John Pawson would like to set the record straight. ‘People always say, “You never use colour”,’ but, as this renowned proponent of minimalism in architecture and design explains, ‘that’s obviously odd if you look at this book. I’d say my work is quite rich.’ The book he is talking about is Spectrum, published by Phaidon, which contains Pawson’s prolific photography of places that he has visited and moments he has captured, often in an abstracted, fragmentary manner. The title derives from the sequence of the book, the photographs arranged from white through to black, taking in the entire spectrum of colour through tonal nuances. What emerges is Pawson’s sensitivity towards how light and shadow patterns affect the texture and perception of a surface, and his highly artistic eye.

London Design Museum Photo ® Hufton+Crow

Bendinat, Mallorca, Spain / November 2011
Through his architectural projects, Pawson has travelled widely. In the last decade, he has designed the Feuerle Collection in Berlin for art historian Désiré Feuerle’s collection of Chinese Imperial furniture and 7th - 13th century Southeast Asian sculpture; houses in Europe, the US and Japan; the Christopher Kane store in London; the Sackler Crossing – a footbridge snaking across a lake in Kew, the Royal Botanic Gardens in London; and renovated churches in Germany and Hungary. In the 1990s, he designed the Calvin Klein store in New York, hailed for its self-assured rigour. The interior has since been jazzed up by American artist Sterling Ruby’s brightly-coloured sculptures. ‘He’s transformed the store into a riot of colour and mobiles,’ says Pawson, adding, ‘You couldn’t have greater opposites than Raf Simons [designer of Calvin Klein] and him.’

Describing himself as being ‘foremost a visual person’, Pawson snaps anything that catches his eye, from cacti in Texas to carps in Miami, canyons in Arizona and concerts in London. Slabs of stone, stair-cases and sunsets feature strongly, along with clouds and other sky views.

Farini, Milan. Photo © Max Gleeson

The abundance of amassed images – Pawson, has taken ‘hundreds of thousands’ with his Sony RX100 M4 and iPhone 7 – serve as a visual tool for his office, and are uploaded onto the server. Pawson shares his pictures on Instagram, where they attracted the attention of Emilia Terragni, Phaidon’s editorial director. ‘She noticed the amount of colour, which interested her,’ says Pawson, explaining that Terragni suggested sequencing the book according to the colour spectrum. The two previously collaborated on A Visual Inventory - images from Pawson’s personal archive, and Phaidon has also published two books on his architecture.

Born in the Yorkshire town of Halifax, in the north of England, Pawson grew up in a ‘textiles and fashion’ family. He went into architecture in his early thirties, after returning from a six-year stint in Japan where he taught English as a foreign language. ‘I was interested in Japan’s architecture and the idea of becoming a Zen Buddhist monk,’ he says, smiling. ‘But I only lasted half a night in the mountain.’ It was in Japan that Pawson discovered his passion for photography, capturing details rather than the bigger picture. ‘My agency sent me to photograph events like ship races but I was absolutely hopeless. They wanted the action shot and I was sending them things like reflections in a pool,’ he adds, laughing.

Marfa, Texas, USA / April 2014

Having read about the architect and designer Shiro Kuramata in Domus, he spent some time working in his Tokyo studio - an experience that would influence his future. ‘Shiro Kumata said, “Stop hanging around my office, go and do architecture yourself.” So I went to the AA [Architectural Association School in London] but never qualified because seven years of studying seemed a long time.’

Pawson set up his studio in 1982 and, according to an article by Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, in the Financial Times, Pawson rang Kuramata for advice on which particular shade of violet to paint the cornice in the first flat that he designed. ‘I’ve always done things for myself and have always been surprised by other people wanting it,’ Pawson says. ‘I did my first house for myself and, amazingly, other people became interested and [my practice] grew.’

King’s Cross, London / January 2017

The fact that Pawson never qualified as an architect has become a bone of conten- tion. ‘There’s been a bit of talk lately about whether I’m an actual architect,’ he admits. In 2013, the UK’s Architects Registration Board (ARB) wrote to Dezeen, complaining about the website referring to Pawson as a British architect. ‘John Pawson is not a registered architect and therefore should not be described as such,’ the ARB’s letter stated. In a follow-up conversation, the ARB suggested that Pawson be described as an ‘architectural consultant’ instead.

