Christmas with the Minimalists: What do you give the man who has nothing?

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The Independent Culture
John Pawson is the King of Minimalism and famous for designing houses in which there is very little sign of human life, much less Santa Claus. There is stone and wood and steel and no decoration at all, unless you count the odd door handle (which he does). In his world, tinsel is unthinkable and plastic has not yet been invented. I think that Christmas for a Minimalist must be like being tortured with party favours for weeks on end. After all, what do you give a man who wants nothing? Certainly not a houseful of clutter, tat and winking reindeer. Mr Pawson stops me there. "No! I love Christmas. Christmas is not dead and neither is Minimalism!" he says in a "ho ho ho" type of voice.

He is between homes at the moment so I visit him at his sparse offices near King's Cross in central London. I know I've arrived, because the door has no handle. I think it would be a terrorist act to place a winking Santa on a plastic holly wreath upon it. As I arrive, Mr Pawson is busy ordering a four-metre bathtub for his new home. It is going to hold two tons of water. Minimalist home, M0aximalist bathtub. He is a person of extremes. This becomes clear when I ask whether he likes Christmas trees. "Yes! Fantastic. Well, they can be beautiful. I can't remember what the best one is. But, my gosh, I hate them in the wrong place." I nod. Like the dining-room? "Hillsides! I hate them on hillsides. In Scotland there are ghastly planted forests which are completely the wrong trees."

Last year he had a right kind of tree: a Douglas fir to match the floorboards. "But I was jolly glad to get rid of it. Well, it completely changed the space." Any decorations? "No. We may have had lights." By this he means candles. "Highly dangerous, of course, but I think worth it."

There are lots of presents. "That seems to be maximum, at least as far as the children are concerned. Though I quite like wrapping things beautifully. It's almost nicer than what's inside."

John Pawson is putting a brave face on all of this, as have the other Minimalists whose spare spaces fill this story. But the truth is that Christmas and Minimalism are not made for each other. Tyler Brule of the hedonist style magazine Wallpaper* is brutal in his assessment: "Perhaps a true Minimalist would have no religion and therefore no Christmas. I think that for a true, die-hard Minimalist, Christmas has simply got to start at Heathrow." He's got that right. Every one of them seems to have plans to put an airport or two between themselves and the Season of Clutter.

John Pawson will be heading for South Africa, but not before the big day. His preparations are sparse. Cards for close friends only. He buys his wife clothes and what he calls practical underwear. He likes to get socks. "Very functional," he says. The cards that he receives are not displayed. "We don't have a mantelpiece," he explains.

He doesn't decorate, though he is not against certain natural substances. Mistletoe, for instance, is beautiful, as long as there is "a huge bush of it" and not merely a twig. Frost and mist are also terrific. And white, of course. Not to mention snow. Holly is fantastic, as long as it isn't mixed with anything. "I just do not like mixed." He says this with such conviction that I can hear the full stop.

He says he doesn't want his Christmas to sound too art-directed. It doesn't really - just patented. In fact, he has highly romantic notions of carols and jolly meals and lots of good cheer. He grew up in Halifax, West Yorkshire, amid much tradition. But these are all experiences and come undecorated. "Christmas is not about things, is what I'm trying to say!" he finally says, exasperated.

I believe him, because Mr Pawson is a pretty obsessive man. In hotel rooms, for instance, he takes everything on display and hides it in drawers. When the maids put the stuff back, he re-hides it. And so on. At Christmas, all cards go into a cupboard. He has developed a special system for dealing with what he calls Things of Temporary Interest. This, as it turns out, includes Christmas. Basically, the system seems to involve putting things into cupboards.

In many ways, I say, Minimalists are like everyone else except that they have bigger cupboards. Mr Pawson shakes his head. "No. For me, personally, it is about having just what I need. Obviously it is a daily thing to have to chuck stuff out. Things just seem to appear that you don't need." Like Christmas stuff? "There really is nothing to store except the Christmas tree stand," he says. Surely that is not a major problem? "Well, you have to look at it for 12 months. One is almost tempted to buy one every year. Worth it, I think. You know bicycles are a big problem, too. They take up a huge amount of space wherever you put them. Where do you put them? In the bedroom? In the garden? It's a problem that hasn't been solved."

I think of this problem when I visit Doris Saatchi, who lives in a house in Mayfair that was designed by Mr Pawson, and whose front door also has no handle. Not because I run into a bicycle or anything but because, while I sit at the long and empty kitchen counter, I hear a phone ringing. Where is it? I look round and see very little. This is normal in a Minimalist house. The phone keeps on ringing. Ms Saatchi opens a cupboard. "Hello," she says. But of course! A problem solved.

Doris Saatchi is a Minimalist who believes in "letting it rip" in December. Christmas is for children and, though she has none herself, she buys lots of presents for the refugees housed by Westminster Council. On the day I visit her, her slab of a dining-room table is stacked with them. There are Walkie Talkies and Pretty Princess dress-up sets and Boggle games, and just about everything plastic that is sold in toy departments everywhere.

