John Pawson in his London studio.

John Pawson in his London studio.

Interview by Spencer Bailey    |    Portrait by Mark Cocksedge

In the two decades since the British architect John Pawson designed his now-famous New York store for Calvin Klein Collection, he has created homes in places like Montauk, Mallorca, St. Tropez, and Treviso; a Cathay Pacific airport lounge in Hong Kong; a gallery and café in Okinawa, Japan; ballet sets for Paris’s L’Opéra Bastille and London’s Royal Opera House; a kitchen system, lines of cookware and tableware, and a steak knife; a Swarovski crystal lens; the interiors of two yachts; seven Phaidon books; and an ongoing master plan for Cistercian monks in the Czech Republic. A recent commission saw Pawson designing the just-finished London flagship of fashion designer Christopher Kane. Along the way, he has also forged an unusually strong relationship with real-estate developer and hotelier Ian Schrager, whose immaculate Manhattan apartment the architect designed. Last year, Schrager unveiled the Pawson–designed Miami Beach Edition residences, and the pair are currently collaborating on the interiors of two New York City residential projects— 215 Chrystie and 160 Leroy—and the West Hollywood Edition hotel, scheduled to open in 2018.

On top of all of this is the commission of a lifetime: the interior of the London Design Museum’s new building, opening in late 2016 and located in a structure formerly housing the Commonwealth Institute.

Throughout all of these projects Pawson, 66, has remained steadfast in his detail-oriented, clean-lined approach. One could call his designs Raymond Carveresque: As economical as the writer was with his words, Pawson is with his architecture and interiors. Like Carver, he manages to say with a lot with a little. His projects pack a punch—even if they’re neutral, clean, and well lighted, with little flash or pomp. They’re warm, often rich places with deep thought and complexity behind their seemingly simple surfaces. Earlier this spring, over coffee at the boardroom table in his London office near King’s Cross station, Surface spoke at length with Pawson about everything from what it was like meeting Calvin Klein in the early ’90s to why he recently joined Instagram. 

Your father was a textile manufacturer. Did growing up in that environment, surrounded by fabrics, get you thinking more about the material world?

Now that you’ve asked me the question, looking back, definitely. Dad was amazing, because he could feel this [touches sleeve of interviewer’s jacket] and tell you its weight, and that it was silk and cotton. I spent a lot of time rifling through textile collections there to choose fabrics, and I was sometimes commissioning designs. The majority of what we did was make clothes for manufacturers. But it was too frenetic for me. It was too “on to the next thing!” all the time. I never had a chance to think.

There was a short time there during which you designed clothes, right?

I did. My mother was very proud of me—but she never wore any of it! [Laughs] Of course, in those days, the idea was that you worked your way through the factory. You learned to cut a pattern and sew. I was good at that. Then I got to working with people. We had a design department—a bit like here at the studio. It would have been better, I think, if I had started to work for someone else or had done my own thing. Because it was a very established business, it was difficult to make an impression. I mean, I did make an impression, but not a very good financial one.

In some sense, you could have gone the direction of fashion designer.

I could have, yes. I had an eye, but I certainly wasn’t exhibiting creative genius in the fashion department. And my father brought it to a close because he was quite pragmatic and running a big company. He was able to dispense of my services. 

After this, you ended up traveling to Japan.

I went because it was the ’60s when I left school, and it just didn’t seem right to go to university. Not that I tried. I ended up traveling, and then working for my father, and when that didn’t work, I ended up in Japan. After Japan, I went to architecture school [at the Architectural Association in London], and that didn’t last very long, either. [Laughs]

You ended up staying in Japan for six years.

That was interesting, because I was only supposed to be staying there a week! [Laughs] The Japanese have a tradition of: If you’re there, they entertain you and pay for everything. This was the case in those days anyway. My one contact, Akira Arakawa, said, “So you’re staying more than a week?!” Because obviously it would’ve cost him a fortune. Luckily, he didn’t have to pay for me beyond a week.

What drew you into Japan and made you want to stay?

I think it was the people, just their sensitivity and politeness and the way they do things. It’s very seductive and pleasant. After you’re there, it’s a great shock going anywhere else. After moving back to Europe, it took me several months—or I would say years—to get back. The Japanese have exquisite presentation and taste. I’m not talking about the nation Japan—obviously, there are a lot of downsides about it; it can be quite stressful there—but the place just seemed suitable.

I never learned Japanese, and that was a huge embarrassment. It was never the plan to begin with, but then when I got to Tokyo, people like Shiro Kuramata said, “Well, why can’t you speak Japanese? You’ve been here for four years. What’s wrong with you?” That was the message. When you finally get through to the Japanese, they give it to you straight. 

Tell me more about your relationship with Kuramata. Did you work with him?

No. It was a typical young arrogance. I just rang him up. I said, “I’m John Pawson, and I’m here.” I think it was just easier for him to say, “Yes, we’ll have coffee,” rather than ask lots of questions. We met and he brought along Masayuki Kurokawa, who translated, because Kuramata’s English wasn’t that good. It was fine, but he was more comfortable when it was translated. I used to hang out with Kurokawa. It wasn’t excessive, but quite a lot brushed off.

Do you feel spending time with him was an alternative education?

Yeah. It was huge. The stuff he used to say—you’d ask him how’s it going, and he’d always go, “No sparks.” He was incredibly remorse. He could be very dismissive. You could say, “This is great!” And he’d say, “It’s good enough.”

