John Pawson’s favourite bookcase

The master minimalist reluctantly designed a library at his Gloucestershire house at the behest of his wife – and now feels the reproach of an unread Proust

John Pawson in his library with the floating aluminium shelves he designed to give prominence to the books
John Pawson in his library with the floating aluminium shelves he designed to give prominence to the books | Image: Harry Crowder

“I’m not keen on seeing other people’s books, nor on them seeing mine. Everyone says, ‘Aren’t they lovely? So decorative and homely and cosy.’ For me, they’re a working tool. But that’s what Catherine [John’s wife, the interior designer Catherine Pawson] wanted, so when we got this house in the country [near Moreton-in‑Marsh, Gloucestershire], I designed a bookcase.

We’ve been in the house for a year now and it’s definitely a work in progress. I like to think of it as my laboratory where I experiment. There are many things I understand better by doing them first in my own home. The plan for the library was just to see the books, not the shelves – so they’re very thin 10mm aluminium, cantilevering from the wall and running all the way around the room. The walls are unpainted lime plaster and the shelves are finished in an off-white, so visually they almost disappear. I got the idea when visiting [British architect] Amanda Levete’s house. She has her own set of slim metal bookshelves. Of course, I did things differently – mine float.

The room is an office-cum-study and library with a table and a computer. It gets plenty of sunshine because it faces south, and it opens onto a very light reading room with an easy chair. The idea is you take your book and retire to the reading room. The thing about architecture is that you’re consumed by buildings for much of the time – whether you’re thinking about them or checking on stuff written about them. I’m obsessive, but I do believe there should be a lot more time for poetry, philosophy or fiction. I intend to read more. I was given the entire works of Proust for my birthday. I wonder if it’s going to sit there making me feel inadequate. 


Among the books are a few mementoes. There’s the odd model of mine, a Japanese wooden toy temple that you put together yourself – it’s exquisite – and a pre-Columbian art statue. The statue came to me via Hester [the art dealer Hester van Royen, mother of John’s son, Caius, and stepdaughter, Phoebe]. I think it might have been a gift from the writer Bruce Chatwin. He was Caius’s godfather and I did up his flat in Belgravia. I don’t like much art in the house. I love it, study it and like to see it in museums, but I’m quite happy without it on the walls at home. It’s the same with knick-knacks. I look at them, pick them up and like how they remind me of things. But there’s so many things to be reminded of. How much can you cope with? 

Growing up in Yorkshire, we had lots of time to read as children. The house was filled with books – in the corridors, bedrooms and piled in the hallway. I had four sisters and every time one of them married and went away, Dad knocked through a wall, which meant my room got larger. But as it grew, I resisted filling it with anything – including books. It remained spacious.”

This story was originally posted on 28 October 2019.


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