John Pawson’s Not-So-Secret Love of Colour

On the initial publishing of Spectrum by Phaidon in 2017, audiences were surprised, charmed and delighted to discover that the well celebrated British architect John Pawson is not only an avid photographer, but loves colour. Up until then, Pawson had mostly known for his all white aesthetics and minimalist designs. (See our interview with John Pawson about his London Design Museum.)


Yet this information was all available long before via his Instagram, on which the architect has gained a considerable following over the past two years for his daily uploads.

Pawson’s photography reveals a dimension that was always there in his architectural work. His buildings may be all white, but by being all white they reveal the colour, texture and detail in the environments that surround them.


Spectrum is a manifestation of Pawson’s signature aesthetic in a new form. Treat its pages as a series of architectural frames, a myriad of possible windows onto the world, carefully curated by Pawson as part of his design process, which in this case happen to be a set of 320 all white pages rather than walls.

We caught up with Pawson to get his take on Spectrum.

THE PLUS: What did you want to achieve with this book?
John Pawson:
The original idea of making a book ordered by colour came from Phaidon and I was immediately intrigued by what the outcome would be. You are always looking for new perspectives on the way you think and see the world and I wanted the book to be a powerful lens for this fresh view – for me and for people interested in my work.

TP: In architecture, you create three-dimensional structures. In photography, you turn three-dimensional structures into two-dimensional planes. Do you enjoy the relative limitation of photography?
Architecture is slow. The process of making a building is measured in years, sometimes decades. Everything is considered, reconsidered and then considered again. You spend huge amounts of time, particularly during the early stages, inhabiting spaces inside your own head. Perhaps as a way of balancing this, I enjoy the spontaneity of photography and the relief of looking outwards for a change. I also like the fact that often the best results come from the unforeseen, which is rarely the case with architecture.

278 Bendinat Mallorca Spain

TP: What was the process of pairing colours like? Are all the colours unedited?
At an early stage we made the decision not to adjust the colours. To have played with these would have taken the rigour out of the editing process and undermined the spirit of the task we had set ourselves. The sequencing process was demanding but pleasurable. You start off with a set of rules, but there had to be a degree of flexibility. For example, there were a few images where the prevailing hue was not taken as the determining factor, because a flash of strong contrasting colour dominates the visual field. It was also challenging balancing the idea of the continuous chromatic sequence with the desire to make each double-page spread work as an individual entity.

107 Notting Hill London

TP: What’s your approach to publishing your work on Instagram? What do you think of Instagram as a means of publishing photography?
I am an impatient person, so I enjoy the instancy of Instagram: you choose a photograph, you post it and this action generates a very rapid reaction.  It’s easy to get caught up in the data and to start framing shots in terms of what you think will please your audience, but so long as you are mindful of the temptations, I think it’s a good platform for engaging with people.

TP: There are many photographs taken from the air. Do you go on any sole-purpose photo flights?
Photography is a seamless part of my life, whether I am in the office, at home or travelling.  It’s not something I set out to do as an occupation in isolation.

229 Over Kenya

TP: Would you advise other architects to take more photographs to inform how they design?
I think everyone finds their own way of enriching the creative process. I use photography as other people use a sketchbook. For me the instinct to reach for a lens has always been stronger than the reflex to pick up a pencil.

TP: Were there some colours you found that you are more drawn to?
Inevitably a high proportion of the photographs I take are dominated by the blues and greens of sky, water and landscape, alongside the creams, ochres, greys, browns and russets of the typical architectural palette.

018 Puerto Igazu Argentina

TP: Are you happy with how the book turned out?
I am very happy with how it turned out. Books always take more time and effort than you think, but the result is something permanent and at a scale where there is scope to get all the details right.

TP: Do you plan to make any more photography books?
I am constantly taking photographs, so there is no shortage of new material. The challenge is finding the focus for the editing process that turns a quantity of pictures into a body of work with something to say.