John Pawson is a London-based architect whose work spans the entire globe, over a variety of different project types. But no matter the location or scale of the project, his steadfast approach to design remains constant. From large museum renovations to pots and pans, every piece is given the attention to detail his work demands.
Everything you see or touch has been designed. You might not think about it, but somebody has come up with that.
I recently spoke with John about his design philosophy and how his work is expressed in form, function and natural materiality. I learned about what makes his approach so unique and how the resulting architecture is much more than what initially meets the eye.
What are the key components of your design philosophy and how have they changed throughout your career?
They really haven’t changed at all. I started late. I think architects, for the most part, don’t get to build big things until their 50s or 60s, so there was no hurry for me. I think waiting allows you to observe so much and then it all comes together later.
I’ve never looked around for direct inspiration, you know. It’s not like you travel to Russia then come back and decide to do a ‘Russian collection.’ We don’t sit with other people’s work or go to look at other people’s buildings. One absorbs those things early on and when it does resurface, we don’t always know where it comes from.
What are the grounding rules when designing a work of architecture that guide your process?
When we are lucky enough to be offered a site, whether it’s a church or a monastery or a private house, you can’t design without going to the place. I tend to balance fulfilling the client’s expectations with the ‘artistic genius’ which they are expecting [laughs]. They’re always asking me, ‘What’s the idea? What’s the idea?’ and I have to say, ‘Hold on, these things take time…’
You use your initial impressions to feel your way towards the first ideas. I take literally hundreds of photographs: views in, views out, flora and fauna, the local village, anything really, regardless. There is no method. This way I can always refer to what I have seen when I’m back home.
Photography is such a major component. There’s no doubt you can’t not have a reaction when you go somewhere, but whether this recognizably translates into the finished design is pretty rare, though, it does happen.
Are there unique opportunities you look for when first surveying or photographing a site for a design project?
You don’t go somewhere and say, ‘speak to me, site, speak to me’ [laughs]. One is relaxed because you know that, ultimately, given the time and with serious input, you’ll come up with something that is architecture and has atmosphere and means something.
You know, it’s a serious business and it’s hard work. It’s not an architecture of jokes. It’s something that I’ve been around forever and that is very serious to me.
You talk about ‘time’ as it is concerned with architecture. Is that something that is important to your design process?
Of course, ideas come from all sorts of funny places. It’s a continuous process. It does mean that sometimes you do need to get on with people and protect things and get things open. It’s hard work in terms of people and process. It’s not that I’m good at shuffling things or dealing with things; it’s about the hard work.
There seems to be a brutal minimalism to the work you do. Can you talk about how you carry that restraint through the design process?
Well, I think there’s a slight misunderstanding. I think when people actually see the work and get to experience it, they realize the warmth in there. Especially when it comes to natural materials: they aren’t perfect. Stone has blemishes. Wood has knots. Light changes everything all the time. The work is quite warm and full of life.
Getting things right requires a bit of rigour and one is always trying to get it right. Only God, I’m told, gets it 100% right [laughs]. I know this because I have monks as clients
In reference to the Design Museum, can you think of anything that challenged your design process in unexpected ways and how you resolved those things?
The Design Museum was a whole different ball game. It’s a public building and used by hundreds of thousands of people a year. On top of that, you’re dealing with an interesting existing building, so you have many people and parties that want to discuss the design. That’s not to say things are compromised, just that you need to take account of all these things.
It has surprised me how people assume, if they know it was me, that every single decision and proportion and space was created with free rein. You’re dealing with very strong rules in planning that must be adhered to. Of course, if you do a public building, you get public criticism. You can’t deal with things where people don’t know the situation and feel you created certain things without restraint.
What’s really nice for me is how successful it is on a daily basis, which is clear from people’s faces and the pleasure they seem to get from experiencing it. Of course, you can’t please everyone.
You’ve worked all around the world on different types of project. How does your design approach change depending?
I would say it’s very steady. On every project I’m learning from the clients and from the situation and the different types of things I have to do. Whether it’s designing a table or a spoon or saucepan or sailing yacht or house or whatever. They’re all projects. For the cooking pot I made, there were 32 different parts I had to consider, which shocked me. It’s not a house, but there’s still so much to consider.
It’s the same approach, the only difference being the time it takes to do projects that are more complex than others.
On your website, you say, ‘something as modest as a fork can be a vehicle for something much broader ideas on how we live and what we value’. Can you talk about what you mean by that?
Everything you see or touch has been designed. You might not think about it, but somebody has come up with that. In a house, you have the windows or the handles or the walls – everything. Someone has had an input on those things.
It seems to me that the small things are just as important as the big. You use forks all the time. You look at them and use them and wash them up. I don’t have the energy or the time to design everything all the time. I have this dream where I’ll design everything you need in the house as well as the house itself. I’m not suggesting I should design everything in the house, that would be too much, just that I have a say in everything that goes into it in the end.
Is it like designing a house as a vehicle for other people’s things?
Well, that’s a given. It certainly depends on the level of involvement, but I do often work with clients in terms of what goes into the home once it’s been designed and sometimes it does extend into things like glasses or sugar pops and such [laughs].
But, I love other people’s work and I love contrasting work. Anything good is great.
Can you talk about a project you’re working on now that’s challenging your design philosophy in new ways?
Everything we do, to be honest.
I think I actually spend far too much time on my own house, much to the chagrin of my wife [laughs]. It’s a refurbishment of a 17th and 18th century farm yard outside London. It’s been very interesting for me because I’ve dissected it to the nth degree and then put it back together. Once you start taking things away, you find some things haven’t stood up to time, and such.
But, it’s interesting putting it back together and how one’s influenced by decisions people made 300 years ago. Of course, materially and spatially, things were different back then, but at the end of the day it’s about stone and mortar and space.
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I’d like to thank John for joining me and giving me such great insight into his process and his practice. If you’d like to know more, visit his website here.