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Posted in Design Stories

Portraits of Pawson

Pawson horizon
John Pawson captures the defin­i­tive elements of sky and land as they meet the abstract qual­i­ties of form, color, and texture.

Through­out his life, archi­tec­tural designer John Pawson has collected images: travel stills, seasons at home, light across landscapes. 

Seldom without a camera, Pawson has become adept at captur­ing these moments of rich­ness, elevat­ing and curat­ing every­day expe­ri­ences by framing the world through a lens. In each of his photographs, the scene captured within the frame remains inti­mately linked to the myster­ies beyond the frame. The noises and smells, textures, move­ments, and colors of reality press up against the bounded truth of the recorded image, conjur­ing a wider atmos­phere. Much like a carver’s blade, the camera enables Pawson to sculpt space and time. It is a tool for sieving through the density of mate­r­ial life, for drawing out possibilities.

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Photo­graph taken in Higashiyama Kyoto, Japan by John Pawson.

Among Pawson’s exhaus­tive collec­tion are thou­sands of images of his home in London, shot over a period of many years. These images show the minimal archi­tec­ture in what seems to be every possi­ble light condi­tion, at every time of day, and in all types of weather. The lime­stones slabs and white-lacquered timbers become back­ground to the quiet play of time, where the profoundly personal spaces of home are at once inti­mately surren­dered and objectively documented.

For Pawson, collect­ing is part of the process of absorb­ing influ­ences. It also feels like a kind of medi­ta­tion. As his finger hovers over the shutter button, he takes a soli­tary second with the image before it is brought into exis­tence. Select­ing what is seen and what to attribute value to is a moment of intense intimacy.

Light spills through the triple height stair­well of Pawson’s London home. Photo cour­tesy of Todd Eberle.

Seem­ingly in contrast to the scale of these photographs, Pawson has prac­ticed archi­tec­ture in expan­sive envi­ron­ments of historic, land­scape and ecolog­i­cal impor­tance. In a remote part of Bohemia, in the Czech Repub­lic, Pawson devel­oped a master­plan for the Trap­pist Monastery, Our Lady of Nový Dvůr. It is a collec­tion of still spaces in which age-old rituals are fulfilled in contem­po­rary ways. And, although the major compo­nents of the project are complete, Pawson consid­ers his work to be ongoing. As with his photographs, he holds in his mind a restrained sense of whole­ness that will only be achieved when every­thing — from the build­ings to the plant­ing, furni­ture and even the monks’ robes — is as he has envisioned it.

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The Work­shop of the Monastery of Our Lady Nový Dvůr sits low, at the edge of the church’s land­scape. Photo cour­tesy of Gilbert McCarragher.
John Pawson Image Credit Sharon Derhy
John Pawson in The Jaffa hotel. Photo cour­tesy of Sharon Dehry.

Mini­mal­ism is not defined by what is not there but by the right­ness of what is, and the rich­ness with which this is experienced.

– John Pawson

Pawson designed the crys­talline JP glasses specif­i­cally for use within the calm visual field of the Nový Dvůr monastery. When set on a table­top, these inverted goblets become dramatic columns of liquid, light-filled, and thick with reflec­tions. While the vessels have a power­ful symme­try from all sides, centered on a thick, heavy base, the fluids and curved forms act as lenses, distort­ing and refram­ing the environment.

Through the process of curat­ing a selec­tion of vessels, Pawson medi­tates on the care with which the liquid will be held. He doesn’t provide handles, so to pour or drink, you must hold the glass directly, your hands wrap­ping the fluid. The rituals of offer­ing, passing, pouring, and drink­ing are given pres­ence. The poten­tially inert glasses responds to the simple move­ments in the white inte­ri­ors, captur­ing alter­na­tive images of space and life.


The cool, muted white of the Monastery crops up repeat­edly in Pawson’s archi­tec­tural work. Looking through his port­fo­lio, you begin to under­stand this repe­ti­tion as search for perfec­tion, for the clarity and sense of depth within the every­day that a perfect pure white space will allow. Perhaps this collec­tion of whites is, in part, why Pawson’s name is often asso­ci­ated with Mini­mal­ism: an admit­tedly impre­cise archi­tec­tural expres­sion which umbrel­las every­thing from Japan­ese concepts of Zen to Thoreau’s quest for simplicity.

