The book In Patagonia hit shelves in 1977 and instantly changed Bruce Chatwin’s life. The late British author’s exhilarating tale of exploring the southern tip of South America revolutionized the travel-writing genre. It also propelled him from a mere magazine writer to a world-famous scribe. Not long after his post-Patagonia fame, Chatwin decided to keep an apartment in London. After a fruitless search by bike, he found a listing in the newspaper that met all five of his requirements. “It must be sunny, quiet, anonymous, cheap, and most essentially, within walking distance of the London Library,” he would later write in an essay dedicated to the space.
For a newly famous travel writer, Chatwin was quite particular about interiors and architecture. The interest was always there, though. (His sharp eye made him such a vivid storyteller, too.) Earlier in his career, he was hired as an adviser on art and architecture for The Sunday Times Magazine. During an interview with renowned architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray, his aspirations to travel to Patagonia bloomed into reality. (As legend has it, after that assignment, he left and sent his editor a telegram: “Gone to Patagonia for four months.”)
When he showed up to see that apartment listed in the paper, he was horrified. There was terrible beige carpet made worse by coffee stains, a double-wide bed stored away in an eyesore of a cupboard, and the bathroom was covered in a shade of green so vile that it might induce nausea. Yet the ceilings were high, and the apartment faced south—the light was indeed incredible. Chatwin had an idea, though. So, he made an offer, and the place was his.
Months ago, he visited a friend's apartment, Hester Van Royen, and was enamored with the airy and serene space. It had been recently redone, she told him. Her neighbor (and future husband) was the one who did it, knocking down the walls. His name was John Pawson. Chatwin was immediately drawn to the space. So, the writer got in touch, and the two men got to work.
"Bruce was quite specific," Pawson once said. "It was to be spacious and minimally appointed. He wanted somewhere light and airy that he could lock up and leave." They would create hidden bookshelves in the corridor, remove the tub from the bathroom, and build a minuscule bedroom in its place. Pawson handled the remodel while Chatwin was on a trip to Africa—his client was delighted with what he saw upon his return. He bought a gray sofa produced by the Jacob-Desmalter company, a family-run French manufacturer known for geometric shapes and clean lines. He added a folding table and a tubular chair to write on; then, eventually, a birchwood table and stool, designed by Alvar Aalto.
Chatwin died at age 48 in 1989. Pawson is now in his 70s and is considered one of the most influential British architectural designers of his generation. The space they designed together was immortalized in a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Chatwin wrote sentences just as he arranged his home. Each detail is striking and set just to his liking; the sum of each point feels more evocatively vivid than it should. Every object had a deeper meaning behind it, and each piece of furniture was deliberately chosen. Looking at the apartment now, you see a type of minimalism that feels different—far homier to my eye—than the one of today. As Chatwin himself would say: It still looks like a place to hang your hat.