Ginny Dougary
The Times
September 2010

The architect talks to Ginny Dougary about monks, Martha Stewart and plans for the Design Museum’s new home.

John Pawson, the überminimalist designer and architect, is busily cluttering up his pristine surfaces. In between us, on a beautiful wooden table in the centre of the kitchen of his West London home, is a teapot of lapsang souchong, a plate of buttery French biscuits (with its empty packet left out — travesty! — on the sideboard) and no less than three strikingly similar creamcoloured beakers lined up for me to drink from: a Wedgwood, an original Shaker — a gift, along with an old blackened kettle on the stove, from America’s domestic goddess Martha Stewart, one of his less obvious clients — and a Pawson.

This friendship with Stewart is somewhat unexpected; his taste for unadorned simplicity (even the Cistercian monks of the Bohemian monastery he designed suggested that his plans were a little “austere”) and her rather fussy, homespun cuteseyness, would suggest that they were not the most obvious soulmates. But one of the appealing things about Pawson is that he is full of surprises.
They met when Stewart came to his home to film some sort of cooking programme, with suitably monochrome food (he remembers black squid and pasta, and a turbot and vanilla soufflé) and a table setting that included the three-pronged Georgian forks that he favours. Out of this venture came a handsome cookbook, Living and Eating — photographed chez Pawson — with the chef-turned-food-writer Annie Bell.

“It’s a proper, useful cookbook,” Pawson says. Catherine, his wife, suddenly appears with their 20-year-old son, Benedict. I get the feeling that this cookbook is a little bit of a family joke, an impression that is reinforced when I ask whether the architect is the cook of the family.

“He’s very good at toast,” Ben says. Catherine: “I said, ‘Now you’ve done the cookbook, why don’t you do the cooking!’” “But Catherine always cooks so effortlessly,” her husband says, “although I notice that she doesn’t always use my cookbook.”

His mother’s culinary tour de force was Yorkshire pudding. The family joke was that her secret ingredient was cigarette ash. “We used to have it as a first course before the beef. Very Yorkshire. It comes in a big pan and you get a big slab of it, with gravy, and it’s very good with wine [something he has given up since January]. My sisters do very good ones and so can Catherine, but it’s not the healthiest thing.”

When the couple first got together, much was made of Catherine’s former job as a designer at Colefax and Fowler, at the distinctly chintzy end of “soft furnishings”. Interviews painted a portrait of her as a much-put-upon wife whose own wishes were sublimated to the autocratic diktats of her uncompromising husband. No family photographs (only behind closed doors), art, cushions, flowers, sofas, visible soap, loo roll, books. Certainly no suggestion whatsoever of chintz.

When Pawson is telling me about his shortlived stint as a fashion designer for his family’s clothing business in Halifax, West Yorkshire, he says “I can make a dress” and Catherine jumps in: “He’s completely useless because he complains so much, say, if I pack a suitcase with too many clothes in it. He doesn’t understand women.” Pawson: “Well, I don’t understand why she wants to have a new or different outfit every day, if not twice a day.” All this family banter is conducted with the utmost good humour. What he loves about his wife, he tells me later, is her serenity; the human equivalent, perhaps, of his soothing interiors.

He is dressed today in his summer uniform of white linen shirt, chinos and soft, expensive-looking leather loafers. In winter, it’s the same deal but with charcoal-grey trousers and a matching cashmere sweater. When I ask Catherine whether the solitary flash of vibrant colour in the kitchen provided by a bowl of oranges, next to a bowl of nectarines, is her idea, she looks uncertain. Pawson: “It’s not a trick question.” Everyone laughs. Ben: “It’s Mum.”

Inside the downstairs loo, with its fiendishly impenetrable door, there is a raft of transgressions against the Pawsonian ideal: a loo brush, visible loo roll, soap and a Jo Malone liquid-soap dispenser, as well as — shockingly — art! A Picasso original drawing of a reclining nude female, with a Neptune-like figure behind her: “Catherine was worried that I didn’t have a pension, so she bought it — without even asking me!” her husband jokes. Well, I think he’s joking.

There are now Pawson pensions throughout the house, including Carl Andre copper bricks on the floor of the kitchen, covered with black fingerprints that bother both of them: “Owning art is a responsibility. You’re just a custodian and I’m the first owner of the piece,” Pawson says.
As you enter the hallway of their home (most traditional on the outside), in a side window is a shocking-pink glass sculpture-cum-vase by Pawson’s first mentor, Shiro Kuramata, the architect who hired him in Japan. Other pieces are by Donald Judd and various Minimalist artists, one a puce neon cross by Dan Flavin at the top of the house. I’m impressed by the insouciance of hanging one of Bridget Riley’s works in the bedroom of Caius, Pawson’s older son, 24, from the architect’s relationship with the Dutch art dealer Hester van Royen. Pawson continues to design her flats, while she is his art consultant.

