day I’m doing it for myself, not that I want to appear too self-centred. When you are designing for somebody else that’s good because you are forced to think differently.
Do you feel like a trailblazer of sorts?
Well I never thought of it, I just mean that it’s had some influence. I haven’t done the lifesaving or anything like that.
If we can turn to the point where your life changed, which was your work with Calvin Klein on their store on Madison Avenue. Looking back on that now it opened up many doors for you and created this new frontier for your work?
Yes, of course at the time you are absolutely thrilled and you do realise how lucky you are etc. But you don’t quite realise that it’s going to be life-changing. Sometimes I do think about what would have happened if Calvin hadn’t bounded in one day – would I have got to the same place?
Do you still catch up with him?
Yeah. He’ll ring up and he always says ‘it’s Calvin Klein’, and you’re like ‘yes, I know who you are’.
What’s great about him, apart from being incredibly enthusiastic, is that he loved travelling light, so he never had an entourage and he travelled very simply – simply could also mean in a private jet, but he’d only have a small case.
There was one very funny moment coming back to New York from Europe at JFK. He just queued in immigration, as you do, not the VIP line. They came to get him and said ‘You know you don’t have to queue Mr Klein’, but he wasn’t bothered at all.
"There was one very funny moment... I was with Calvin Klein queuing in immigration at JFK, as you do, not the VIP line. They came to get him and said ‘You know you don’t have to queue Mr Klein’."
So do you surround yourself with an inspiration palette of artists, designers and architects?
No, I have that anyway. I think one of the reasons that architects don’t get to build until late on is because they have been able to build up a rich background of inspiration and experience. The design comes from a huge range of things that I’ve absorbed. In fashion, it used to be that someone like Yves Saint Laurent would go to Russia and then his whole new collection was the ‘Russian’ collection.
Do you ever walk into a place – be it a hotel lobby or a restaurant – and just think, ‘God, what a disaster’?
No, otherwise you’d be working the whole time. Some people can’t help themselves but you’d be exhausted if you were redesigning in your head everywhere you went. There are lots of places I go to that are not minimal but they are still beautiful, like Baroque churches for example. It’s like people’s homes – I’m more interested in the atmosphere or the food and the friends. It’s not important.
Do you get a lot of fulfilment from designing private homes? You’ve created homes in everywhere from Spain and France to Greece and Sweden. I love the Palmgren House.
Well Max, the owner of that house, is a special case because he really lived it. He was very enthusiastic when he asked me to do it so I said I’d get an idea together and he could come to London to see it. He arrived at the studio, very excited, and I put the model on the table and when he saw it his face just fell, his whole body language changed. I’d done a pitched roof, three stories, but there was no way that he was going to let me explain what I’d done. He had an expectation of something that would conform to a modern look – with a flat roof and two storey – but what I had done was less visually simple.
Very early on architects said that they can’t cope with doing private houses, with the budget and the lack of fees, but I’m so used to people’s reactions and personalities to do with their homes; their expectations are so high, it’s all they’ve been thinking about and everyone’s an architect. So I just try to listen now, and if they get upset then I’m sympathetic and I don’t shout at them because it is very stressful.
Do you ever lose your temper?
Not with a client – anymore. I do lose my temper, and it’s a bad habit but I have learned that if you lose it with a client then you’ve lost the client. I did do that early on because of course I thought I was doing them a favour, which is another attitude that’s not a good idea – in reality, they’re doing me a favour. You have to learn these things.
179 Kensington, London. January 2014.
315 Turners Hill, West Sussex, UK. November 2013.
039 La Jolla, California, USA. June 2014.
052 Eastleach, Gloucestershire, UK. August 2013.
All Images by John Pawson, courtesy of Phaidon.
Finally, talk to me about the book. I know you like to take lots of photographs, and you’ve released a couple of books through Phaidon now. What does the process of taking these images and releasing them in a book mean for you?
I think it concentrates the mind. What’s nice for me is that I always have this feeling that every day presents lots of very exciting visual moments for me. I’ve always thought that it’s never going to be the same again, and I know a photograph isn’t the same as the reality, but it makes me calmer because I know I’ve captured that moment. So that’s one of the reasons I take so many.
The other one is really for work. You go to a site with a client and you have to try and talk to them about the place and the inspiration, and photography is almost the third layer as well as the inspiration you can get from physically being there.
"I do lose my temper, and it’s a bad habit but I have learned that if you lose it with a client then you’ve lost the client."
It’s interesting because it feels like this is all B-roll footage to your life if that makes sense?
You know, this is my day or my week or my year in images.
And it’s all supportive or developmental of the work that you do?
Absolutely, although not directly. It’s just whatever catches my eye. I also think that the editing process is very similar to architecture because of the juxtaposition of the photographs.
Your work as a photographer is great.
Really? Well, it’s a bit of the reverse of the architect thing because if someone asks what you do and you say you design buildings, and then they say ‘oh, you’re an architect’ but then I say well yes, but I can’t do such and such, they look very perplexed. I suppose it’s different if I say I’m not a photographer because yes I take photographs but I just don’t think of these as being on the level of real photographers.