April 13 2012

Architect John Pawson Talks Perfectionism, Stalkers and Taking Pictures

In his engrossing new book, A Visual Inventory, acclaimed British architect and designer John Pawson walks us through his personal photo album. Known to the AutoCAD set as the godfather of architectural minimalism, he was in town for a launch party at the Calvin Klein flagship, and just happened to be staying at The Standard …

The Standard: You don’t look like a celebrated minimalist.

John Pawson: Were you expecting a monk with a shaved head?

Kind of!

For what it’s worth, my wife recently bought me these black jeans. It’s the first time I’ve worn jeans in my entire life, actually.

Are you enjoying your stay at The Standard, New York?

I am. I think it’s got a lot of style, this building. It’s very well done. My wife was quite keen to stay in it.

A classic Pawsonian living room

Let’s talk about your new book, A Visual Inventory. How long have you been taking pictures?

It’s difficult to know, really. It wasn’t a big thing at school or anything. Probably when I first went to live in Japan in the 70's. It’s a photogenic country, and it was quite useful when you’re having problems communicating.

Are you serious about it?

No, no, no. As I told my friend Todd Eberle, I’m not going to give up my day job. I never had any intention of doing a book, actually; photos are really a work tool for me—a way of communicating to the guys in the office. I did worry about the arrogance of producing a book that could be misinterpreted as a bunch of images you might find on Flickr, but I was persuaded to do it by my publisher, Phaidon, on the grounds that it might be interesting for people to see how I think. It’s a collection of snatched moments, really. I keep my camera with me all the time.

How many photos do you take a year?

I’ve shot 250,000 in the past ten years so that’s, what, 25,000? On a trip like this I’ll probably take 2,000.

You hail from the land of Chintz, and even went to Eton, the famously stuffy boarding school. Is your aesthetic a response to English clutter?

Something like that, maybe. There’s that famous line about [Tory politician] Michael Heseltine: “The poor man had to buy his own furniture,” which is supposed to be a putdown, but shouldn’t be. I mean, as much as I love my parents and their tastes, when it came time for my sisters and I to divide up their things I didn’t want anything. I guess I just don’t like things. I don’t like stuff. Thank God there are collectors, or I wouldn’t have a job!

Where do you think that comes from? Is it a moral stance, or do objects just annoy you?

Probably the latter one. My parents were brought up as Methodists so there was that background of, you know, stripped-down chapels and unaccompanied singing. My mother also had a genuine inner modesty. I know everyone’s mother is special but other people seemed to find her special, too.

What’s your house like?

We have stuff — too much stuff, in fact. But people do tend to ask when we’re moving in.

Is there a school of design that particularly offends you?

No, actually. I like all kinds of styles. My only criteria, really, is quality. I love Baroque and some Victorian. I even love Versailles, because it’s good. I’ve learned to just concentrate on quality. There’s so much out that that’s not good, where would you even start?

Excerpts from A Visual Inventory (left) Hoover Dam, Arizona/Nevada border, USA, February 2005 (top) Southwold, Suffolk, England, November 2010 (bottom) New York, USA, May 2005: "It was the marbling of this stonework that caught my eye."

Who’s your favorite fashion designer?

I’m not a brand person, really, apart from Calvin Klein.

You’ve been designing their stores since the early ‘90s. Do you consider Calvin a kindred spirit?

I do. I mean, he’s a true super-minimalist, and he’s never really wavered. He might have started one of the world’s most successful fashion companies, but he still lives quite simply. He likes traveling on his own, and he carries his own bag. I’ve even seen him queuing!

Are you saying he’s more Minimal than the King of Minimalism?

Well, I’m not obsessive. I’m obsessive about the work, but not about the way I live. I used to be quite controlling—you know, the tea had to be just right, which came from living in Japan. But I’m more relaxed now.

In the West, minimalism gets a bad rap.

It’s true. In Japan, they had to be that way by necessity because everything was so crowded and the houses were so small. But I’m also very attracted to this kind of American directness and just sort of getting things done. Waiting for ten minutes for your purchase to be wrapped in a dainty package isn’t for everyone.

Pawson House, London, England, June 2009: "This extruded aluminium wall piece by Donald Judd, anodized in chrome yellow, is something I never tire of looking at, but it also has a huge impact on how you experience the surrounding space," Pawson writes.

What’s the best thing you’ve seen in New York so far?

I’ll tell you what’s a good piece of design: The High Line. I think it’s an incredibly brave idea that’s been incredibly well-executed. And it’s new! It wasn’t designed just to please the largest number of people like most things these days.

Do you collect anything?

I’ve never thrown away a postcard I’ve received. Does that count? They’re not catalogued or anything.

Is it difficult to let things into your space?

It’s not that I can’t let stuff in; it’s just that I’m happier without it. There’s no doubt that seeing a [Donald] Judd on the wall is a pleasure, and it’s a privilege. You learn something new every day. But I’m quite happier without one.

Are you religious?

I think so, yeah. I mean, I believe in something, and I feel very comfortable in churches. I’ve also really enjoyed the time I’ve spent working with monks. Their lives are really wonderful and happy. They have no lines on their faces and they’re always smiling. I mean, to have no competition in your life, and no career, and no sex? If you can manage that, you’re free. I only lasted a week.

Are you a mentor to anyone?

I never like to sound like a teacher. I never like to prosthelytize.

Isn’t that what famous architects are supposed to do?

Well, I do have fans. I even have a stalker or two.

(left) Pawson House, London, England, November 2009: "In among the other more static forms, the two wisteria stems have an expressive, almost balletic quality," Pawson writes. (right) Eastern Cape, Republic of South Africa, December 2004.


No, I’m exaggerating. But only a little. I haven’t actually met him because my office shields him from me. He’s a young man who flew over from Japan to see me and came straight to the office from the airport. We have a glass front door, unfortunately, and I was stuck in the basement. I heard some noise at the door and then this man saying, “I not leave until I see Pawson!”

Had he been sending you letters?

I think he might have sent some e-mails and then he just showed up. We get some quite forceful students.

Do you think they confuse your aesthetic with a worldview?

Maybe. In the early days we used to get letters from all sorts of people saying I had changed the way they thought; very personal letters about peoples’ lives. But it had nothing to do with me. They projected something onto what I was doing.

They saw a set of values …

Exactly. But I couldn’t and don’t live up to them. I’m not a perfectionist. Or, I’m a perfectionist, but I’m certainly not perfect. One of the criticisms I’ve had is that in some way my work is inherently critical of other peoples’. People say the strangest things to me, like, “Oh, you’d hate my house.” Why would they assume I’d hate it? Because it’s not minimal? How odd.

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