Minimum – John Pawson

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Minimum is a picture book for grown-ups. My version is the minimalist one, a small, square, grey linen-covered hardback with glossy pages. Nearly every page has a single black and white or color image. Some of the photographs are double spreads. Some pages are blank. The idea of the book is ‘just enough but no more.’ That is John Pawson’s philosophy as well.

Pawson is an architect famous for minimalist interiors like the Calvin Klein store on Madison Avenue and for buildings like the Novy Dvur contemplative monastery in the Czech Republic. His aesthetic is rich and extremely spare—a Pawson home has no clutter, no stuff, no tiny detail unattended to, from faucet shapes in the kitchen to custom sofas with shelves in the salon. The look is very appealing—and there are ceiling-to-floor, nearly invisible cabinets to hide what you can’t part with so my library will be safe when I win the lottery and hire him to design my NYC penthouse.

Minimum has minimal text so I didn’t read it as much as absorb it—visually. Pawson opens the book with an extended essay that defines “minimum” as “the perfection that an artifact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction.” He didn’t invent this concept but he works it in all his designs and the results are arresting and oddly peaceful. Pawson admires Zen, Thoreau, Mies van der Rohe, early Tadao Ando, design by Shiro Kuramata, Shaker furniture and Stonehenge. He plays with texture and light. Much of his design empties color but his whites and naturals are infinitely nuanced and never flat.

The photographs in the book range from a solitary standing stone against a storm-blackened sky in Orkney to a 1984 black and white image of a black and a white shaved head in profile by Robert Mapplethorpe. I’m guessing it is simpler to reflect on the images in the full size book—they are very small in this version and some of the black and white shots seem dark and muddy. But the point is made.

Reduce a thing to its essence and it invites imagination. Space is conducive to creativity. Focus is sharper when the fuzz of clutter is removed. Pawson doesn’t believe in austerity; he pares things down to reach illumination. “The excitement of empty space” trumps the “paraphernalia of everyday life” for him every time.

I want to believe that kind of simplicity is an achievable goal and that the elegance and power of stripped-down surroundings can emerge from the messy quotidian. Probably a life’s work. Minimum gives you good examples. Extraordinary discipline might just clear out your tchotchkes and allow your innate, unfettered genius to shine through.

Minimum  John Pawson | Phaedon Press Limited  2000

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