Catherine and John Pawson’s Monastic Simplicity

Catherine and John Pawson’s Monastic Simplicity

Taking on a drastic rural renovation was a big challenge for Catherine and John Pawson but, 10 years later, their contemporary farmhouse is paying dividends.

“I t makes the perfect frame," says John Pawson. The master of Zen simplicity in architecture and design is not referring to the frame of a painting, but to the raw stainless-steel frames of the triple-glazed windows at Manor Farm, the home in an Oxfordshire hamlet he shares with his wife Catherine. “Swedish raw stainless steel – they make the best there – has beautiful watermarks. I bought huge sheets, straight from the rollers, enough to frame every window in the house without any joins,” he says.

Attention to minute details is typical of John Pawson’s intense focus, as is his use of a few carefully chosen materials – lime plaster, marble and stone. All the wood in the house is elm. “Usually, I find elm too busy,” he says, “but the beams already in the house were made of elm. It’s a lesser wood – oak would have been used in the local grand house.” He found two felled elm trees in Germany, and bought both trunks. All the wood in the house – the floorboards, doors and kitchen cupboards – has been made from them.

The exterior of Home Farm in Oxfordshire, England. Photo: Gilbert McCarragher / Phaidon.

If this seems a trifle obsessive, John Pawson is genial and relaxed when you meet him, and his wife Catherine, also a designer, is gentle, calm and a brilliant cook. The couple bought Manor Farm to have space to entertain friends, and to entice their children to stay. They have jointly produced a book, Home Farm Cooking, whose recipes for simple, unpretentious and seasonal dishes would induce anyone to stay for a very long time. It must be said that the glamorous Daylesford Farm shop is just three fields away, and in season a local organic farm sells four kinds of asparagus – superb ingredients abound in this corner of the Cotswolds.

“Swedish raw stainless steel has beautiful watermarks – I bought enough to frame every window”

The farmhouse sitting room, looking towards the stables and the barn. Photo: Gilbert McCarragher / Phaidon.

Manor Farm was far from glamorous when the Pawsons first saw it 10 years ago. It was a semi-derelict dairy farm, with a farmhouse, stables, a barn, a carp pond and pigsties with hogweed growing head-high. The earliest building dates from 1610, the latest from the early 20th century. Two brothers in their 80s, the remnants of a family who had lived there for 70 years, each had a bedroom, and shared a kitchen, while the rest of the place was filled with the detritus of decades. Friends who invited themselves to see the site departed white-faced and aghast. “I found it a terrifying project, too,” says Catherine. “But it’s what I do,” says John. “It’s like when we found the Cistercian abbey in the Czech Republic – that was 10 times as big and 10 times as ruined.”

Monastic simplicity is his watchword, and not just in the monasteries he has designed, but for all his projects, from his flagship shops for Calvin Klein in New York and Jil Sander in Tokyo, to Manor Farm. He completed the line of buildings in the farmyard by filling in a gap with a double-height glass-walled dining room, to make a house 50 metres long, with a kitchen at either end.

Catherine and John Pawson in the barn dining room. Photo: Gilbert McCarragher / Phaidon.

“We have four bedrooms and three kitchens,” he says; the third is in the detached Wain House, beside the pond. At one end of the house there is a low-ceilinged kitchen for the winter; at the other end, a long table for summer entertaining, with a full-height glass wall that opens completely to the garden, using a counter-weighted crank. A solid marble table and benches under trees beside the carp pond is the place for summer meals.

For John Pawson’s recent 70th birthday, a friend gave him a Jenny Saville drawing of a nude, and another commissioned a poem from Ben Okri, now framed and standing on a shelf beside two candlesticks in the farmhouse hall. Catherine has also bought an 18th-century Swedish sofa for one of the sitting rooms, and there are even curtains in the dining room. Things are almost getting cosy in Pawson land.

Home Farm Cooking by Catherine and John Pawson is published by Phaidon, £35.

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