John Pawson, architect and photographer
Born in Halifax and educated at Eton, John moved to Japan as a young man, after a period working for the family textile business.
By the time he returned to Britain, first to enrol at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, then to set up his own practice in 1981, his personal style of elegance and simplicity in design was already established. This has applied to all his work since, from private homes to monasteries, yacht interiors to bridges. He explored his ideas further in his 2019 book Anatomy of Minimum. Among his commissions have been the home of writer Bruce Chatwin, Calvin Klein’s flagship store in Manhattan, the interior of St John’s Church in Hackney, the Cannelle Cake Shop in London, and the Sackler Crossing, a walkway across the lake at Kew Gardens.
Away from architecture, though not entirely, John also has an interest in photography, seen in his 2017 book Spectrum, and its accompanying exhibition at the 180 Strand. Here the 320 chromatically ordered images of the book were turned into an immersive architectural installation.
In 2019, John’s influence and service to design and architecture was recognised when he was awarded a CBE in the New Year Honours.
We took a little of John’s time to ask him a few questions about his life in architectural design.
Did you have an interest in architecture and design from a young age?
Looking back, I can see the interest was there from the beginning. From a young age, I was fascinated by the difference between the sort of spaces that make you feel something and those that don’t. The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey and Fountains Abbey, each a drive across the Yorkshire Moors from my childhood home, were touchstones for me as a boy. I experienced the extraordinary spatial and atmospheric charge of both places physically and emotionally. Of course, it is only later that you understand the qualities that have generated this response.
Were you ever tempted to stay in the family textile business?
There were various external reasons behind the timing of my departure – not least to do with the wider economic climate, that meant it no longer made sense for my father to put money into the project that had been my focus – but I don’t think I ever felt that working in the family business was how I wanted to spend the entirety of my life.
What prompted your move to Japan in your twenties?
My move to Japan was precipitous. Everything had suddenly changed for me: I was no longer working for my father and the woman I was going to marry called off the wedding at the eleventh hour. My response was to decide to fly to Japan and become a Zen Buddhist monk. In the event I very quickly realised that life in a monastery wasn’t for me, but I stayed in Japan for a little over four years and this stretch of time proved to be a crucible for so much that followed in my life.
What did you learn from your time in Japan?
Where to start? I suppose the most critical lessons were the ones I learnt from spending time with Shiro Kuramata in Tokyo, during my final year, watching how he worked and how he set about life. With characteristic generosity Kuramata also introduced me to an array of interesting and important figures working in the fields of contemporary design, architecture and art in Japan.
Would you say you have a distinct design philosophy or aesthetic, and, if so, how would you describe it?
I have always been driven by the pursuit of simplicity – the quest for what I have characterised as the minimum, which is the quality an object or space has when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction.
Do you choose your clients or do they choose you?
In my experience, the client-architect relationship has a better chance of working if the client finds their way to you. It means that the mental commitment is already there.
Do you have a dream client you’d like to work with?
The dream client is always the one with whom you are currently working.
Can you tell us how you came about finding your beautiful house in Gloucestershire and how long it took you to complete your vision with it?
A little over a decade ago, my wife Catherine and I spent a summer training in the hills of the Cotswolds, in preparation for a charity cycle ride. We both loved the area and started to look for a tiny lock-up-and-go cottage, where we could store the bikes and stay for the odd weekend. We never set out to have two houses, but there had always been the idea of one day designing a place of our own on a plot of land, preferably with a studio to work from. Home Farm was neither a compact cottage, nor a blank canvas from which to start from scratch, but there was something about its disordered arrangement of derelict and semi-derelict domestic and agricultural structures, that drew us. It took five years of intense work to reach the point where we could finally move in.
Did your interest in photography develop naturally from your architectural work? Might there be any photography exhibitions coming up?
I think of my camera as a design tool. I use my lens as other people use a sketch book. I never set out to be a photographer and it was genuinely a surprise to me when people wanted to publish, exhibit and buy my work. I have a new show at The Mass gallery in Shibuya, Tokyo, opening in April.
Do you have a personal favourite from the projects you’ve worked on?
Rather as with the dream client, the favourite project is the one that is currently on my desk. Having said that, designing a new Cistercian monastery from the foundations up was a very special project. In a sense, it is also a project that has never truly left my desk. More than two decades on, we are still working there, one of the latest additions being a chapel for visitors.
What do you have lined up in the near future?
On 16 February, Phaidon is publishing John Pawson: Making Life Simpler, a visual biography of my life and work, written by the critic and curator Deyan Sudjic.
Image by Catherine Garcia.