Despite being a man known for white, John Pawson’s latest photography book ‘Spectrum’ is a rich photographic journey through colour. We caught up with the architect and designer at his studio to discuss his latest book, unfortunate hammocks and his love of photography

Photograph of John Pawson by Johnny Nghiem

John Pawson has had a bit of a strange morning. Travelling to work on the tube, he noticed a lady get on the train and stand next to him. Although he doesn’t usually do it, in his mind, he made a guess at her age. 30 he thought, “same as me.” But then, as the train entered a tunnel and the window transformed into a mirror, Pawson spotted the reflection. “I suddenly saw the two of us in the glass and I saw this 70-year-old man and this 30-year-old woman. I logically worked it out. Obviously I don’t look the same age as I think I do.” He says, as we sit down at a sleek white table for the interview. To be fair to John Pawson, albeit a little tiredness from the night before, he looks great for 70.

‘Spectrum’, Pawson’s latest book, is what brings us to his Kings Cross studio. Unassuming from the outside, the interior is everything you would expect from a Pawson space. Grey concrete floors, white walls, white desks. The only colour in the room in which our interview takes place is the full wall of books to our side. ‘Spectrum’ is a collection of 320 images (which as the name suggests) gradually change in colour across the spectrum from white to black. In the books’s forward, Pawson admits he is rather unfairly pigeonholed as someone that only does white, so his latest book comes as a somewhat bucking of the trend.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a visually satisfying book. The idea of gradual colour change which Phaidon took to Pawson was a novel one and it’s a tome that is as enjoyable to randomly dip into as it is to browse back to front. Pawson has long been a lover of photography, some may even say addict. As he thumbs through the book in front of us, he radiates a subtle sense of pride in the project. Not just the images, but the texture of the modest front cover and the way it has been bound.

Before properly touching upon the book, we ask him about his past, specifically an icebreaker about hammocks. He chuckles when we bring it up. “Well I learned of course that hammocks are very difficult to lay in and to get in and get out of.” He says. The story goes that when Pawson was at boarding school he set up a hammock in his dorm. The hammock was strung up between the window and the back of the door. Needless to say, when the door opened, the hammock no longer did its job, but the whole experience perhaps indicated a deeper inclination. “I just liked the room without the bed in it.”

Pawson’s work is minimal, spacious. You get the sense he still doesn’t want a bed in the room, let alone many other pieces of furniture. A quick glance at his previous work, largely private commissions for homes (look up the Paros Houses, Okinawa House, Casa Delle Bottere) as well as boat interiors, places of religious worship (Moritzkirche, Nový Dvůr Industry) and of course London’s Design Museum, all showcase an appreciation for open minimal spaces that are clear, light and airy.

Travel is another key feature of Pawson’s latest book, but also a key feature of his life. Upon leaving school, instead of going to university, he travelled extensively over land. “It was a thing to do in the sixties.” He says. “You know, the hippy trail. So I went to India, it took me six months to get there and then six months in India, then six months in Australia.” He eventually came back, through New York, at the behest of his father and took on the family clothing business. His time there proved unsuccessful and a few years later he was back on a plane, this time heading out on a trip to Japan. His time shadowing iconic Japanese architect and designer Shiro Kuramata would prove vital.

“I love Yorkshire, but obviously I wasn’t going to survive outside of a metropolis for long. It took me ages to get to London. I was 30 by the time I got to London. From Halifax I went to Japan, and even in Japan, I wasn’t in Tokyo I was in Nagoya, I finally got to a metropolis when I was 28 or something in Tokyo, so I made up for it.” He says. Pawson returned from Japan and enrolled at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. He established his own practise in 1981.

Pawson is partial to a tangent or two and as we chat, sometimes veering off. If you have ever wondered, his favourite James Bond is the David Niven. He’s also heard a rumour that Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot fame is next in line. Pawson is calm when he speaks, measured in his responses and very polite. He is curious when being interviewed, asking his own questions, eager to listen. He also speaks proudly of his children, his son Caius, who works at XL records and has two Mercury Prizes to his name courtesy of The xx and Sampha, whom he discovered. “I’m very proud, very proud of all of my children. All creative. All independent.”

When asked about the relationship with his clients, Pawson admits he’s got better with age. “I just think you have to be careful if you’re doing a job. It’s very easy to step out of line and it’s unfair. They’re paying for a service and they should get that. The nicer they are, the harder I try in a way, because you don’t want anything to go wrong, but I’ve learned to be able to…” He pauses, before continuing. “When I was younger I had so many blow ups with clients. You cannot do that really. You can mesh with everyone, even if for a short time.”

