“Our customers in Asia are much bolder and more daring than in the US,” says Jonathan Adler. “Americans tend to play it safe, but my Asian consumers tend to go for more over-the-top styles.” Chris Hanrahan reports on a New Jersey-born interior designer who specialises in “modern American glamour.”
Jonathan Adler began his career as a potter. He had been obsessed with the craft since he was a boy. Born in a farm town in New Jersey in 1966, he tried throwing a pot for the first time at summer camp in 1978, while wearing a Rush concert tee-shirt. That was it: he was hooked.
As his website confesses, from 1980 to 1984, Adler spent his “entire adolescence” in the basement of his family’s modern house throwing pots. Between 1984 and 1988, he “allegedly” studied Semiotics and Art History at Brown University, a private Ivy League research university in Providence, Rhode Island. But he “actually (spent) all his time at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) making pots”.
“My parents were incredibly creative,” Adler has told The Telegraph. “My dad was a lawyer who spent every second of his life painting and sculpting; he had a great sense of design and was quite chic and minimalist. My mother was quite interested in fashion and wrote for Vogue and she had a much more ebullient, colourful sense of style. My sensibility is a direct link to my parents.”
In 1989, Adler created a “quilted line of pottery inspired by Chanel”. That was when an “evil professor” advised him to follow in his father’s footsteps and try a career in law. But Adler had no interest in becoming a lawyer. The following year, he moved to New York and started working in the movie business.
He couldn’t overcome his addiction to pot throwing, however. So Adler soon quit his day job to pursue his first love. His big break came in 1993, when Barneys New York luxury department stores bought his collection of pots. Five years later, he opened his first store in Soho.
Adler’s desire to design “all the bits” one needs to create a flawlessly chic home led to more and more. Today, Jonathan Adler is a design company with stores in the US and UK, an attractive e-commerce site and a wholesale business boasting over 1,500 locations globally, including Klots in Kemang.
In September 2008, Adler married his partner, Simon Doonan, in California. Doonan and Adler live in an apartment in Greenwich Village and have a weekend retreat on Shelter Island, a town and island at the eastern end of Long Island in New York State. Of the former, Adler once told Elle Décor: “It’s a dreamland of what I think an apartment in New York should be: fascinating, wonderful, and eccentric.”
Of the latter, he tells Prestige: “I was lucky enough to be able to build my dream home on the water in Shelter Island. It is my favorite place to be in the entire world. It’s bohemian meets luxe-hippie, a persona that both my husband and I aspire to.”
Of his company, Adler says: “Pottery continues to be core of our business and our commitment to impeccable craftsmanship and luxury is reflected in all we do. Our offerings span furniture, lighting, home accessories, decorative objects, tabletop collections, bedding, bath accessories, candles, rugs, pillows and more. We are dedicated to bringing modern American glamour to your life.”
Jonathan Adler’s design work can be found in top restaurants, hotels and homes around the world. “We strive to create luxe and livable interiors that are seriously designed, but don’t take themselves too seriously,” the designer asserts.
“Perhaps what sets Adler’s work apart is his exuberant personality and eclectic, refined taste, or perhaps it’s the designer’s ability to craft scenic atmospheres akin to modern film sets – filled with unique, one-of-a-kind art pieces,” Elle Décor has said.
According to his Wikipedia page, “Adler has handled the interior design work of several commercial and residential projects. In 2004, he designed the Parker Palm Springs Hotel… in California. In 2016, he redesigned the hotel, extensively redoing the property including installing a 7-foot-tall bronze banana on the main lawn. Other projects include 225 Rector Place, Abington House (on the High Line), multiple… apartment designs, and a 2015 overhaul of the rooms, hallways and outdoor areas at Eau Palm Beach.” Elle Décor reported that Adler has created “a series of top-secret residences for VIP celebrities”. Over the course of his career, Adler has appeared on television programmes like “Good Morning America” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show”.
The Jonathan Adler company “manifesto” is at times hilarious. Some examples: your home should make you happy; when it comes to decorating, the wife is always right – unless the husband is gay; minimalism is a bummer; we believe in irreverent luxury; subversive is superior; we believe celebrities should pay full price.
Writing about a visit to the company, House Beautiful has said: “When you step into the Jonathan Adler HQ, which he calls the Fantasy Factory, it’s like stepping into Jonathan’s catalogue. It’s glamorous, with bright prints and sleek furniture throughout the lobby. Go a bit deeper into the space, past all of his employees working… you’ll find his pottery studio. The floors are worn, the tabletops covered in dust, and unfinished pots are scattered around. This, Jonathan says, is where the fun happens. In this tiny corner studio, ceramics are created that turn the fantasy factory into The Fantasy Factory.”
Adler used to spend 12 hours a day in the studio. “I would get there with my roller skates (it was the 90’s) and work on my vases the whole day while listening to music,” he told Elle Decor. “Then I’d return home exhausted. Later, I found a workshop of incredibly talented artisans in Peru that would end up creating the pieces in my place. Renouncing that part of my work gave me more time to add new products to the line and it also allowed me to move on to design furniture, lights, pillows and entire spaces.”
The designer’s muses include the late David Hicks (1929-98), an English interior decorator and designer noted for using bold colours, mixing antique and modern furnishings and contemporary art for his famous clientele; and Alexander Girard (1907-93), who was an American architect, interior designer, furniture designer, industrial designer and textile designer. Of the latter, Adler tells Prestige: “He was prolific, original, chic and playful.”
Other influences mentioned by Adler: Bonnie Cashin (1908-2000), a pioneering designer of practical, uncomplicated sportswear and clothing for the independent American woman of the post-war era; Hans Coper (1920-81), an influential German-born British studio potter; and Gio Ponti (1891-1979), an Italian architect, industrial designer and furniture designer. Adler also admires the work of Andy Warhol, Leroy Neiman, Yves Saint Laurent and Madonna.
“I am like a sponge for design and culture,” Adler told The Telegraph. “When I studied in London in 1987, I spent my entire time at the V&A, so I do have an extremely broad frame of reference. I’ve switched into squillions of different categories and design idioms but everything looks like moi and it’s always been about modern American glamour; modern in the sense that it’s new, there is an innately American optimism and I’ve tried to keep it always glamorous.”
Adler is delighted to have found new clients in Asia. He says they have encouraged him to become even more audacious in his approach: “Our customers in Asia are much bolder and daring than in the US. American consumers tend to play it safe, but my Asian consumers tend to go for more over-the-top styles.”
Finally, we ask Adler what he thinks is the secret to great interior style. “Fearlessness,” he replies. “Don’t worry about any so-called rules. We live in an ‘anything goes world, and if you love it, it will work. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”