John Pawson explains the new rules of minimalism in design

When I first met John Pawson, I was thrilled to find his home was as minimalist as you’d hope. Stepping through the doors of her West London home, I encountered nothing but white walls, wooden floors, furniture carefully and sparingly. Texture. Heat. A feeling of invitation.

This is the smart thing about minimalism in interior design. When done right, especially when done by John Pawson, it’s far from cool. It’s not brutal or surprising, it’s soothing, even caressing.

John is the mastermind behind a slew of interiors, from architecturally awe-inspiring homes from around the world to the Jaffa, a stunning hotel in Tel Aviv. He’s known to be more about a project’s angles and natural light than things inside. His first cookbook, Home Farm Cooking (Phaidon), written with his wife Catherine, has just been released. And I was thrilled to talk to her at home and find out exactly how to do minimalism now.

John Pawson in conversation with Pip Rich, editor of Livingetc

Our house was the most popular for other children who liked to come and play

John Pawson

john pawson and catherine pawson

Catherine Pawson and John Pawson, husband and wife and co-authors of Home Farm Cooking (Phaidon).

(Image credit: Phaidon)

Rich in pips: When I last visited you, I was delighted to see that it lived up to the minimalist ideal – there was literally no clutter anywhere. Where does this love of minimalism come from?

John Pason: No idea really! The thought of traveling light has always been a relief. My mother was modest and didn’t like things too much, while my father liked the best of things.

PR: I was going to say that I think of you less as a minimalist, but as – and I coined this phrase – a celebrant, who wants nothing at all, but really celebrates the best designs. Maybe a mix of your parents.

JP: I believe you don’t need more than the basics, and that’s hard to define. We have a set of silver Georgian three prong forks that might be considered more than you actually need, but they are truly wonderful. It depends on how you live – you need a number of things for life to run smoothly, but if you have more than you need it will get in your way. I have a shelf that I would like to keep empty – in fact, the shelf on the cover of my cookbook [shown at the top of the page] – but I had no right to get away with it. It’s still a receptacle for keys, dog bone toys… I clean it once a week.

John Pawson's house in Oxfordshire

John Pawson’s home in Oxfordshire, UK

(Image credit: Phaidon)

PR: Was your approach to decorating easy while raising a family? Surely the children came naturally with a lot of ephemera?

JP: I redid the London house in 1997, when the kids were young, and there was no artwork on the walls, we had stone floors, and they could just skate in and out . There were no objects to knock over, and if they got dirty on a wall it was quite easy to clean – the house was really sturdy and well suited for family living. Sure, the kids had things – Superman and Spiderman sheets and such – but the house was the most popular in the neighborhood for the other kids who loved to come and play.

PR: Despite a general lack of things, there is always real warmth in the homes you design. How to achieve it?

JP: Just by the choice of coatings and paint. In the London house I used enough layers of Quiet White from Papers and Paints to create a really deep white, while in our Oxfordshire house I left the whitewash plaster unpainted, so it is a slightly sweet and rosy white. It has all the movement of a plasterer’s trowel, which would normally be too decorative for me.

PR: That’s hilarious! That something so subtle could still be too decorative. I agree that Quiet White is the perfect white paint for interior walls. So how do you choose which pieces end up in your home?

JP: The only person who takes care of the furniture is my wife, Catherine. What interests me is the space around the piece of furniture, the air that can be created in the interstices.

John Pawson's living room in his Oxfordshire home

John Pawson’s living room in his Oxfordshire home

(Image credit: Phaidon)

PR: Many of your home designs are very architecturally fascinating on their own, so leaving them spartan feels natural because they already look good. How would you advise someone to do what you do in a less characteristic – more normal space?

JP: White reflects light, so keep as many white interior walls as possible. By using many shades of white, you get an ever-fascinating gradient of white. I’m interested in art, but if you fill a wall with it, it won’t reflect light anymore and your eye will stop on the object. If you can create new windows or leave the windows you uncovered, the feeling of light will be wonderful.

PR: Even though I like uncovered windows, aren’t they a bit…uncomfortable?

JP: Well, true. Maybe a thin roller shutter then, which controls the light but doesn’t block it. In Oxfordshire we have undyed boiled wool curtains from Lyons for the first time. They are so undesigned that they are the closest thing to not being real fabric.

teapot designed by john pawson

Sterling silver teapot designed by John Pawson for When Objects Work

(Image credit: When Objects Work)

PR: What do you design next?

JP: Every 10 years I try to design a chair, but how do I do it when Jasper Morrison has already made such a great collection, when the Wishbone chair is already the perfect example of something both light and sturdy? It’s timeless – people look good in it, and if you stick it in an empty room, it changes the space, creating zones around it. No matter how good the architecture is, you can improve rooms by adding rooms to them. You just have to be careful not to fill it.

Cover of Home Farm Cooking by John Pawson published by Phaidon

(Image credit: Phaidon)

Ordered Home Farm Cooking by John and Catherine Pawson from Amazon

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