“I remember when I was very young, in some super jobs, but had a very low threshold because I found it very stressful. When I thought the client was being unreasonable, I would react and burn bridges. I remember this brilliant thing with Leslie Waddington going to Roy Lichtenstein in New York, straight from me, being incredibly rude and stupid and juvenile and boring Roy Lichtenstein with how boring and terrible I was.” It’s safe to say he is calmer now.

Past clients of Pawson’s include Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld, Martha Stewart and the late writer Bruce Chatwin. Although close to his clients, he’s always careful to listen. “For me, it’s always a collaboration and I’m very lucky too, all of my clients are always very interesting, very bright, very talented and have amazing ideas. Listening to them is really important. That’s another really important thing, I’ve learned to listen. I’ve noticed with younger people, you see them thinking all of the time, they’re listening to you. They appear to be listening, then you can see them thinking I’m going to wait until he stops and this is what I’m going to say.”

We delve back into Spectrum and talk photography. Pawson loves photography, you could say he is addicted. Despite reports saying he takes around 500 daily, he admits the average number is slightly less, although that’s not to say he isn’t sitting on an impressive archive. Before the prominence of digital, Pawson was taking 3 or 4 rolls to Snappy Snaps on a daily basis, costing him a fortune. Now, with advances in cameras and memory, his enthusiasm for taking pictures has risen exponentially and he treats digital with the same care, meticulous detail and value that most would reserve for film. Nothing is deleted, everything is archived.

“Well, Max [Gleeson, Pawson’s employee] he got fed up with me and iPhoto, it had about 250,000 [images] and iPhoto is not designed for that and it was getting slow. I have the most powerful computers from Apple, but it’s a software thing, so he migrated to Lightroom. The work ones are sorted by project and we tend to edit as we go along. Poor Max had to go through 250,000 and I think he was going through like 10,000 a day. He was completely alert. Nick [Barba] has been through them as well. Amazing. Very talented.”

The surprising admission behind the importance of photography in Pawson’s work is that he doesn’t sketch (the second is he doesn’t really do maths, both of which some may say are crucial skills for architects). When questioned about being happy with the book, Pawson admits a level of contentedness. “I get to a point where it’s as I want it. Touch wood. So far, they all still stand up. That’s what’s nice about doing books, it’s a finite period of time and lots of other things, whereas buildings have a life of their own and there’s so many people involved and it’s very very difficult to retain this level of control on a building. We’ve gone through a lot of iterations and colours and testing.”

Split into pairs, the book’s square cropped images bring to mind Instagram, of which Pawson is a regularly user. When asked if he has a social media manager, he admits he doesn’t, but sometimes he runs it past Max and Nick. “I say that and then I ignore them.” He quips.

“Sometimes I get fed up and think why did I sign up to do one a day? I was quite naïve and just started, Catherine [Pawson’s wife] enrolled me and posted the first one. I said I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to do it. I don’t advertise anything or promote my work on it. I have always taken photographs as a tool for the work, sort of inspiration or remembering things, being able to show people something that might inform something we’re doing.” He continues, “The Instagram is all part of that really. It’s just collecting things that I like and I was amazed that people started following.”

As is often the case when talking about social media, conversation takes the inevitable turn its all-encompassing nature and the issue of followers. “Instagram is the most powerful one. It’s curious because slowly everybody is on Instagram.” He says. “I was going to say my parents’ friends, but they’re not alive, my friends and my children’s parents are all joining. They’re not quite sure what they’re doing, but they realise they have to join.” Pawson’s following currently stands at 120k, from not necessarily trying, but he does wonder how people get more. He recently asked someone he’d met with a huge online following how they did it, but the answer was unsatisfactory.

“He said, ‘oh, the three things you’ve got to do is, use a good camera,’ and I can’t remember the other two, but they’re on similar lines. But they made no sense whatsoever. I just felt like he was saying, ‘I’m not giving you any secrets.’”

As our time comes with Pawson comes to an end, we briefly touch upon the office dynamic. His response is telling, channelling his thoughts that morning on the tube. “We’ve never had a hierarchy here. The money has always been dependent on age. I have always tried to organize it so everyone gets enough so that they never have to think about it, but people always find something, that they don’t feel it should or shouldn’t be, but it sort of works.”

“When I look out, I think I’m your age, but that’s an old person’s view. I tend to get confused in the office, because I think everyone is the same. I certainly treat everybody the same. I like it to be equal, but to be honest, I want the best people and it depends who turns up, but I’m conscious all the time that everyone is happy.”

Spectrum (Phaidon) is available now

Words by Stephanie Lund