Designer Q&A: John Pawson

Design Anthology’s editor-in-chief sat down with esteemed architect John Pawson at Milan Design Week for a conversation on his latest collaboration for Swarovski, some of his struggles as a perfectionist and his views on minimalism

Design Anthology: How has Milan been for you so far?

John Pawson: It’s weird being in Milan. On the way here from the hotel, we were stopped by three people who had to have a selfie together. I thought, 'Is this what it's like?'

That's part of the novelty of Design week in Milan for all of us, spotting designers on the street.

You mean I'm not unique? <laughs>

Of course you are, but it’s like Hollywood for the design industry.

It must be, yeah. I suppose in the age of the selfie and the age of Instagram, all these installations must be Instagram friendly. It's not my thing. I like Instagram, but I couldn't design for it. And I resisted doing something for Swarovski for ten years or more. Nadia's been after me.

I heard that you two are quite good friends, so that must have been hard for you to resist for so long. She gave you a hard time then, did she?

It’s hard to have a tall attractive blonde chasing me <laughs>. I'm lucky my wife is very calm and doesn't get worked up or jealous. And Nadia's very cool. So, I'm just really thrilled that we've been able to make it work, for myself, you know. I can only design things that I want and use, and this will suit our new house.

Is that how you’ve always approach things then? It's not about the prospective client, but about something you would want?

Yeah, it’s like that with architecture. If I’m designing a monastery, I design it obviously to help them run their lives, but also how I would want to live if I was a monk. So it’s the same with objects. All my glasses and plates and knives and forks are all designed for what I want. It's not that there aren't other really beautiful ones out there. It's not that I want everything at home to be me but I quite enjoy getting it right.

Personalising things?

Yeah

Architects designing products is not really a new thing. There have been several architects over the course of history who have kitted out spaces with products that they've designed, either for themselves or for that space. I think maybe architects collaborating with brands came along in the 20th century. How do you feel about that trend? And I'm wondering if you see it pushing architects in the direction of becoming brand names themselves and reinforcing this whole 'starchitect' phenomenon. What do you think about that? Do you want to be a brand name?

I mean, I'm part of this new phenomenon and it's fantastic, but it doesn't affect how you design. It just makes it easier to convince people. And you know, until I worked for Calvin Klein everyone was quite wary. They wouldn't commit themselves. But as soon as someone like him committed then Cathay Pacific hired me and it just went from there. Having a bit of profile certainly was a huge help.

So you would only really collaborate or design a product if you felt a legitimate desire to own that yourself? You have no desire to proliferate the market with John Pawson-branded product?

No, I think it's quite difficult because, well, architecture of course works very differently, fee-wise. When you're doing a building you get an advance because you have to run the office, you have to employ lots of people, whereas with objects it's more royalty-based. I think some manufacturers couldn't understand why I didn't jump at doing a sofa or a chair or something, which they could sell hundreds of. They kept saying to me, 'yes, but you will get the royalties' and I'd think, ‘Yeah, but that doesn't help me’. I mean, you have to be liquid to be able to finance the running of the office. But Catherine, my wife, likes the idea of future royalties. <laughs> They just come in, you know. You've done the work, then they just start coming in.

Is there anything appealing about how quickly you can design a smaller product as opposed to the length of time it takes to finish a building?

Of course, yeah. It's very satisfying and also you can go on designing it until the object is sitting in front of you and you can say ‘Okay, I'm not so happy about that’, whereas with a building, you can never. Of course, when I first started I drove my clients mad. It would go on and on and on.

And the contractors as well?

Yeah. One guy floored me. I didn't see it coming. He just went bang, and when you're hit properly, you just go straight down. It was quite dramatic. We were on the street in London, so I was in the gutter looking up at this guy. I know, I was stupid. First of all, I was standing too near, obviously.

I presume that never changed your resolve or your principles, or your wanting to see things the way you felt they should be done?

Well no, but I did learn to be a little more diplomatic. Also, you know at the beginning I had issues with clients because it mattered so much to me. If I wanted to reduce the height of the ceiling, I would, and some clients got upset about that.

Did you ever have arguments with clients who, after you'd created a beautiful space, filled it with all their stuff?

Well I think if I can get the building right, of course I'm interested in what goes in it. It’s really really important — it changes the building hugely. But, I mean, you can't control everything. I tried, back in the early days.

