The Art of Meditation with John Pawson

Words by
Josh Sims

16th December 2022

As we enter 2023, is it time to embrace the less is more approach, not only for the planet, but for our own peace of mind? To find out SPHERE meets British architectural designer John Pawson to discuss minimalism, discipline and his quest for emptiness.

John Pawson has long since given up trying to keep his design studio in the kind of spartan order he’d ideally prefer. “People say it’s very quiet but I find it full of action. There must be some outward appearance of calm,” says the British designer and architect, who’s
won global acclaim for his rational, simple, stripped-back aesthetic, counting Ian Schrager Hotels, Jil Sander, Cathay Pacific, the Royal Opera House and the new London Design Museum, plus many private residences and yachts, among his clients.

“When I started the office there were no books and all the surfaces were clear and white,” he adds. “Everybody had to keep their things very, very tidy. Even putting plans on the walls was problematic for me but as time went on it became apparent that it was impossible to control the team that way. They’re very good architects, but they’re not minimalists. What matters is the quality of the work. I have to keep saying that like a mantra just to remember what’s important.”

The Jaffa Hotel in Tel Aviv
Photograph by Amit Geron

Actually, ‘minimalism’ is not a description Pawson much likes himself, given its suggestion of literal cool, of hair-shirtedness. His designs, he contends, are perfectly comfortable and exude a warmth, while also making the best of lines, light and geometry to create spaces with a meditative quality.
He does recall, however, inviting the abbot of the Abbey of Our Lady of Nový Dvůr, a monastery Pawson was designing in the Czech Republic, back to his home for tea, where the monk looked around and announced his concern that maybe Pawson’s aesthetic would be too austere for them.

“One of my sisters once sent me a blank piece of paper and when I asked her why she said it was my application for the minimalist’s club. Well, ha ha,” laughs Pawson, sarcastically. “At least she did it in good spirits. But none of my sisters understood my interest in things minimalist. When my parents died we had to divvy up the family heirlooms and each time it came to me there wasn’t anything I wanted, which upset them. So my wife Catherine very kindly asked if we could have these very ornate 18th-century coffee cups. We’ve never used them. There’s no room for them. I miss my parents but all our photographs of them, well, you can see them if you open a cupboard, but I certainly wouldn’t want them on the wall. Or even on the piano. And we don’t have a piano.”

Private House Los Angeles
Photograph by Gilbert McCarragher

Pawson — affable, good-humoured, self-deprecating in a very English way — understands that there’s something to laugh at in his less-is-more leanings. “In our houses [London and a farm in the Cotswolds], we only have what we need, or what we think we need. But that’s more than we need — and if you live with other people, it’s almost a full-time job to rationalise that and keep control,” he says of his daily battle to pare back the visual clutter, nodding to his wife’s more relaxed regard for colour and soft furnishings.

He once described working on a Barbican apartment to “bring it back to a state of emptiness”. More recently he noted that even bed linen can be “imbued with meaning” — which is why his own linen collection is designed to make the most of those inevitable, unsightly creases, turning a flaw into a feature, so that they look, he suggests, something akin to the view of flying over the Alps.

John Pawson Single Tray
Tray, €640, from When Objects Work Shop

“See that written down and you think ‘What’s he rabbiting on about?’” he laughs. “But the fact is that a bed doesn’t look good unmade.” His ascetic leanings stem, he suggests, from his upbringing in the spare, sometimes bleak landscape of North Yorkshire, the son of Methodists who wanted little for material belongings — although he laughs that his textiles-manufacturing father would nonetheless always have the best of whatever they did have. Pawson, after all, is the man who, attempting to train as a Zen Buddhist monk, was set to scrubbing the floors and lasted all of four hours.

“I’ve no idea what I was thinking. I was 24 but I might as well have been 12,” he chuckles, kicking some file boxes further back under a beautiful bench table of his own design so that they’re better hidden from view. “I had some romantic dream of reaching enlightenment. But it was a good tonic. My mother would have loved me to have become a missionary, but something modest — not going to the most exclusive monastery in the world at the top of a mountain in Japan.”

Wooden Chapel
Photograph by Felix Friedmann

It was the discipline of architecture — and especially the intensely precise, intellectual, unshowy form he’s known for, one that can feel at odds with times that seem to favour the fantastical and spectacular — that calmed what he describes as his irrational mind. “And I’ve been doing it for so long that I’ve slightly forgotten about the mad side of me,” he says. “I’m a small time player in the madness stakes, really.”

But while some, like his sisters, just don’t get it — “there’s always someone who’s completely freaked out by it,” he says — there is method in his belief that the right interior space has the potential to be life-enhancing, to have a positive mental and physical effect on its occupants.

“I don’t proselytise but absolutely that’s right, 100%,” he enthuses. “I think if you’re not affected by a space when you walk into it then it’s not architecture. Rigorous simplicity allows you to breath. It’s uplifting. You can see that people are affected, in a good way. There’s often this exhalation of air when people come into one of my spaces for the first time.”

Those who do get his congenial monasticism remain converts. Pawson’s big breakthrough was being hired by Calvin Klein — standard-bearer for minimalism in fashion — to design his first standalone shops. It was a commission to which, Pawson says, he owes everything. It might easily have been missed.

Palmgren House
Photograph by Gilbert McCarragher

“I’d been out to lunch and had a bottle of Chianti on my own after a tough morning, and when I went back to the office they told me Calvin Klein had been on the phone,” Pawson recalls. “They had a habit of practical jokes and Klein was such a remote figure in those days so I just dismissed it. His people rang again and asked, ‘Can Calvin Klein come and see you?’ And this time I said, ‘Yes, of course!’, thinking we’d arrange something in a few weeks. And they said, ‘He’s waiting outside in the car’. He was a remarkable figure. He’d let you know when he wasn’t pleased by saying, ‘Do you think you have a handle on that?’ Which meant you’d better get one fast.”

Pawson’s eye for the smallest things must have made them a great match. Indeed, while there are some major engineering commissions he’d like to take on — he’s done a bridge, and the prospect of an airport appeals were it not for the fact that the bigger the job, the more an architect inevitably has to cede some control, which he’s less keen on — Pawson is increasingly turning his attention to the designing of clean, unfussy objects to put in his clear, unfussy interiors. Pendant lights, a wooden tray, door handles, pots and pans, a vase, all have undergone the Pawson approach.

John Pawson Vase in Bohemian Crystal
John Pawson vase, €257.50 from When Objects Work Shop

“I’d love to do more smaller things, objects you can hold in your hand, because they’re useful,” he says. “They take just as much work. They’re like buildings but with a change of scale.”

Catherine points out to him, he adds, that when that work is done, there is also the advantage of it continuing to pay royalties. “But then, you know, I’ve been thinking of doing mirrors for 30 years. I’ve never liked mirrors because they distort the space. Mirrors need to have presence without being decorative — and you do need to check you haven’t got a splurge on your face occasionally. That all means there’s a challenge there.”

John Pawson