Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

John Pawson on the Box Brownie

John Pawson on the Box Brownie

February/March 2017

My father loved cameras and taking photographs. When I was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he had a Rolleiflex and a Leica. He eventually sold the Leica to send us to school, which shows how much they cost. But I think my sisters had the camera I love most: the Box Brownie.

The original Brownie was designed by Frank A. Brownell for Eastman Kodak in 1900. It is a beautifully simple object, with everything you need and nothing you don’t. It’s just a box with a hole in the front. That made it approachable, usable and appealing to everyone. It was taken to children’s birthday parties, it was taken to war and it showed that you don’t need a complicated camera to take a great picture. As a design that had a democratising effect on photography, it is a direct ancestor of the iPhone.

I’ve always liked to have clarity in my work, stripping things down so that they cannot be improved by adding or taking away. When I’m designing a room, I have a set of tools to play with: light, materials, scale and proportion. The Box Brownie looks to me like the perfect room seen from the outside, its apertures the only windows you would need. That’s why I like agricultural barns – because they’re not big on windows. I love a wall.

Photography is also important to my work. I take photographs the way other people write journals or keep sketchbooks, and since last April I’ve been posting an image to Instagram every day. I have a vast archive of images which I regard as an invaluable design tool. You never know when a picture of a particular concrete texture on a building in Sweden might be just what you need to convey an idea to a client or colleague.

John Pawson’s work as an architect and designer ranges from houses and museums to yacht interiors and ballet sets. He was talking to Simon Willis

Once, I even sent a camera to a client for whom I’d designed a house in Tokyo and asked her to keep a visual diary of her home. For a number of months, she sent me one photograph a day of whatever caught her attention in the building. It was fascinating to see the space from her point of view. Another, whose apartment in New York overlooks the Hudson, did the same. It’s a way of understanding the implications of every design decision.

A few years ago I was asked to make a temporary work for St Paul’s Cathedral. I designed an optical device to sit at the foot of Christopher Wren’s spiral staircase, the Geometric Stair, built in 1705. The piece I made incorporated the largest concave meniscus lens ever made by Swarovski, and allowed visitors to see Wren’s structure in much more detail than with the naked eye. It was, like the Box Brownie, a way of enriching the experience of looking.

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.