Pawson was born and brought up in Halifax, Yorkshire, the youngest of five children. Coming from a wealthy family, he was schooled at Eton. After a period in the family textile business Pawson left for Japan in his mid-twenties, moving to Tokyo during the final year of his stay, where he visited the studio of Japanese architect and designer Shiro Kuramata. On his return to England he enrolled at the Architecture Association in London, leaving to establish his own practice in 1981.
Pawson’s work focuses on ways of approaching fundamental problems of space, proportion, light and materials.
Whilst private houses have remained at the core of the work, projects have spanned a wide range of scales and building typologies, from the Sackler Crossing across the lake at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a flagship store for Calvin Klein and major commissions for Ian Schrager, to ballet sets, yacht interiors and a new Cistercian monastery in Bohemia. The practice is currently involved in the creation of a new permanent home for the Design Museum in London.
An exhibition of Pawson's work was held at the Design Museum in September 2010.