(Caius’s discovery, the xx, a band he signed on his Young Turks record label, won the Mercury Prize last week; the competition included Dizzee Rascal and Paul Weller. His dad sent me a sweet e-mail saying: “Very nice to see Caius beaming on TV at the awards. Glad he is in charge of a minimalist band! I’m as proud as him.”) In the living room there is a now a sofa — rather spare and not one you would sink into, to be sure, again chosen by Catherine, by a furniture designer relative of Le Corbusier. There’s a trio of chairs by Wegner, who Pawson always seems to pick, though he would be happier for his guests to sit along the limestone bench that flanks the wall on either side of the open fireplace. Later, he moans about another Catherine-concession-to-comfort: the odd white cushion scattered on top of the hard surface. She is also responsible for a white rail along the vertiginous, narrow wooden stairs embedded in the wall. She installed this for her aged mother, although Pawson maintains it was quite unnecessary.

To some extent, we are all Pawsonian now: his aesthetic is part of the mainstream, with our collective taste for knob-less doors and clean lines — which partly explains why someone as formerly folksy, if not frou-frou, as Stewart has become a convert. Wandering through his home I feel a degree of design envy; his open-to-the-elements shower at the top of the house, with its Bond-ish retractable roof, is fabulous, and the master bedroom is particularly cunning in its loveliness, with a bedboard, lit from behind, concealing a buried shelf “for all our crap”, as he puts it. Less successful, he admits, was his attempt to do away with a bidet and install a bottom-cleaning flush in the loo — the jets were apparently so powerful they hurt.

Pawson is 61 but looks younger, like a slightly rumpled Robert Redford. He has a boyish habit of blowing his fringe out of his eyes when he gets a bit flustered. If something amuses him — and a lot does — he rolls his tongue around in a faintly obscene way.

When we are gazing through the glass door of the kitchen into the courtyard, which exactly mirrors the interior, he starts talking about his father: “He had a very strong influence on me.” Pawson senior was not flamboyant but he did appreciate lovely things: “It’s difficult to describe without it sounding wrong … I think he just liked quality. And I feel that I’ve got the best tool to do the job, as a designer, because I like well-designed things.” He says that his father never indulged in nostalgia, and was only ever interested in the present and the future: “When he died, he left everything in beautiful order; all his personal effects were in one box, almost like a hurt locker.”

At the beginning of our interview, Pawson said that his father never understood his son’s desire to become an architect — “he thought architects were people you employed” — but now he revises that somewhat: “I think he wanted to be an architect himself, really. He loved wandering around with plans. Of course, his taste was different to mine and he always said that he’d never use me.” He breaks into a broad Yorkshire accent, which he always does when imitating his father: “‘There’ll be no commissions coming from me.’”

Pawson himself has a rather plummy voice, and says he lost his broad vowels along the way. I wonder whether his years at Eton accelerated that process, since his school friends commented on his father’s accent, along with his own. “I thought it was flattering attention but you could call it bullying, although I didn’t consider it so because I didn’t mind. But I can see that bullying is an insidious process; very difficult to stop and very difficult to control.”

At Eton he wore a quiff — “because I thought Billy Fury was the business” — and slept in a hammock attached to the back door of his room. On one occasion, his housemaster came in “and, of course, I fell down, and he did wonder what I was doing on the floor. I did get told that I was showing off, being an exhibitionist in the wrong way, and that I should excel in academic things.” Were you academic? “Not at all. I got O-level passes for my French and Spanish A levels, which was worse than failing.”
Before we move on to his school-leaving years, I ask him about his French aristocratic roots. He looks nonplussed. “No, no, my family was definitely solid middle class. For my father, the fact that his great-grandfather was a blacksmith and employed a lot of people — for him, that was something to boast about. It’s always been trade and making things; there were no pretensions to anything aristocratic.”
I read him what he was alleged to have said in an early interview — inevitably now part of his official history: “I come from an aristocratic Burgundian ancestry, people who gave up great wealth in the 12th century to move to monasteries to set an example.” He rolls his eyes: “For f***’s sake. Burgundian bollocks. That’s just sloppy.