For Pawson, mini­mal­ism means each thing achiev­ing its perfect balance of being just enough — a specific kind of perfec­tion attained when subtrac­tion would no longer improve, but begin to under­mine, an arti­fact. It is a theory and a prac­tice at once, informed by his time in the Japan­ese studio of designer Shiro Kura­mata. This holds true for each compo­nent, element, and detail. There is a slow seren­ity to this under­stand­ing of mini­mal­ism that is felt through Pawson’s work: a consis­tent expres­sion of simplic­ity and time, a sense through which every­thing reveals the vivid essence of itself. Mini­mal­ism is in the process of reduc­tion and editing, achiev­ing elegance and rich­ness of experience.

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John Pawson (far left) and Shiro Kuru­mata in Aram Store, London, 1981.

The epony­mous JP bowl, for example, is a seam­less hemi­sphere, a thick-edged sphere sliced perfectly in half to reveal a cavernous center for fruit to rest in. Undoing our expec­ta­tions of a bowl, the form of the hemi­sphere remains perfect: Pawson has resisted the temp­ta­tion to flatten it to provide a stable base, prefer­ring to preserve the geomet­ric integrity. The hemi­sphere is then rendered not in white, but in a deep, dark resin: so dark that the emptied out core is only just discernible from the lip. A place to keep precious collec­tions. In use, fruit bathe in this dark­ness, their silhou­ettes peeking over the edge. The truth is that at a point, the size of the bowl, thick­ness of the glass and weight of the knife are not about reduc­tion, but another kind of perfec­tion that is some­where between propor­tion and human feeling. These objects facil­i­tate and enable reflec­tive prac­tices, invit­ing aware­ness of life through every­day rituals and sensual experiences.

Given that Pawson is perhaps best-known for this ultra-pure aesthetic, it almost feels surpris­ing to see his name attrib­uted to the design of house­hold objects and furni­ture items: pieces that occupy and perhaps even dare to clutter archi­tec­tural spaces. But Pawson’s atten­tion to the details of every­day life and human expe­ri­ence, in photographs as in archi­tec­ture, ties his work and philos­o­phy together across all scales. Each work exhibits an aware­ness that the archi­tec­tures, conceived as mini­mal­ist spaces of still­ness, exist in balance with life: voices, light, foot­steps and the objects we use to carry out daily tasks all illu­mi­nate these spaces.

More recently, Pawson has lent his hand to the trans­for­ma­tion of a former convent and hospi­tal, perched on a hill over­look­ing the port in Tel Aviv, into a hotel and private resi­dences collec­tively named The Jaffa. In the white heat of Israel, the 19th century neo-gothic, neo-renais­sance build­ing has a rich, volu­mi­nous inte­rior with high vaulted ceil­ings and exquis­itely detailed stained-glass windows. In response to the exist­ing archi­tec­ture, here Pawson has strayed away from a purely white palette, bring­ing more color, more pattern, and more bold­ness. In the guest rooms, his touch is a little more pared back, and in the social spaces, more gener­ous, more abun­dant. Here, the pure forms, rich textures and bold orange, mustard and pink hues of Cini Boeri’s Botolo Chair, and Shiro Kuramata’s Sofa with Arms sit strongly within the carved out exist­ing spaces. Magi­cally, the result only inten­si­fies the purity of the space and empha­sizes the light and color.

Interior Design John Pawson Jaffa hotel Tel Aviv bar lounge 1018 Photography by Amit Geron Interior Design
Jaffa Hotel designed by John Pawson. Photo: Amit Geron 
The Jaffa Lobby Image Credit Amit Geron
Sofa with Arms by Shiro Kura­mata in the lobby of the Jaffa Hotel.

In photo­graphic portraits of Pawson himself, he is often perched on a stair­case, slung on a simple chair in an empty room, or stand­ing against a door frame. Soft light invari­ably falls across his left shoul­der. In each image his arms are crossed in front of his body, or maybe his hands are pressed together at the fingertips. 

Set in his empty spaces, these bodily rela­tion­ships are height­ened: we read the nega­tive shapes between arm and wall, leg and ground. In these portraits, as in Pawsons’ own photo­graphic prac­tice, mini­mal­ism is the slow shutter speed where edges soften, and light seeps in. Repeated over the course of a day, slow actions in the life of a space become rituals: switch­ing on a light, turning a door handle, taking a book down from the shelf. Some of these moments have clear phys­i­cal elements in and of them­selves, but Pawson suggests that it is the collect­ing of moments, and how these parts come together, that creates the atmos­phere of the space. Perhaps then, even without occu­py­ing a Pawson-designed home, we might bring still­ness and reflec­tion to our lives, bathe in his char­ac­ter­is­tic palette, and create, through careful collec­tion and cura­tion, a personal, minimal paradise.

John Pawson Image Credit Sharon Derhy 2 2
John Pawson, 2018

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