We are meeting in early October in the basement of Pawson’s studio near King’s Cross Station. Located a few doors away from the offices of the Guardian newspaper, it’s in an intellectual hub. Pawson’s maquettes and extensive library line the long, rectangular table where we pore over Spectrum. The book is arranged with a juxtaposition of two images on each page: white clouds in Japan and clouds over a wall open the book, while a pairing of a darkened gallery space glimpsed through a curtain in Berlin and the night sky in Marfa, Texas, closes it.

Pawson likes the individualism of photography in contrast to the ‘group endeavour’ of architecture. ‘You could look at anyone’s Instagram and it’s always unique,’ he says. ‘It’s your eye, your finger on the shutter seizing that moment, whereas designing buildings is grinding but in a nice way.’ Regarding his predilection for snapping details, he replies, ‘If you take a wide-angle landscape, no matter how beautiful, it can be the same as other people’s.’

Okinawa House. Photo © Nacasa & Partners

Leafing through the book’s 320 images, Pawson points out certain pictures: a concert by The xx, a band represented by his music promoter son, Caius; the farmhouse that he is renovating with his wife Catherine; their home in Notting Hill; a trip to Kenya with Qatar’s late Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed alThani to see rare, exotic trees that the sheikh wanted to reproduce in Qatar; a Kuramata vase; and artworks by Carl Andre and Ken Price. The sensitivity to light groups them all together. ‘I’m interested in the effect of colour,’ says Pawson. ‘My spaces all have colour because the light changes, it’s not so much about the materials but the light affecting the surfaces. If you finish and there’s no atmosphere, you’re fucked – touch wood, it hasn’t happened – that’s the difference between architecture and building.’

Pawson has several projects in the pipeline, including two hotels for 2018. For the West Hollywood Edition near Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, with hotelier Ian Schrager, Pawson is designing the exterior and interior, using ‘lots of wood and bronze’ for the furniture. The second is the W Tel Aviv Residences in Jaffa, a one-time Palestinian village, for property mogul Aby Rosen, which is situated on the site of a former monastery and Napoleonic hospital. ‘A lot of the rooms are double-height and converted from monastic rooms,’ says Pawson. ‘It’s not recognisable as a branded hotel and has an eclectic collection of furniture, like Kuramata and 1960s Italian, bronze, and shuttering for the balconies to protect against the sun.’

Next summer, Pawson plans to design a wooden chapel with an amber window, in Dillingen, on the Danube river, south-east Germany. ‘I like to do these smaller projects,’ says Pawson, who recently completed a bakery in Italy. The biggest undertaking, though, is his farmhouse. ‘Two brothers in their eighties lived in it and had retired to a couple of rooms,’ says Pawson. ‘Everything else was as it had always been, apart from a tiled fire-place installed in the 1950s. We stripped everything to reveal beautiful 17th-century detailing and mossy colours, greens and reds. We’ve got one kitchen at one end and one at the other, and a medieval orchard with big fruit trees that was used for making cider.’ And when it comes to revealing his working method, Pawson says, ‘I do cartoons and describe my idea to people who are more articulate with drawing than I am. Then they visualise them, and add or subtract their own things.’

Calvin Klein store Photo ® Calvin Klein

Pawson is also designing Swarovski’s 2017 fashion awards trophy (following Marc Newson last year), a candleholder cast in aluminium ‘that reflects the light’, and a stainless steel teapot for When Objects Work. ‘Whether you do a book, a bath, a ballet, a bridge or a boat – we’ve done all those things – it’s the same philosophy to distil things, there’s a thread and authorship,’ Pawson says.

What comes across is Pawson’s determination not to be distracted. ‘I don’t really like things on the wall – it changes the space and your eye stops, although that’s a good thing if it’s a Rembrandt head or something spectacular,’ he says. He enjoys going to the National Gallery in London to see just one painting, The Interior of the Grote Kerk at Haarlem (1636-1637) by Pieter Saenredam, who altered the church’s perspective to enhance the effects of spaciousness and luminosity between the columns. A detail of it wouldn’t look amiss in Spectrum. As Pawson says, ‘Light is probably the single most important building block.’

Spectrum by John Pawson, published by Phaidon, is available to order now from

This article appeared in DAM65. Order your personal copy.