The Calvin Klein store in Manhattan seems an unlikely inspiration for a monastery.
Yet Trappist monks leafing through a book were so taken with the look of the Madison Avenue flagship that they hired its architect John Pawson to build their monastery in the Czech Republic — and won him critical acclaim.
“Architecture is one thing, what happens inside is another,” says Pawson, 61. “They saw a space which they thought could be used as a church. They saw the two tables on which sweaters were displayed as being altars.”
After a 29-year career — designing a home for author Bruce Chatwin, a bridge for Kew Gardens, London, and airport lounges for Cathay Pacific — Pawson is getting his first U.K. solo show, at London’s Design Museum (whose future building he will revamp). He became known as a guru of minimalism, after his 1996 book “Minimum,” and is now moving into the public spotlight.
We meet at the exhibition — an array of sketches, wall photographs and maquettes. At its core is a contemplative room, with benches on either side, and an arch that lets light dapple through — a flashback to the monastery at Novy Dvur.
Pawson has a quiet elegance that masks undercurrents of anxiety. He wears pressed gray trousers with an open-neck white shirt, and twice stops our conversation to check the new displays. “The storm before the calm,” he says.
His understated ethos clashes with the global trend in “starchitecture” — look-at-me buildings by big names.
“I’m very fortunate to be in an age where architecture has gotten noticed,” he says. “I’m not complaining that there’s the cult of the personality, because it enables me to build.”
Born in Halifax, Yorkshire, Pawson tried his hand at the family textile business, then moved to Japan. He taught English at a university and visited the studio of architect Shiro Kuramata. Somewhere along the line, he caught the building bug.
He enrolled at London’s Architecture Association, and left after three years without collecting his degree. Since 1981, he has made his way as an architect.
“Calvin Klein and working for him changed people’s perception of me, so I became the man that did shops,” he says. “Before that, I was the man that did galleries, or people’s flats.”
The Czech monastery takes up a good third of his show. Everywhere else are traces of past projects, built or not.
Pawson’s project for the late Chatwin occupies a corner of a neatly labeled archive table. In a 1984 essay, Chatwin wrote that Pawson makes “simple, harmonious rooms that are a real refuge from the hideousness of contemporary London.”
In Manhattan Pawson worked with Klein, who he finds energetic and interested: “He’ll sit for 12 hours and focus on a window detail, which, to be honest, I can’t do.”
One project that never happened was Pawson’s 1998 plan for fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld’s house in Biarritz, France. The circular sketch for the tennis court was rejected in a letter from the Chanel maestro (included in the show) who wrote “I hate everything ‘round.’”
Lagerfeld is “an amazing raconteur and an amazing mimic, and also, like me, obsessed,” says the architect. Yet designers “want to have done it themselves, really.”
Next is Pawson’s mission to move the Design Museum into its new base at the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington. Beyond that, he has one objective: “Get the quality better.”
“John Pawson — Plain Space” is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD through Jan. 30, 2011. Information: http://designmuseum.org/exhibitions/2010/2010-john-pawson or +44-207-403-6933.
(Farah Nayeri is a writer for Muse, the arts & leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Hat tip Bloomberg