John Pawson's 'Simple Expression of a Complex Thought'

John Pawson's 'Simple Expression of a Complex Thought'

Designing a home to house a collection

John Pawson’s name is synonymous with elegant simplicity, and his architectural practice has seen him design buildings from galleries and museums to retail concept stores and monasteries. They are meditative spaces that allow calm contemplation, and a deep appreciation for materials, surface and light. It was this approach that drew Ralph I. Goldenberg to purchase the Pawson-designed house at Hay’s Mews to display his extraordinary collection of art, which will be offered for sale on 25 and 26 June at Sotheby's London.

Mariko Finch: Do you think the word ‘minimalism’ is often misunderstood? 

John Pawson: I think some people still assume minimalism is about painting the walls white and having a signature chair or kitchen spout. In place of the term minimalism, Donald Judd preferred to speak of the ‘simple expression of complex thought’ and this makes perfect sense to me. Rather than a style, I prefer to talk about my work in terms of spatial principles.

MF: What is your creative approach when you begin a new project? 

JP: I can honestly say that when I sit down to design a space or an object now, it is with the same approach and thinking as I did four decades ago. A new project always begins with a phase of total immersion in the circumstances of the site - whether it’s a piece of land or an existing building - and in the details of the brief.

MF: Do you approach designing a home for others in the same way you would approach designing it for yourself? 

JP: The quick answer to this is yes. Le Corbusier said that "The home should be the treasure chest of living". Forming this treasure chest is the same incredibly intense and emotional process, whether it’s for myself or for a third party. For me a sense of ease and stillness is essential to feeling at home in a place and this is what I am trying to achieve for my clients.

John Pawson photographed by Gilbert McCarragher.
"Rather than a style, I prefer to talk about my work in terms of spatial principles"

MF: How much of your process is collaborative – either with practitioners in your studio or with your client? 

JP: A body of work is evidence of a body of collaborative endeavour. Over the decades that I have been in practice, many minds, eyes and hands have contributed to the work that has been made - those of my team, of clients, of specialist consultants, of contractors, of photographers...


MF: From what (or who) do you draw most inspiration? 

JP: This is a question I find easiest to answer in terms of the people whose work helped me to understand my own approach to making space when I was starting out. I never met Mies van der Rohe, but no other single individual has had a greater impact on my architectural thinking, with the exceptions perhaps of Shiro Kuramata and Donald Judd. I have the twenty volumes of Mies’s published archive in my office and I find myself regularly taking down a book —whether in search of something in particular, or simply for the pleasure of browsing.

MF: The Hay’s Mews house itself has been described by many a work of art in itself. How did the project come about? 

JP: Doris Saatchi was following my work and asked me to help her in designing the house.

MF: The house was home to an extraordinary collection of art by Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly, Brice Marden and Agnes Martin. How do you begin to design a space to support the display of works like this? 

JP: I have always felt that spaces for art are not places for grand architectural gestures. You don’t want to be distracted. In some ways you don’t even want to be conscious of where you are. The focus should fall naturally on the art. This is not to say that the spaces themselves should not be beautiful and they should certainly feel good and comfortable to be in.

MF: Can you talk a bit about the role of light in your work? It is used to very powerful effect in your buildings?

JP: Moving round my own home, the changing quality of the light is a constant sensory and emotional pleasure. One of the first things I do when I walk around a new site is to ask myself about the quality and quantity of the light.

As well as sunlight, I am thinking about how applied lighting is going to help make the spaces legible and usable - how light might be added to order or subdivide the spaces, to provide variety, rhythm and a sense of spatial sequence and connection.


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