But now you must have clients that come to you for a certain aesthetic?

Yes, but everyone's different. Some people want you to do everything, including getting their lapsang souchong tea. Whatever. And of course, that's an extreme. Some people say, ‘I don't want you to do anything with the furniture, just the architecture’. And some people just want the interiors, not the architecture. So, we're flexible these days. As long as I'm able to contribute something.

So this is not the first time you've worked with Swarovski, but it is the first time that you're showing a product collaboration in Milan?

Yeah absolutely, with them, yes. As I said, I resisted for a long time. I mean you wouldn't normally associate me with what they do but I saw a way in. We'll see, who knows. When you do it, you don't know where it will go from here. But I'm happy.

It's a beautiful collection.

We did this church in Augsburg, a catholic church in the centre of town which the British had bombed. It used to be the most exquisite seventeenth century church and really beautiful, by father and son architects, quite well known, who did it very simply. But gradually stuff got added and subtracted and it was made a mess off, so they hired me to redo the church.

It was a very popular local place for people to just pop in, to talk to God and so on. And so there was a huge expectation. We had the opening with the bishop and I had to give the bishop the key during the ceremony, and we had a huge crowd outside because it was a very big church and everyone was of course eager to get in — a lot of people worshipped there. So they opened the doors, and it really was a spectacle. I was, like, in this scrum, and then there was this couple who saw it and, I don't speak German but, they were saying 'This is terrible, it’s horrible, a travesty!' I mean, I'm just imagining what they said, but they were absolutely apoplectic, and then they stormed out. And I thought, 'Oh no, I've messed up here' and I felt so bad. But then the others came in, and the whole place filled up and they had an amazing mass and an amazing concert afterwards, and everyone was really, really happy. It was just those two people. So, you can't please everybody.

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That's always bound to happen. Like you said, you can't make everyone happy.

Well if you could, it wouldn't be good work.

How did you approach the collection then? What was your thinking and process at the very beginning?

Well, I tried all sorts of things. I mean, to be honest, I tried that idea of having a tiny bit of crystal and a lot of silver, or something else and then I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ You know? And they kept explaining to me the properties of crystal, which of course means you have to face it. If you don't cut it in that way...

So we developed these random widths, which change as you move around it. I wanted things I could use and things I could put in my own home. So I just designed things that I wanted or needed: candlesticks, vases for flowers and just one centrepiece that you can put fruit on.

Does your wife ever get a say in this or are you the final decision maker?

You should interview her! She's incredibly calm and incredibly patient and generous. With our new house in the country — she wanted somewhere out of London — I said to her, 'Look, I've just got to make it clear before we go that I'm doing it' and she said 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, but when it's finished I can put stuff in that I want' and I said, 'Yeah, just after I'm finished.' So she's quite upset with me because I haven't put up any fixings for the curtain rods. But I will do it. I really will do it. We will have curtains.

But you'll have to get it photographed before then? <laughs>

Yeah. The thing is that I have to feel comfortable in the space all the time. I mean it's quite therapeutic to have it photographed in its idealised state. But then I tend to want it like that the whole time.

Well I guess that's the whole idea of having a comfy house. It’s somewhere to relax and if that for you is somewhere visually quiet...

Well yes, but there is more than one of us.

Marriage is all about compromise.

Luckily for us the compromise is in different areas.

My final question is how do you describe your work? I feel like ‘minimalism’ doesn't really cut it. Is there another word?

No. There isn't. I talk about clarity and I talk about feeling comfortable and atmosphere, but I wouldn't describe it as simply atmospheric or architectural. There are a lot of words, but whatever nice words you can think of should apply: honest, clear, direct.

I've never been bothered about being called a minimalist. To begin with, in the seventies when I first started doing this my sisters thought I was completely mad and they used to send blank pieces of paper saying ‘This is a membership to John's club’. They never understood — there was no one else doing it, no one would join the club. And then suddenly I look around and anybody who remotely felt they were doing something simple, even if it wasn't, suddenly became a minimalist. So there was a big group, of which I was just one, and then it shrank back a bit.

I can imagine that as the world gets more hectic, your architecture becomes more desirable.

It's always been hectic. I was always amazed because I always did it for myself. And then I was amazed that other people wanted it. It took me a long time to get my head around that.

As told to / Suzy Annetta

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