He couldn’t help helping. Sometimes, when we were together, he would just take over a project. I remember once at 3 a.m. in the morning I had nodded off because he was doing all the work. When you’re watching somebody do something, it’s actually more tiring than doing it yourself. Suddenly, he tapped me on the back like this [Pawson bangs his fist hard on the table] and goes in a very loud voice, “Design is serious business!” I’ve never forgotten that. I’ve always felt slightly conscious that one’s never serious.

So what’s your take on that now? Do you see design as “serious business?”

Hugely. One’s always trying to be as serious as Kurokawa was. The only point is the work. It’s what I really enjoy doing. The most pleasant thing for me is actually doing it.

What was it about the Architectural Association that made you decide you wanted to drop out?

I was 30, and most of the students were new to London and new to relationships. For them, all the fun was meeting people and exploring London. I never got the timing right, because you’d arrive on time, and the students and the teacher would be late. Then when I’d arrive late I’d miss the class. My antenna wasn’t as sharp as it was when I was 5 or 10 years older. I didn’t know you could be taught design. I just thought you could create. I think everyone has it in them. I’ve noticed bit by bit things get more intense; you work harder, you strive harder. Just by working something comes, hopefully. John Andrews was my teacher, and I learned a lot from him. But after three years there, I just said, “I can’t.” I think it had to do with the fact that I was never good with the whole business of exams. 

Was there a moment early in your career as a designer that changed everything for you? Was it the Calvin Klein commission?

I never started out to have a career. I never intended to have an architectural office or be an architect. I just wanted to make stuff. 
At the beginning, you have lots and lots of ideas, and you haven’t harnessed them. You haven’t got a vehicle, really, because you don’t have clients or an office. You have to put those things together. You have lots of ideas and time to develop things. Then you start getting the clients.
Calvin didn’t change the designs so much. Obviously, when you get jobs, you try to choose good partners so that the collaboration is fantastic. The big thing about Calvin was the endorsement. He trusted a young unknown to get him what he wanted. With all of his backing, energy, and input—and everyone else’s at the company—and a great location for a store, that encourages other people. In that sense, he changed my whole working life. Ian [Schrager] introduced Calvin to me. You learn so much from the clients, and they learn from you.

So how did Ian introduce you to Calvin?

Apparently, from what I gather, Calvin said to Ian he was looking for somebody to help him do his first shop, and he was on his way to Europe to see people and get a feel. Ian gave Calvin my first book on my work.

Meeting Calvin was an incredible moment. I had this tiny basement office. There were very few of us, just a line of people. I was slightly hungover. I had had this painful morning with a new potential client who was trying to explain to me this concept about how he was going to bring “loft living” to London. I was like, “Well, we’ve got lofts already.” I couldn’t cope with it at all. Afterward, I went out and had half a bottle of Chianti at a spaghetti house.

When I returned to the office, my team said, “Calvin Klein has been on the phone.” In those days, as someone with not a lot of work, Calvin Klein was way up there [Pawson raises his hand toward the ceiling]; it’s sort of difficult to explain now. He was one of the best-known names in the world. My office always played practical jokes on me—and they still do. They used to ring up and pretend to be an Arab sheikh, for instance. I told them, “Fuck off,” and lied down on this concrete bench because I’d had slightly too much to drink. And they said, “No, no, no, Calvin Klein’s office rang and said he wanted to see you.” I said, “Fine, tell him he can come in,” thinking, “…when he’s next in London.” Then they got his assistant on the phone. She said, “Mr. Klein is outside in the car. Can he come in?” He bounced down the steps and said, “Hi, I’m Calvin Klein.” He was so good-looking and fit. I was completely in shock. That was in ’93. 

How did you initially meet Ian Schrager?

After I’d been working for Calvin for a bit, Ian suggested—I can’t really remember—“Let’s meet up for tea at the Paramount.” I thought, “Oh, great, here comes the next job!” It was just to meet, and that was very nice. I don’t think I’d known then that he’d given the book to Calvin. Of course, I know now, but I don’t think I was quick enough to realize then that the job wasn’t there, that it was gonna be 10 years [until we would work together].
Calvin had always been a minimalist, and is. When he traveled, he traveled simply. He didn’t mind queuing. But he’d be quickly rescued from the queue as soon as they saw who he was. He was very straightforward.

What, if anything, did Calvin Klein teach you about design?

He has incredible energy and focus. He went into the detail on the store. We had one day where we just talked about the window frame from 8 o’clock in the morning to 8 o’clock at night. He wanted the big picture and the details. And he had charm. These are not things you can learn. Everything was done to the top level. If it was flowers, it wasn’t just lilies; it was Arab lilies. And it wasn’t just one; it was 100. Everything was done beautifully, the graphics and the presentation.

So much is happening for your studio at the moment. It seems to be the culmination of what you’ve done over the past decade or two. One of your new projects is Schrager’s new residences at the Miami Beach Edition. What has it been like working with Ian, and how have your projects with him evolved?

The first thing I did was Gramercy Park residences—not the hotel. I can’t remember how it came about. There was the tea in ’94, ’95, then this long gap. I think people kept telling him, “You should give John a go.” He wanted to, but I just don’t think he could see it, the minimalist thing. After Gramercy, we did his Bond Street apartment, and he was really happy with it. That’s informed a lot of the stuff he’s done without me, and it has encouraged him to come back. Finally, after 20 years, he feels really comfortable working with me. We’ve also helped him with 215 Chrystie Street. We’re doing the same with 160 Leroy Street. Ian’s so nice to work with. There’s always something he’s engineering, and then suddenly there’s a whole building. [The Edition Hotel and Residences coming in 2018 to] West Hollywood will be amazing.

For the rest of the interview with John Pawson, purchase the May issue here.