An Interview with John Pawson
What do you design for the man who doesn’t want anything? This was the problem facing Gwendolyn and Guillane Kerschbaumer, the sisters who make up Atelier Areti when they were paired with the infamously minimalist John Pawson.
Pawson himself is more aware of this than anybody. ‘I don’t like stuff,’ he said. ‘I’m a very difficult person to buy a present for. For me the definition of stuff is what you don’t really need’ In essence, then, this was a man who didn’t wish for anything enlisting in a project in which he was asked to identify what he had always wished for. Why did he agree to take part?
‘Terence [Conran] is very persuasive,’ he explained. And it turns out that this most rational of designers is actually more swayed by people than by ideas. ‘I tend to go with people more than the actual project when asked to take part in something,’ he explained. ‘It’s easier to trust’
So how did he decide what he wanted? However little he likes ‘stuff’, Pawson does need some objects in his life. Indeed, as part of his own work he has designed objects such as cutlery. ‘I am not into toys and cars,’ he said. ‘But with the things that I do need it is essential that they are well worked out.’
When he looked at the work of the Kerschbaumer sisters, ‘I had an instinct that they would be nice to work with,’ he said, and they clicked as soon as they met at the initial lunch for the project.
Pawson decided that what he wanted was a series of architectural elements for a house that he has acquired in the country. Although in his mind this was a theoretical project, he was clear that it is important to have a ‘real’ brief. He wanted to think about ‘moments in a house – when you walk towards a door and pass through it, when you switch on a light, when you hang your coat up or when you reach for a book.’ And in a sense all projects are personal for him. ‘When I am designing, even for a client, I think about what I would want,’ he explained. The sisters visited the house, taking the whole project very seriously. ‘I am impressed that they have made the time and taken it so seriously,’ Pawson said.
They responded to this brief by coming up with a suite of objects – a door, a door knob, coat hooks, a light switch and a set of shelves. Most challenging and most surprising is the door which tapers towards the opening so that you see a shadow seeing which way you need to pass through. They overcame a raft of technical issues in the design and learnt a great deal.
‘I am amazed because it is something different,’ Pawson said. ‘They have got it to work and it is really elegant. I am thrilled that they have designed something that I really like.’ Speaking about the whole collection of objects, Pawson said, ‘I am rather jealous that I didn’t do them.’ From such a perfectionist, there could be no greater accolade.