Posted in Living
Paring Back with John Pawson
In late summer at a renovated farmhouse in the Cotswolds, dinner continues through the evening into the last of the light
The white moons of empty plates are collected long after sunset. The deep glow of twilight reflects off the smooth glazed rims as the stacked dishes are carried back inside to be washed and returned to their places, ready for tomorrow. A simple meal with crisp flavours, a table set for two, or three, or many, a long open-ended evening and a goblet full of wine: there isn’t much more you can possibly need.
Few people take these simple joys more seriously than designer John Pawson. Dedicating himself to paring back life, Pawson seems compelled to continually explore ways to refine the aesthetic, functional and ritual aspects of everyday living. There is clarity and freedom in these acts of reduction. Bringing a holistic approach to the design of his environment, Pawson’s focus on refining daily life is not only evident in his celebrated architectural spaces and furniture pieces, but also in his design of stoneware, flatware, and functional objects for the home, as well two co-authored cookbooks.
Cooking and eating, as fundamental aspects of living, took on a heightened sense of gravity over the local pandemic lockdowns. For many of us, attention to daily rituals and the changing seasons became a way of navigating an uncertain time. Sheltering together at their home in the restored farmhouse in the Cotswolds, Pawson and his wife Catherine took solace in preparing simple meals from garden-fresh ingredients, settling into a slower rhythm of living and nourishing themselves.
With the space to reflect on their everyday life, they sketched out the idea for a co-authored cookbook, Home Farm Cooking. It was a process familiar to Pawson, having put together Living and Eating some twenty years ago with chef and food writer Annie Bell. But working together with his wife reveals the depth of his commitment to design as a lifestyle. Together, John and Catherine Pawson have crafted a minimal life: aesthetically and functionally reduced to emphasise meaningful spaces and rituals. Home Farm Cooking is an invitation into their kitchen and to their dining table, and leafing through the pages is imbued with intimacy and sense of place.
Captured within the white-spined hardback is their meditation on the anticipation and familiarity of cooking with the seasons, providing a ‘sense of life’s continuity’, as Catherine has referred to it, amidst the unfamiliar. The collection of recipes isn’t overly ambitious or complicated. Rather, the focus is on seeking perfection with each meal, with the intention of returning to loved recipes again and again. Pawson’s restrained palette is the cornerstone of his design work, and here it’s true on the plate as well. The recipes are built around individual ingredients, elevating seasonal produce in a simple manner to enable particular flavours and texture to be fully appreciated.
Pawson’s oeuvre increasingly brings together these narratives of food and daily life, family, architecture and the places where we gather to watch the seasons pass. Sitting alongside the new cookbook, his foray into homewares extends to a small but beautiful range of carefully chosen and precisely formed essentials. The designs are inconspicuously simple, with many of the pieces having originally been crafted for the minimal tables of the monks at the cisterian monastery in Bohemia, where Pawson was responsible for everything from the architecture to the goblets. Reconsidered as objects for the home, the collection are not statement pieces. Rather, they find their place arranged in the background, as on the cover-image of Home Farm Cooking, where, on the wooden wall-hung shelf six plates, two large bowls and three small ones sit alongside an assortment of goblets in bohemian crystal and creamy stoneware.
It is a collection that is designed to be used together, the easy elegance of each piece giving a quiet beauty to the collection as a whole. From creamy off-white glazed vessels to deep ebony implements and crystal clear glasses, the pieces are intended for everyday use. The simple forms are nonetheless compelling: perfectly round plates, with their edges upturned just enough to hold a pool of sauce; creamy-white goblets with their cylindrical bases perfect for rich red wine; nesting bowls each sized to suit a particular use; and linear, beautifully proportioned stainless steel flatware. The paired cream and sugar vessels, with their delicate ebony spoon, are perhaps both the most special and the most simple of all. With unadorned faces and pure forms, there is nothing to break your visual concentration. Setting the table for a meal, each piece in its precise position awaiting guests, is a seamless experience.
Once everything is in its place, simplified, and refined to a minimum, the experience is laid bare — open, honest, fulfilling. Pawson’s work is a masterclass in design that falls into the background, elevating our experience and appreciation of the carefully prepared meal, the rich, fresh flavours, and the company around the table. The results are places and moments in which you want to linger longer. The spaces, recipes, stoneware and flatware create a slow pace of living, preparing, and eating together. Putting words to these simple pleasures somehow unravels them. These are the kind of moments that must be lived and felt, enjoyed with all the senses. And then, for a long time afterwards, first savoured, and then recreated again and again.