AN Interior in conversation with John Pawson and Hans Peter Dinesen

Spaces of Calm

john pawson and Hans Peter Dinesen

John Pawson’s work pleasantly hums with emptiness. It defines a quiet, elevated version of contemporary architecture often referred to as minimalism. While living in Japan, Pawson learned from architect and designer Shiro Kuramata. He later studied at the Architectural Association before founding his own studio in 1981. About 20 people work in Pawson’s London office on commissions around the world.

Dinesen, founded in 1898, is a family-run Danish manufacturer of wood flooring and products. The company sources trees from forests in northern Germany and specializes in wide planks of Douglas fir, which can be up to about 45 feet long and 18 inches wide. Pawson first spied a Dinesen sample under the arm of his friend Richard Rogers in the early 1990s. Pawson sought out the company when realizing his own home and ultimately convinced it to make straight-edged floorboards instead of the traditionally conic planks, which result from the tapering in trunk diameter. This change, combined with Pawson’s imprimatur, reshaped the audience for Dinesen’s products.

Pawson initially designed a table, benches, and stools for his young family. (The stool, when rotated, becomes an armchair for a child.) Today these dining pieces, reimagined, are joined by new lounge items: a table, chair, sofa, and daybed. “The dimensions of the timber determine the proportions of the forms,” Pawson said. The last three offerings are upholstered in Kvadrat fabric that can be customized when ordering.

While Pawson is funny in conversation, he often lets his sentences drift into reflective silence before his next thought takes shape. On an overcast night in Copenhagen he perched in one of his new chairs to talk with Hans Peter Dinesen, who has led the company since his father, Thomas, stepped down in 2021. The chat took place in Dinesen’s showroom, which will be remodeled by Pawson before 3 Days of Design next week. AN Interior’s executive editor, Jack Murphy, spoke with Pawson and Hans Peter Dinesen about their collaboration.

wood furniture
The collection relies on sturdy volumes to create intentionality around where they are placed (Claus Troelsgaard)

Jack Murphy (JM): At this point in your career, John, I imagine you’re able to choose what you want to work on. Why was it the right time to revisit these pieces of furniture?

John Pawson (JP): I got to architecture relatively late. I never really went to school for it. I tried quite a few other things, including teaching English to Japanese students who weren’t interested. I’ve gone through long periods of extreme boredom. Since finally finding something I really enjoy doing, I haven’t had a minute’s boredom since. I’m lucky that I’m able to do the bits I like.

Hans Peter Dinesen (HPD): For my family—especially me, my brother, and my sister—we always grew up with this furniture. It has been a part of our life. This latest meeting of Dinesen and John Pawson has been an important reflection for us. Looking back on the furniture, it’s still relevant. Our hope is that people in 30 years will think the same. The idea of starting this new chapter together is to learn from the past and see how we can put it into the future in a new way. So we asked John to continue developing the pieces from the 1990s.

wood furniture designed by John Pawson and Hans Peter Dinesen
The reimagined collection includes a table, chair, sofa, and daybed (Claus Troelsgaard)

wood furniture with wood backdrop
The daybed is seen in Pawson’s Home Farm which he designed (Claus Troelsgaard)

JM: What was the working process to design these pieces?

HPD: It was not a straight line from A to B; there was a lot of experimentation. We started during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, so it has been a long process. There were prototypes and testing with different treatments, joinery, and wood species. The pieces are not exactly the same as the original pieces; they have been developed and refined, so there are new details that make them even more timeless.

JM: The oak strip between two planks of Douglas fir on the table is a new addition, for example.

HPD: Yes, but it’s not only the visual appearance of oak. It has a higher density, so it’s good for joints between softer pieces of wood.

JP: It also stops the bread from falling to the floor.

HPD: The gap is interesting, and my father talked about it. When I asked him about what he learned from John Pawson, he said that the gaps between the floorboards are significant. Each individual planks becomes its own character. Instead of the floor being one flat surface, it becomes something solid and three-dimensional.

gray sofa and wood table
The timber’s dimensions drive the design’s forms (Claus Troelsgaard)

JM: Right. The reveal delineates each piece.

