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.
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.