Style | The Aesthete

John Pawson talks personal style: Part Two

The architect draws a line under his list of preferences and predilections.

January 07 2011
Maria Shollenbarger

My style icon is a difficult one to answer. For me, it’s not about what people wear, but how they do things. The people I admire are the ones who have a vision of what they want to achieve, and then the energy to attend to every aspect of making it happen. Anya Hindmarch is a great example of someone for whom no detail is so small that it is not worth getting right.

The best gift I’ve received recently was a small, hand-thrown bowl by the 20th-century Swedish master potter Berndt Friberg. It was given to me last year by one of my clients, Jill Dienst. It’s a very simple, modest form, with a pale matte glaze. I look at it and see a number of the values I was trying to characterise in my book Minimum.

An unforgettable place I’ve travelled to in the past year or so is Ethiopia, where I was at the end of 2009; I went to Lalibela for the celebration of Coptic Christmas.

And the best souvenirs I’ve brought home are always images of the place I’ve been. I’ve long subscribed to the philosophy of travelling light, there and back, and the one thing I hate to be without is a camera.

The site that inspires me is the 19th-century industrial landscape of Halifax in Yorkshire, where I grew up; it’s had an enduring impact on me. One of my favourite images, which I put in Minimum, is a shot of a cobbled ramp in the town, taken by the British photographer Bill Brandt.

An object I would never part with is – well, this is difficult for me, as I learnt early on not to be attached to material things. My son Benedict pointed out the other day that I’d be utterly lost without my wife, though I’m loathe to objectify her!

The last meal that truly impressed me was freshwater fish at Dozeu, a restaurant in Tokyo, where I had a meal years ago with [designers] Shiro Kuramata, Masayuki Kurokawa and [art dealer] Hester van Royen. To me, eating in a restaurant is rarely so pleasurable as sitting at my own table with family and friends. But this is one place that really has remained in my memory.

The artist whose work I would collect if I could is Donald Judd. He talked a lot about the simple expression of complex thought; his work makes sense to me. I have one of his pieces, a sculpture I got at Xavier Hufkens gallery in Brussels, where my son Caius’ mother is a director. It’s a multiple – I couldn’t afford the one-off. Normally I’d be slightly snobbish about that sort of thing, but artistically, to me, it has the same value. It’s immaterial, because it is so beautiful. I know I will never tire of looking at it. 6-8 Rue Saint-Georges, Brussels 1050 (+322-639 6730;

If had to limit shopping to one neighbourhood in one city, then I’d quite happily limit myself to never shopping again. Apart from the irritation, I always have post-purchase depression. The buyer’s remorse. I always worry that I’ve got the wrong thing. Being obsessive, I don’t browse. Food, I can get into. But I’m also all for having that delivered. I’d much prefer a neighbourhood of shops where I felt I could take my stuff and it would be given a nice home. The reverse of the shopping experience.

The grooming staple I’m never without is Hibiscrub, a hospital-strength cleanser used by surgeons, and it’s the only product I rely on. No cologne; oh my god, no. I don’t think people should wear scent – men or women. I love smell, but not on people. My mother wore Joy by Jean Patou and it was really nice, I suppose, on its own. But it spoilt the food and the wine, to be honest. Hibiscrub, £8.29 for 250ml (

If I didn’t live in London, the city I would live in is a toss-up, I guess, between Tokyo – where I have, in fact, lived in the past – and New York. I’ve always loved Tokyo because it was partly built on marshes – absolutely the wrong place to choose to build a city, but they wanted an eastern capital as an alternative to Kyoto. Most of it has no grid, which I love. And there’s an elevated expressway, which goes up and down like a roller coaster. My flat was near the Kenzo-tangi Olympic stadium. There were certain train rides I’d do and favourite restaurants I’d go to. And Ginza district, which has a sort of Times Square aspect, I looked at very objectively. Few of the signs were in Latin characters. It’s a visual jumble, but the culture itself is so ordered, the people so polite. I like that contrast. As for New York, I love the containment and those extraordinary vistas. And the weather’s better. And I think the positivity is really attractive – people always make me feel much more confident. They’re less inhibited about using praise. They’re keen for you to succeed, is what it is.

If I weren’t doing what I do, I don’t really have an idea of what I’d be. In my late teens and 20s I tried my hand at being a waiter, dress designer, teacher and photographer. Architecture was just the thing that felt most natural for me.