JP: Otherwise, it looks like a carpet.

JM: It has been 30 years since these, the original pieces, were designed. Do you think there have been any changes in that time about how people live? If so, did those changes affect the furniture?

JP: The honest answer is “I don’t know.” Obviously, there have been big changes in how people live in the world, but I think the elements of houses vary little from before. There is a much stronger awareness of the ecological side and working with natural materials. Floorboards make you aware of what you’re treading on.

JM: Has that been true for you in your personal life?

JP: Definitely. When I’m at home in the country, I sit and look out the window or through the rooms. Sometimes my wife, Catherine, says, “You’re not doing anything. Could you empty the bins?” And I say, “Well, I am actually working.” I’m contemplating, but I can never persuade her. But I literally sit and look at boards, often just to get pleasure.

JM: One thing that has changed, as you mentioned, is our ecological awareness. More architects are thinking seriously about where their materials come from. Some of us think about the forest when looking at wood floors and vice versa. How has that sensibility changed over time?

HPD: For us, the most important part is taking care of the tree in the whole value chain, from the planted seed to the final floor and the floor’s afterlife. We take care of it, because when we fell a tree, it’s a responsibility. We must take care of the whole tree trunk and give it as long a life as possible, even longer than it had in the forest. That’s the mission, and we can’t succeed without the architect and the client.

We also know a lot of young architects who are curious about sustainable forestry practices. We are happy to share the knowledge of our German forestry collaborators, who just celebrated their 300-year anniversary. We use selective logging, where we pick one tree at a time for one project instead of clear cutting. We also don’t replant trees; the forest itself is regenerative. We just pick the trees out.

JM: Dinesen has supplied floors for historic churches. This relates to your work, John, because it attempts stillness and is often described as monastic. What is it about that sense of quiet that we experience in religious spaces that you are drawn to?

JP: From an early age, I felt different in spaces that were calm. Then I wondered how to actually achieve them in physical terms—to build an atmosphere in space with materials and light.

There is a difference. It’s dangerous to talk about secular work— like houses, mostly—as being spiritual, because when you design a church you want it to be a place where you can worship and be closer to God. You, as an architect, only have the same materials at hand. You’re never guaranteed that it will be spiritual, but you try your best with the proportions, light, and the other things at your disposal.

Some people who walk in have no clue what’s going on, but most people enter a spiritual place, and you almost hear them expelling the air because they start to relax, and it feels good. That’s what you’re after, feeling good.

dining table and wood benches
The new collection is not the exact same as the original but timeless nevertheless (Claus Troelsgaard)

dining table staged inside brick building
The reimagined series adds a gap within the dining table (Claus Troelsgaard)

JM: How did you learn about this feeling of space? Was your family religious when you were young?

JP: My dad and mum were nonconformist Methodists in Yorkshire. Their parents were practicing Methodists, so they went to church twice on Sundays, there was no alcohol, and services had no music. That’s in my background, but I think it’s also the whole Yorkshire thing with the treeless landscape and industrial buildings in Halifax. And obviously Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx Abbey were nearby.

The monks from the Abbey of Our Lady of Nový Dvůr saw my Calvin Klein stores before they commissioned me. I thought they had visited, but as Cistercians they can’t leave the community, so I guess they encountered them in a book. They saw a space with a couple tables and imagined how it could easily be transferred to a church altar.

I had to start learning quickly when working with them. They wrote a detailed brief for each room, including the temperature. They wanted to sleep in rooms that were about 57 degrees Fahrenheit, for example.

It’s nice that they don’t, they don’t have any personal possessions. It makes things easy. They each have a watch and their own boxer shorts. So when you go into the laundry there’s a whole array of Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, or Hugo Boss underwear. It’s a tough life. They never leave, so what you do for them is important. It must be practical, functional, and durable.

The young monks don’t quite understand why they need proper architecture, which of course costs money to build well. To build at all costs money, but to build well costs a bit more. I think they would rather have kept the money and had to do less work. But I’m told they got it eventually.