As we talk, she removes price tags and checks batteries. Most years, she holds a huge Christmas party for her friends and their children. She says the children love her house because there are no china figurines to break, or lamps to upset. I look at the wall, on which flashes an Angela Bulloch artwork involving four Belisha beacons. It is called Daylight Four. No china decorations, perhaps, but no shortage of BritArt either. There is a Damien Hirst in the front room.

Most years, there is also a huge Christmas tree - a 10-foot-tall one that she lops off to fit under her eight-and-a-half-foot ceiling. "It is totally glitzy, glamorous, with lots of baubles. Lots. It's one thing to live simply all year round - I wouldn't live any other way - but I think it is nice, once a year, to break out and let all your vulgar visual impulses out. Mine is hardly a designer tree. I gather that some people now actually get designers to do their tree, to theme their tree." She sounds incredulous. "I think that is really, well, just not for me."

So lots of children, lots of meals, lots of goodwill. She sends a few cards but gives no presents to friends or relatives. She has told her brothers that she is giving presents to the refugees in their names. Nor is she big on decorating. This year, that has been restricted to a twig with berries in the stone-clad atrium. She doesn't display her cards, and recycles them via the Post Office or gives them to schools. But she likes getting them. "I like to take trouble at Christmas. We shouldn't complain about the trouble of Christmas. It's easy for some people to simply sit behind their desk and write a big cheque and get somebody to go off and buy presents for this person or that. That is all very corporate. I think that is such a great pity. That is not about personal relationships."

This is a theme with Ms Saatchi, who is rich, of course. She does not like the way the media keep treating Christmas as a problem. She has no immediate family and misses this, I think. "It's only once a year, and I think you should be grateful that you have a family. You can't choose your family and you can your friends, but the truth is it's not the same. It's much better to have a family, even if they get on your nerves terribly." She strokes her beautiful blue Burmese cats. They look Minimalist, as does Ms Saatchi herself with her sleek, whitish hair and grey trousers and white shirt. She is a Minimalist, but this is a warm house.

Next stop is Deptford in south-east London. By now I know what to look for: a door with no handle. I find a black one and push. Voila! I walk into a Japanese-type garden with stone pebbles, reflecting pools and a silver frog. I see a house through a huge window. Where is the door? I give up and shout. A man runs down the stairs and opens the window, which is, in fact, a door.

Welcome to the home of Chris Mazeika and William Richards. They are 36 and are both dressed in black, by coincidence they say. They are jolly good fun and theatrical, though not very Christmassy. No cards, no presents, no anything really. Their house knows the pitter-patter of tiny reindeer only because Harvey Nichols used it for its Christmas photo-shoot, as did a Sunday newspaper last year. The latter left a rather stupendous Christmas tree ice sculpture in the pebble garden. It took a week and a half to melt. Chris says he would prefer a fake snow avalanche-type thing, but William says that would be "too done".

Last year, they spent the season in Sri Lanka. This year they are heading for Lithuania. Chris says his roots are there. Another big attraction seems to be potatoes. "I have a fantasy about a Christmas with everything made out of potatoes," says Chris. "Potato wine, potato soup, potato cake." He is really into this. It is, he says, going to be a really minimal potato Christmas.

They insist they are not anti-Christmas or anti-Maximalist either, and then become rather dramatic for no apparent reason.

William: "It's not like we think everything else stinks. I tell you, I would love to fire-bomb Changing Rooms, though."

Chris: "You really don't need to have this reaction, William."

William: "But I am having that reaction! It is all about effect."

Chris: "You can say that about a lot of things. Some Minimalism is about effect."

William: "It's formulaic."

Chris: "It is a form of abuse!"

I interrupt. Any Christmas decorations planned? William points to the only thing on the wall; it is blue, square and glittery. "That's a Christmas decoration from last year!" It is, in fact, a work of art by Martin McGinn, from Hale's Gallery in Deptford. They turn out to have quite a few Christmas ornaments - hidden in the cupboards. There is an entire choir of candles, shaped like choirboys, from the Forties. These were bought at Deptford market. Chris runs downstairs to retrieve a Jesus from the wardrobe. He is a sad affair, with no arms or legs, and draped in rosary. There is also a crib from the Salvation Army Care & Share shop on Deptford High Street.

They line all these things up on a glass shelf, but it is only about 10 minutes before Chris jumps up. "Too much. Can't stand it," he says, clearing away Jesus. "Yes, it is too much," agrees William. Soon there are no decorations left on the shelf that overlooked the white room that overlooks the pebble garden in deepest Deptford.

As I leave, I realise that I now know what you give a Minimalist for Christmas. Forget socks. Think door handles. But streamlined, of course. In fact, so streamlined that they may be invisible l

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