When Feeling Inspired, John Pawson Reaches for a Camera, not a Pen

Instead of the sketchpad, the master of minimalism uses photography as a tool for both inspiration and communication.

The fact that John Pawson isn’t good at sketching hasn’t stopped him from becoming a great architect. He discards the notion that using the sketchbook is central to the creative process, instead using a compact Canon camera to record anything that catches his eye. “I take photographs because I don’t really sketch fluidly,” says Pawson, who’s currently converting the 1960s Commonwealth Institute in west London into the new home for the Design Museum. “I take photographs of everything, all day, every day. I suppose it’s a mixture of note-taking and record-keeping. My private and work lives are one, so the photographs range from pets and food and friends to iconic architectural things to details to mess.” He takes about 500 photographs a day and estimates that he’s snapped more than 250,000 total.

The architect utilizes photography throughout the design process. “At the beginning of a project, photos are helpful in allowing you to understand as much as possible about your site,” Pawson says. “Everything from the vernacular architecture and the quality of the light to the colors and textures that catch the eye. At the end, photography allows you to step back from the details and see what you’ve made.” The architect takes photos of his west London house nearly every day, as an exercise in understanding details.

Pawson is an avid traveler: Egypt, Syria, Italy, Japan, the English countryside. “You can see beauty in very small things and in very strange places,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be big and exquisite. There’s pleasure in ordinary things.” After returning home from a recent trip to Myanmar [Burma], he shared some of those images with us.

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