John Pawson
Photo by Gilbert McCarragher

John Pawson: “It’s everything you need, but nothing extra”

Short Profile

Name: John Ward Pawson
DOB: 6 May 1949
Place of birth: Halifax, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Architect

John Pawson: Making Life Simpler is out now via Phaidon.

Mr. Pawson, what does minimalism mean to you?

It’s a way of life, I suppose. It's not about living without anything, it's about not having more than you need, really. Coming from a conventional middle-class family in England, my mother was a very modest person, she didn't like extravagance and she liked very simple clothes. As a teen you’d get sent away to school, so I was traveling on my own away from home a lot. I didn't really want to take much with me, and I got a certain pleasure in traveling light. The possessions, or lack of possessions, was important to me and I think ever since then, I was drawn to that sort of aesthetic.

Is that definition the same in life as it is in architecture?

I think you can apply the same rules to architecture as you do to your personal life: it’s everything you need, but nothing extra. It’s what's essential. It’s a minimum state which you achieve when you can't add or subtract… It’s sort of this perfect state, that’s what I'm looking for.

“You have to see it very much as a collaboration. I see it that way now more so than I did at the beginning of my career. I have since learned to listen.”

As an architect, how do you go about achieving that perfect balance?

In terms of architecture, you have an idea or a thread, and then you follow that. You gather everything, and there's always a lot more than you need in terms of references or location or surrounding things to inform you. And then it gets reviewed and edited all the time, you cut back when you realize you’re going down the wrong path. It’s about knowing when you’ve got it right in terms of not being able to add or subtract anything from the mix. If you put a chair in a room, it changes the space in a very strong way. If it's the wrong chair, it changes it also perhaps to the detriment of the space. Stuff needs careful positioning. The size of the room isn't as important as the proportions or what you put in it.

Britt Moran of Studio Dimore calls the home a container, an envelope that holds everything someone owns, every part of one’s life. Does that significance also impact how you approach your designs?

You have to see it very much as a collaboration. And I think I see it that way now more so than I did at the beginning of my career. I have since learned to listen. And I've found that you can learn an awful lot, especially from my clients, because they do a lot of research, and then they end up choosing me — which is very flattering, but it means we're already halfway there, so to speak, in the collaboration. We try and do it together. With some clients, you are really just helping them do the architecture; they want to make all the decisions and sometimes they get it wrong. And other clients leave it completely to you, which is almost as bad because you need that collaboration for it to be a unique project. If I have no plans except a piece of land, it would make things very, very difficult to design for you. You have to have a plan.

And when you’re creating a storefront or a monastery or even a product — is the approach the same?

Yes, they're very similar. There's probably less emotion in creating a department store. Monasteries, that’s like housing on steroids. I mean, those guys, they don't leave; they spend all their lives within the walls of the monastic city, so they're very keen that whatever you do, you get right. It’s like a very intense home. Objects are a little different because you can pick them up, and you can tweak the design until you get it absolutely right in your hand, whereas with buildings, you can’t. You have to trust in the drawings. And when it's getting built, you have to pray that you've got it right. Because you can't move the walls. Well, actually, you can, I did that once — and I lost the client. (Laughs)

What happens when a building is finished? Does your connection with them fade away, or do you revisit them or keep thinking about them?

I go back to the monastery quite a bit. That’s very unique. If you're never going to leave the building, it needs to stand up to a lot of wear and tear. It needs to be well built. It’s a living building. With monastic cities, there’s always something to add. But in terms of homes… Relationships change, so people's houses are slightly different than the people living in them. As I was saying before about putting a chair in a room, you can negate a space. Occasionally you find a home you designed with tons of new stuff in it, and tons of stuff on the walls. And you don't recognize it! But you look around and the family is different, but they're happy. And that's the important thing. It’s slightly shocking to me, but it’s good to be jolted by these things.

It seems like your own relationship to possessions and space has changed as well. I read in your new book, Making Life Simpler, that in your early twenties, you started collecting contemporary art, but now it’s rare to see any art on the walls of your home.

I love looking at art, I love being inspired by it. We wouldn't survive without art as human being. It's really important, but I don't feel I have to own it or have it on my wall to appreciate it. When I was in my twenties, I had some money and I had a friend who did contemporary art so I bought a few things from him. That was really exciting, and I enjoyed having them on the walls! But the curious thing is that I was living in Yorkshire and my father didn't like contemporary art. I mean, in England we're good with literature, but not with the visual arts. So the lack of appreciation really spoiled the enjoyment for me. In those days in Yorkshire, contemporary art was incomprehensible. They just couldn’t understand, which is a pity, because there was some really good art.

“Two of my teachers introduced me to Domus Magazine, and that was like discovering a sort of secret that I really liked, and that’s what really sparked everything for me...”

How did you even get exposed to contemporary art if there was so much resistance to it in Yorkshire at the time?

Well, I went to work for my father up in the northeast near Newcastle. And At Newcastle College, the art department was quite well known, I mean, Richard Hamilton taught there, and Bryan Ferry was a student. So although that was even further north than Yorkshire, it was like a pocket of like-minded souls where I spend a bit of time with people I could learn from. And two of the teachers introduced me to Domus Magazine, and that was like discovering a sort of secret that I really liked, and that’s what really sparked everything for me.

What kind of artists and architects were influences on you back then?

Well, I saw Mies van der Rohe and then I was introduced to Shiro Kuramata’s work and that brought me even further into this world. I'm interested in everything. I mean, Peter Zumthor is obviously very talented, he does interesting work — but I don't study my contemporaries in architecture and design so much. I always was more interested in engineering; bridges and dams, and even motorways. There’s a very strong aesthetic to them because they only have one real function, so it's quite appealing to me, that simplicity where there's just one curve…

It sounds like you’re living up to your reputation as a minimalist, whether or not you agree with it.

(Laughs) The English approach is that it’s better to relax and not make a fuss, because you're never going to convince people if you start denying things or trying to explain. Minimalism is a good word — it's just applied to so many different areas, whether it's architecture or life. The only danger is that it's misunderstood. Everyone has a different idea of the meaning of it.