Marks & Spencer’s efforts to rebrand itself as a sophisticated purveyor of aspirational housewear has led it to put a super-minimalist John Pawson house in its Gateshead store. We ran a jaundiced eye over the results …

The Lifestore in Gateshead is an an attempt by one of Britain’s biggest retailers to convince us that, henceforth the initials M and S must stand for stand for minimal and stylish. To assist in this venture Marks & Spencer poached Vittorio Radice while he was still glowing hot from his success at Selfridges. He then recruited Ilse Crawford, formerly of Elle Decoration and Tyler Brule, formerly of Wallpaper, and topped them off with John Pawson, Britain’s most celebrated minimalist architect.

I suppose the attempt is to repeat the trick whereby M&S stopped being known for frumpy clothes and instead became known for prefabricated food. You all know it is famous for quality and value, so make it the first stop for furnishing your 21st-century home. And, in case you’re not sure what a 21st-century home looks like, we’ve built it for you right here in the store. Gasp at the sheer whiteness! Be amazed at the floor-to-ceiling invisible cupboards! Look, (or rather, don’t look) at the concealed lighting! In the middle of a typical tin box store, in the middle of a Gateshead retail park, Marks & Sparks has built this complete Pawson House.

It actually feels like a house and not a show home. I have a lot of time for Pawson. I think being a halfway decent architect is pretty difficult and I take my hat off to anyone who can invent themselves as a brand, pick and choose clients, and maintain a worldwide reputation with a relatively small team. Prada store in New York one day, Cistercian Abbey in Poland the next.

A builder I know was doing a remodelling job for one of Pawson’s residential clients in north London and so I went to have a look at his work. Many of the features of that house are on show in Gateshead. The dark grey 100 mm thick larva kitchen top, the semicircular hooped taps, the concealed controls for the equipment, everything in drawers, no wall cupboards, rectangular sinks, 500 mm wide floorboards, no switches, miraculous lighting and everything but everything white, white, white.

It all looks a good deal more convincing in the centre of a big store than it did in the ground floor of a semi-D in Hampstead; you need a good deal of space to appreciate all this minimalism. Though there is a considerable element of the emperor’s new clothes about his work, Pawson has got a genuine touch. A Pawson space really is a calm place to be.

Magic in retailing is selling very little for a lot of money. In Pawson’s case it’s selling nothing for an absolute fortune


I’m not sure what the punters in Gateshead made of the house. I find shoe-box rectangular baths pretty hard to take and I don’t think Geordies evaluate them for their coal-carrying capacity any more. When Oscar Wilde was in Reading Jail, one of his chums used to smuggle caviar in for him. Unfortunately it was delivered to the wrong cell, where the recipient presumably regarded it as fish jam and did not eat it. It is not that I think the house will be any more effective sited in the next M&S, to be built in Kingston-upon-Thames – it’s just that it’s the sort of house you live in when you have a comfortable one elsewhere (as perhaps Mrs Pawson has).

That said, I’m sure everyone will go and see it, which is the evangelising point. For some reason the store dresser had tricked out the main bedroom (with solid-timber bed surround corners at exactly ankle-banging height) as though it was a set from Footballer’s Wives. Skimpy orange underwear. Bedclothes rearranged by a champagne-fuelled bonkathon, a single purple high-heeled mule … I’m not sure what this was supposed to say. Buy lots of M&S furniture and your sex life will improve? What was interesting was the way the Pawson touch had been brought to bear on the whole ambience of the store itself. The architect had inherited a half-procured nondescript tin shed, surrounded by asphalt, but has managed to achieve a good deal with it. The setting is of a simple cube in an orchard. Okay, there are too many cars and not enough trees, but you can at least get the idea. The facade has been clad in strips of 50 mm softwood battens stained burgundy and laid with 12 mm gaps, which is simple, effective and provides a sort of cloister – an important reference point for JP – before the shop proper. This device really lifts it from the other crud in the park, as does the fact that it isn’t festooned with ugly graphics.

The store is, unsurprisingly, white, but there is something about the scale of the displays that has a calming effect. Perhaps it is the seamless polished concrete floor under them. In any event, the complete antithesis to ordeal by Ikea. The lighting is good, the cafeteria is brilliant. Not quite lunch in the world’s most well endowed monastery, but not bad – particularly for a department store. There is a 250 mm deep glacial Corian top as long as a tennis court, plinth level downlighting. No clutter. The air-handling is done by freestanding elbow-high cylindrical drums of perforated steel and the scale is wonderful.

When an architect takes over a project instigated by AN Other there is always a bit of baggage they could have done without, and I would suggest here that the M&E was not as onside in the store as in the house. The ceilings are relatively clear (track light adjustable spots in recessed troughs) and although better than average, you feel that with more Pawson control, this would have been brilliant.