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On the blessing—and curse—of minimalism.
Words by Emma Moore. Photography by Alixe Lay.

  • Design
  • Issue 51

On the blessing—and curse—of minimalism.
Words by Emma Moore. Photography by Alixe Lay.

JOHN PAWSON pioneered an approach to architecture that has been variously celebrated, vilified and imitated—all without ever having qualified as an architect. Here the design icon reflects on four decades spent in the perpetual pursuit of less.

By reputation, John Pawson defines minimalism, but it’s not a term he chooses to use. Minimum, however, the title of his 1996 book on the subject, is definitely in his lexicon. For Pawson, it describes the quality of an object or space when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction. It is, he will tell you, the foundation of his practice.

Disciplined and neutral, his style speaks of his Yorkshire Methodist roots and a desire to challenge conformism, though his wry sense of humor has also played its part. In his 20s, after working at his father’s textile firm in Halifax, he ran away to Japan and taught English for three years, before finally making his way to Tokyo.1 At the behest of the celebrated designer Shiro Kuramata, he returned to the UK to study architecture at the Architectural Association in London.

Pawson didn’t finish the course and arrived late to his architectural calling. But he did so with a strong sense of how he wanted to design and has been running a successful office now for 40 years, working on large projects such as London’s Design Museum and the monastery of Nový Dvur in Bohemia, as well as countless private houses, shops, boats, hotels, churches, furniture, textiles, and in 2018, his country retreat in the Cotswolds.2 

Emma Moore: What does it take to run an established practice for so long, navigating changes in the industry while at the same time staying true to your vision?

John Pawson: A great team, great clients, a lot of hard work—as I learnt from Kuramata—and a clear vision. I have always made work that makes sense to me, finding the essential and getting the design down to a point where you can’t add or subtract from it. And it’s the same approach for everything, including interior design and decoration. It’s a process of paring away to make spaces with atmosphere, where the emphasis is on the quality of the surfaces, junctions, light and proportions.

EM: How do you establish such a definitive and recognizable style and ensure it doesn’t become a parody of itself?

JP: It’s been there from the beginning. From a very young age I was interested in what makes space comfortable to be in. In Japan, in the very exclusive apartment that the foreign teachers were given, I found I couldn’t stand the wallpaper any longer. I painted the whole apartment white, but I got so obsessed that I started painting the second coat before the first coat had dried, which makes it forever sticky. I left Japan with that sticky wall as my legacy. The important thing is to remain true to what feels architecturally right, which is very personal. It’s why I’ve never wanted the practice to grow beyond its current size. I’ve always wanted to be properly involved in every project.… Perhaps it’s the Yorkshire in me. It goes back to that honest, plain-speaking approach. 

( 1 ) Halifax’s wealth was built during the 19th century from Yorkshire’s textile industry and the city’s many weaving mills. Pawson’s family continued the tradition, manufacturing women’s clothes and fabric.

( 2 ) Pawson converted a farming complex that dates from 1610 into Home Farm—a 28-room family retreat that includes three kitchens; his wife, Catherine Pawson, is a keen cook and collaborated with John on Home Farm Cooking—a cookbook of 100 seasonal recipes.

( 3 ) Pawson’s aestheticism was burgeoning while he attended Eton, a private school in the UK notorious for its elitist traditions and expensive tuition fees. While boarding at the school, Pawson at one point tried to put up and sleep in a white hammock.

EM: Has it been an issue that you are not fully trained as an architect?

JP: It’s never been a disadvantage. I came to it relatively late, so I have quite a bit of world experience and I have very specific tastes and drive. I don’t know if having attended Eton has anything to do with it, but there’s that confidence, which is quite useful.3 I’ve never been asked the question “Are you qualified?” As there’s been more exposure, people have popped up to say, “Hold on a minute, there’s no record of you being qualified!” I never said I was.

EM: We talk increasingly about architecture being a framework for well-being, which is currently interpreted as more texture and color. Are you affected by such movements?

JP: No, they pass me by. When I started in the ’70s, people thought I was bonkers. My sister sent me a blank piece of paper saying this was her application to the minimalist club. But you know, people come in [to the country house] and they go “Ooooo!” I mean, that’s the litmus test, isn’t it? People feel good. Or in the church, they feel closer to God. In the restaurant, they feel hungry. These spaces are for people to live in, work in or pray in, and they are designed for that. You don’t need artificial color.

EM: Have your style and vision for the practice changed over time? 

JP: I can honestly say they haven’t. Of course, it evolves and it is sustained and improved by my incredible team. A lot of them have been here for over 20 years, and then there’s a whole younger generation. They are all strong-willed. I say, “I love the design but could you just change this and this?” and they go, “Yes, yes, good idea,” and then they don’t. And by the time I notice, they say it’s too late.

EM: Are there any typologies you haven’t tried your hand at?

JP: Scale—an airport or a train station. It was on a list. I used to make wish lists but now I am happy simply to immerse myself in whatever projects are currently on my desk. Small things done well give me pleasure.

EM: What comes next for your practice?

JP: No one can go on forever. There has to be a succession. The plan is to form a trust. I would technically be out of it in financial terms and administrative terms, and [the team] would get to carry on as they are. None of them are “minimalists.” They are not me and they weren’t hired for that. They were hired because they are talented designers and very good architects, not mini-mes.

The archive in Pawson’s office in London is a stark contrast with his typically pared-back style.

The archive in Pawson’s office in London is a stark contrast with his typically pared-back style.


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Fifty-One

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