A recent profile of the decorated British architect John Pawson zeroed in on a particularly revelatory dichotomy. Despite being famous for designing strikingly minimalist buildings, such as London's new Design Museum, Pawson's personality is the opposite of austere. He is warm, generous, poetic, and very much at ease. The kind of person you'd like to have design your space, and then join you for dinner in it.
As we've just launched a line of minimalist, Pawson-designed stainless steel cookware from Demeyere in our Shop today, we thought you might want to hear more from the designer himself. The following is a transcript of our conversation over email, featuring everything from the astonishing amount of time he spent on the collaboration to his favorite colors.
Me: Tell me how you got involved with the team at Demeyere—did they approach you about designing a line?
John Pawson: I first met Maurits Demeyere at a lecture I gave in Belgium. The idea of working together sat quietly between us for a number of years before the collaboration formally began. Maurits was interested in seeing what sparks could be struck by bringing together two very different sets of skills: his company’s technical expertise and my design sensibility.
Have you ever designed for a cookware line before? Why start now?
This is my first cookware. I had already designed a kitchen for the Belgian company Obumex and my feeling was that making the pots to go on the hob was the next logical step, on the basis that it’s all architecture. I have never drawn a clear line between different design disciplines. It’s good to push into unfamiliar territory. It keeps the thinking fresh.
What’s involved in co-designing a line of cookware?
The thing about designing a pan is that, providing the parties involved have the time and the will, you can persevere until you get everything absolutely as you want it to be. You just keep amending the drawings and making new prototypes. I’m a perfectionist and there were also a lot of technical issues to solve—particularly the detail of the profile of the handle and its junction with the body of the pan. The project ended up taking eight years from start to finish—the same time it can take to make a house.
Your favorite part of the process? (And your favorite aspect of the finished pieces?)
For me the satisfaction comes from looking at the finished object and knowing I am happy with every detail: the sense of having kept on going and got it right. I had set myself a very demanding brief: I wanted to make a pan of the greatest possible formal simplicity, visually as comfortable on the table as over a flame, balanced in the hand and on the hob, and with a good pouring lip.
Do you cook with them? What do you cook?
We use them all the time at home. We eat quite simply—a lot of fish and vegetables.
You’ve said that your minimalist style is simply a reflection of your tastes, not a statement about how people should live. What’s your take on the “minimalist” lifestyle?
I am wary of the word lifestyle. It suggests passing preferences, rather than deeper motivations—‘I might live this way this year, but next year I could feel like doing something completely different’… I live the way I do because it makes sense to me and has done since I was growing up. As soon as I had some control over my own physical environment—at home and at school—I started simplifying my living spaces.
And for good measure, what are some of your favorite indulgences (in architecture, or otherwise?)
I have places I return to over and over, for the quality of the space, light and atmosphere: in London, the Geometric Staircase in St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Christopher Wren; the twelfth century Cistercian abbey of Le Thoronet in Provence, in the south of France. I am also strongly drawn to deserts.
A design trend you're tiring of (or if you'd prefer, one you're looking forward to seeing more of)?
I can honestly say I’m not really aware of trends. My head is too close to what I’m working on at any time to look up and see what others are doing. It’s great that we’re all having to think much harder about issues of sustainability, but that is not something I should ever want to characterize as a trend.
What’s the most constructive thing you’ve learned from your critics?
I think the most important thing is to learn to be a good self-critic—to retain that perspective that allows you to step back and step in at key moments in the design process and really be able to analyze what you are making.
You got your start designing for friends, but have had the opportunity to work on so many high-profile projects. Which do you prefer: residential or commercial? Intimate or public?
I always say my favorite project is the one I am working on. In a sense the new Cistercian monastery I designed in the Czech Republic represented an ultimate commission, because it encompassed so many programs within a single work—church, home, school, hospital, refectory, library, guesthouse, farm, market garden, industry…
Your favorite color in architecture? (White doesn’t count.)
I like the very dark tones characteristic of some varieties of timber—browns so dark they are almost black—and the tints of honey and ochre you find in particular limestones.