20th Century Design

John Pawson’s ‘Cathedral of Design’

By James Reginato

O n a recent frosty morning in London, a sizable queue was forming outside the Design Museum, eager visitors awaiting its opening for the day. It was just one week after HRH the Duke of Edinburgh had officially inaugurated the building, but word had clearly gotten out that this new home of the Design Museum – founded by Sir Terence Conran in 1989 and originally housed in a former banana-ripening warehouse on the Thames – was a winner.

This time around, the institution has repurposed a landmark of British Modernism, the 1962 Commonwealth Institute, built on the edge of Holland Park on Kensington High Street. To create a brilliant new interior inside a remarkable shell capped by a dramatic, tent-like roof, the Design Museum board wisely chose John Pawson, an architect famed for his refined use of materials and his Minimalist yet sensuously rich spaces.


Over the course of his career, Pawson has designed private homes as well as a wide range of other buildings and interiors, always for very discerning clients. For Calvin Klein, he devised a powerful, elemental flagship store on New York’s Madison Avenue; for the Trappist monks of Nový Dvůr in the Czech Republic, a majestically reductive monastery. Art galleries, condominiums and boats are also part of Pawson’s repertory. At the moment, he is designing a W Hotel in Jaffa, Israel, for developer and art collector Aby Rosen, while in Los Angeles he is building an Edition Hotel for hospitality entrepreneur Ian Schrager. 

Understandably, Pawson is slightly amused to hear the museum described as his first “public” building. “Let’s call it my first easily accessible building,” he says with a grin during a chat in the museum’s café. This broader exposure has brought with it reactions he seldom encounters. “In the past, everybody coming to one of my buildings was likely to be already in tune with what I do,” he explains. “Here, they are not necessarily coming because they are a Pawson fan – shocking!” he jokes. “It is a new phenomenon for me to see or hear all these comments. People ranting! Everybody has an opinion!”

A couple of critics, he says, have questioned the amount of so-called unused space in his plan for the building, at the centre of which is a 85-foot-high, oak-lined atrium. Galleries and event spaces are arranged around it as in an opencast mine design. “My whole thing is about unused space. That’s the greatest luxury of all, isn’t it?” he says. “But, of course, I think ‘unused’ space is very well used.” Most visitors seem to be delighted. “The greatest thing for me has been to see all the smiles on people’s faces as they walk in,” he says.


Brought up in Yorkshire, Pawson didn’t begin studying architecture until he was 30. Previously, he had worked in his parents’ clothing manufacturing business, then lived in Japan for four years. The scrupulously simple, minimalist designs he started creating quickly earned him devoted clients and fans. “I want to get to the essence of things, to make sure everything is there for a reason, that nothing is superfluous,” he explains. “To reduce things to the point where nothing can be subtracted.”

Miraculously, his interiors manage to be both rigorous and comfortable. “For me, that’s the whole point – to make it comfortable. I just don’t like a lot of stuff,” he says. “Some people think it has to look comfortable – that the sofa has to look squishy.” On the contrary. “The key thing is clarity,” he says. “I like to have a clear view so any light coming in bounces around.”

As he was conceptualising the museum, Pawson says he took an intuitive approach. “I didn’t think, ‘Now I am going to design a design museum for the 21st century.’ For me, it was just about trying to make a good building where people feel comfortable, which comes from creating the right circulation, access and visibility, and using the right materials. I used Danish oak throughout the building. The wood panels have acoustic properties that calm the noise down.”

Reflecting on his design, the architect notes that it “is not an art museum – it has a more domestic feel. The idea was to make it a really nice place for people to come and hang out, whether for five minutes or five hours. There are lots of places to wander around or to sit in and think about things, and get in the mood for design.” If anything, Pawson might have been too successful. “People don’t leave!” he exclaims. “Some have been sleeping on the oak stairs, or breastfeeding their babies on the leather benches. It’s really nice.”


With 100,000 square feet, the Design Museum has tripled its previous size. Two underground galleries host temporary exhibitions, while a top-floor gallery showcases the permanent collection. Items currently on view include a model of the new London Tube train, the British road signage system, a Burberry trench coat and Christian Louboutin heels. In addition to a café, restaurant, auditorium, event spaces and shop, the building also houses the Swarovski Foundation Centre for Learning and the design- and architecture-focussed Sackler Library and Archive.

“There are ‘moments’ in the building that I relish every time I walk around, but I think it is really the way everything comes together – the old and the new – that gives me the greatest pleasure,” Pawson concludes. “I hope the Design Museum shows people that you don’t have to tear down and start from scratch to make exciting new cultural spaces.” That seems to be the opinion of founder Terence Conran, whom Pawson can count among the museum’s most satisfied attendees. “I think one of the things that John has achieved is a lovely feeling of quality around the space that you don’t find in many British buildings,” Conran says. “I’m full of excitement as we open our magnificent new cathedral of design. It really does feel like our moment has arrived, and that the importance of design to our lives is now truly appreciated.” Such ringing endorsements of Pawson’s work bodes well for the Design Museum’s future.


James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair and author of Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats (Rizzoli, $39.95).

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