Visual Culture

A Globetrotting Designer Photographs His Travels in Vivid Color

Scott Indrisek
Nov 28, 2017 8:17PM

Design by John Pawson, Montauk House. © Gilbert McCarragher. Courtesy of John Pawson.

British architectural designer John Pawson is known for an ultra-minimalist aesthetic, marked by clean lines, refined simplicity, and a modest palette. That vision is evidenced by an international assortment of projects, from achingly cool private homes in Greece and Japan to his reimagining of London’s Design Museum. So it’s somewhat shocking to page through Spectrum, a recently released compendium of Pawson’s photographs, and find that much of what captures his attention in the wider world is comparatively lush, textural, and seductively colorful.

Spectrum combines around a decade’s worth of images and, as its title suggests, arranges them into a sweeping tonal array—from the icy white view out of a plane window over Brazil to cracked red tiles in Israel, green vegetation in the Philippines, and the rusty brown of a piece of metal spotted in Oxfordshire, England.

“There’s always this danger that if you’re so busy taking photographs, you forget to look,” Pawson tells me, discussing his experiments with the camera. “I’ve channelled it so that it’s a way for me to concentrate. It appeals to my scattershot brain,” he says. “Part of the reason I like order is because my brain jumps around so much, and the camera frame controls me a bit.”

John Pawson, Sedona, Arizona, USA, February 2005. Courtesy of Phaidon.

John Pawson, Kensington, London, January 2014. Courtesy of Phaidon.


Pawson—who picked up a camera in his twenties, but didn’t formally study architecture until his thirties—may revel in photography, but don’t assume that his image-making bears any direct relationship to his starkly elegant building designs. “You can find the most interesting things in the banal—a puddle, a stain,” he says. “But I’m not looking for inspiration. I don’t come back to the office and say, ‘This is a good junction, this is a good door-handle detail.’ It doesn’t work that way.”

The globetrotting nature of Spectrum comes out of Pawson’s enviable work schedule (Japan, Europe, Los Angeles, New York) as well as personal vacations in places like Burma, Vietnam, or Iceland. “If you go to Iceland and point the camera, you have such dramatic light and scenery—glaciers, volcanic black mountains—that it’s all spectacular,” he says. “But I’ve found that in some ways the mundane is the most interesting. Finding an image in something ordinary, or seemingly ordinary, pleases me.”

“It’s very free,” he continues, “taking things that catch my eye. I don’t go out to find a photograph. It’s like designing a building: You don’t go out and say, ‘Oh, I’m looking for a window treatment, or a pattern for a facade.’ The creative process doesn’t come in those obvious ways.”

John Pawson, Marfa, Texas, USA, April 2014. Courtesy of Phaidon.

John Pawson, Bloomsbury, London, July 2012. Courtesy of Phaidon.

One thing Pawson doesn’t do is try to definitively document his own architectural practice. “During my career, I’ve been lucky to have amazing photographers take my work,” he says. “And each one always sees something different. I’m very impatient—capturing a whole room, or a whole building, getting the light right, the nuances, is a much more painstaking job than seeing a moment and capturing it. The way I photograph suits my total lack of patience.”

It’s also a way of keeping a sort of visual diary, an archive of fleeting details, however imperfect. “I always feel that—because of the light, the time of day and year, how you’re feeling—that each shot is always unique. It’s a way of me relaxing, a bit. You see something extraordinarily special, and at least you’ve got an image of it, even if it’s not necessarily the same thing that your brain is seeing.”

Spectrum may unveil an unfamiliar side to the architectural designer, but it certainly doesn’t suggest that he’s abandoned his commitment to minimalism. I asked Pawson to tell me about the look and feel of his own home.

John Pawson, Higashiyama, Kyoto, Japan, November 2015. Courtesy of Phaidon.

John Pawson, Notting Hill, London, January 2017. Courtesy of Phaidon.

“For 10 or 15 years, there was no art,” he says. “And I thought I’d better get something for the children, as an inheritance.” (One of those children, Caius Pawson, is manager of the acclaimed indie pop band The xx; a crimson-soaked crowd shot taken by Pawson at one of their concerts appears in Spectrum.)

Naturally, Pawson acquired editioned pieces by a familiar crowd of minimalists—a Judd, an Andre, a Flavin—and recently had to deinstall all the works so that so the house’s walls could be repainted. “We took all the art off, and it was such a relief!” he says. “I’m sure my wife will put them back. She eventually got a sofa, which was quite a concession. I don’t really like stuff…but I do like being married. There’s no compromise in the office—only at home.”

Scott Indrisek