“I might have tried to explain how the younger son of Burgundian aristocracy would go into a monastery, like younger sons went into the army. But let me stress that I am categorically not a descendant of Burgundian aristocracy — hahahahahaha.”

His parents, particularly his mother, were non-conformist Methodists.“She was genuinely modest. She didn’t like showiness or ostentation. I had this dream that I would go and become this Zen Buddhist (and after a year I would, you know, obtain whatever). I was a complete schoolboy even though I was 24. I’m not sure if she was totally serious — although she did say it often enough — but she would have preferred me to have disappeared and quietly gone and been a missionary or something in Africa, rather than going to the top Zen Buddhist temple in Japan.” That was a bit flashy? “Very flashy. You didn’t have to be Christian but her thing was not to go to the best or the top of anything.”

His thing was to be a hippy in India after leaving school, wanting to help out with the Tibetan refugees on the border, with the idea that “I’ll just turn up and everyone will think, ‘Wonderful! He’s here! — another English public school boy [aged 17] who will solve all our problems.’ But that didn’t quite work out.”

After six months he went off to Australia, where he picked tomatoes and built a sheep-shearing shed in the Outback. Aha, a seminal Pawsonian work? “I think that might be joining up dots that aren’t there,” he says. But he has gone on to design rather a lot of, if not sheds, certainly barns for his well-heeled clients. He recalls the father-and-son team, and the former’s “incredible steel framework that he’d built. It was rather beautiful, you know, in the middle of nowhere, almost like an art work.”
At some point in his travels, a bit hard to pin down the chronology (he lasted only four days, for instance, in the monastery in Japan, and then spent four years teaching English at Nagoya University), his father sent him a telegram saying, “If you don’t come ’ome now there’ll be no place for you in t’ firm”.

Back in Halifax, Pawson found himself involved in creating frocks in knitted jersey “for the slightly fuller figure for ‘high street’ or ‘madam’ shops”. This was not at all his métier: “I was interested in design and architecture, but I never thought I could do it.” At 30, he met Van Royen and enrolled in the Architectural Association, stayed for only two years and left without qualifications but started transforming Van Royen’s office space as well as their flats.

His new show at the Design Museum is called Plain Space. He’s built a Pawson room “so everyone gets a bit of this” (waving his hand round the kitchen). And there will be a promenade where you can see four gigantic photographs, 10ft by 6ft, of landscapes in which he has worked, including the Sackler Crossing, his bridge in Kew Gardens, a beguiling curve with its penumbra of golden light. “A sinuous line of grace,” Pawson says. Are you quoting someone? “I am. Somebody’s attributed the quote to me but it’s Capability Brown! I know, it’s terrible to think of it … I’m in an anthology along with Oscar Wilde.”

There is also a cricket pavilion designed for Ben’s old school, St Edward’s. Reverse nepotism? “Exactly. Help the old dad — ‘We think he needs it’.”

This is a reference to something we had been talking about earlier, apropos of Pawson winning the international competition, a month or so ago, to transform the interior of the old Commonwealth Institute, in Kensington High Street, to house the new Design Museum in two or three years’ time.
Pawson doesn’t usually do competitions — because they’re expensive and time-consuming for a smallish firm such as his. He has a staff of about 20 who work in an office in King’s Cross — “It’s very un-Pawsonian. I think people expect a row of monks when they come and they end up rather shocked.” Is it scruffy? “It is for me. I can’t bear it.”

When I press him on what it was the judges were particularly struck by in his plans, he says something extraordinary: “Well, one guy did let slip that they thought I needed it! Hahahaha.” Needed it? “Well, I don’t know whether they meant I was ‘hungry’, you know, or that I would be able to give them my full attention,” he giggles, “but it did come over rather like a crumb from the table … as though this poor boy needed feeding or something.

“It was an off-the-cuff remark but I did think, ‘Crikey! That’s not very flattering.’” I can’t think of anyone I’ve interviewed, of an equivalent stature, who would even contemplate making public such an ego-deflating moment. Perhaps all his work with the monks, from the time he spends praying with the Cistercians in Bohemia right back to Japan, has rubbed off on him. Perhaps he is more his mother’s son than he realises — although it’s debatable whether such a disclosure demonstrates modesty or confidence. Maybe it’s a bit of both.

As the much-imitated, much-misquoted Pawson says, when talking about his parents: “I think you’re always two parts. I hope I have some of my father’s confidence and I certainly hope I have some of my mother’s modesty — but probably not enough.”