If ever there was a time for humour, this is it. As we gingerly emerge from COVID’s dark cocoon, we’re all looking for the light, and that suits the spirited master of modern American glam decor, Jonathan Adler, just fine. The irreverent 55-year-old pottery artist, product designer and interior decorator, who claims to be both a minimalist and a maximalist, has been hell-bent on imbuing personal spaces with happiness since he first launched his ceramic collection at New York’s legendary Barneys back in 1993. Now, with a healthy handful of his own shops and with more than 1,000 retailers carrying his assorted wares, Adler is riding high on the cultural zeitgeist, and living la dolce vita full-time on Shelter Island (situated off the eastern end of Long Island), with his husband, legendary window dresser, author and creative director, Simon Doonan.
“I have been immersing myself in nature during the pandemic and that’s been my spiritual salvation,” Adler shares. “Im a very lucky dude because as soon as the pandemic started, Simon and I moved out to our place in the country and we’re living by the sea, swimming, paddle-boarding and biking, and just immersing ourselves in nature. And that’s how I’ve dealt.” Selling the couple’s beloved Greenwich Village apartment, which had been described as an elaborate “grownup funhouse” couldn’t have been an easy decision, but the lure of country living, especially as the pandemic took hold, was irresistible, and judging by his Cheshire Cat grin, it was decision a the designer doesn’t regret. “It’s just a beautiful little super-low-key island near the Hamptons. And we’re right on the bay, and it’s like the Blue Lagoon,”
says Adler. “I grew up in a teensy-weensy farm town,” he says of his native New Jersey home, “that just happened to be in the middle of nowhere, in the country. It was no shoes, no rules, free range and no connection with the world. But not in a beautiful way. It was hardly ideal. It was just in the mid- dle of nowhere. So I’m quite comfortable in nature. I look back at my 35 years in New York City and I’m like, ‘I need that?’ Apparently not.” Adler, who first fell in love with pottery at summer camp when he was 12 years old, claims the inspiration these days has been coming fast and furious, and he credits nature for being his number one muse. “To be honest, nature is always the best muse. I think the best ideas come when one is im- mersed in an activity, which I think is the closest thing to a transcendental system there is out there, when one loses track of one’s conscious mind and just spaces out and stops thinking. To me, that’s as close to transcen- dentalism as there is, and that’s when ideas pop into my little, teensy-weensy brain. It’s the best scenario for creativity,” he opines.
A self-described extraordinarily restless person, it’s little wonder that Adler’s creativity knows no bounds and that his success with pottery, his first true love, proved to be a launching pad for myriad other artful adventures. “Everyone has a connection to pottery because it’s so primordial. It’s like mud and fire and water,” Adler reflects. “I felt a primordial connection to it, and I’ve made a life of it, so I’m the luckiest dude on Earth.” But what makes Adler especially lucky is that he saw possibilities beyond pottery and spread his tal- ented wings to produce other artful objects, from rugs, pillows and couches, to chairs, ice buckets, chandeliers and menorahs. “I’m always zipping around from place to place and from idea to idea and I think that I would not have been satisfied just staying in one lane,” he explains. “I’m easily distracted and it would have been inauthentic for me to just stay in one lane.”
How Adler’s style philosophy fuelled a design empire and an aesthetic that’s been embraced globally is fascinating and warrants consideration of the intel- lectual thought process behind each piece he designs. “In addition to loving to make things and being very physical, I’m also constantly trying to think about the meaning of things,” Adler explains. “I studied semiotics in college for whatever that’s worth, which is really about language and meaning. Even though I appear to be frothy and optimistic, I’m quite brooding and analytical, so I’m always thinking about what I’m doing, what my work means, what it’s all about, what’s the point, why am I doing it… So as I thought about the meaning of the things that I make, trying to go beyond just making them, I realized that what I’m saying with my work, what I’m communicating, is that design and life should be modern, new and fresh.” Adler insists that he’s constantly trying to push things forward and that’s because he’s an optimistic person; he celebrates the idea of glamour with his work. What is true glamour to him? “It’s about being memorable, having swagger and living a life of confidence,” he states. “So that’s kind of what I’m trying to say with my work: Modern American Glamour. That thread weaves its way in all the work that I do.”
Life is often a series of contradictions. And so it is with Adler, who relentlessly straddles both sides of the design coin with great aplomb. “I’m a minimalist when I am a product designer I’m always trying to strip it back and strip it back and strip it back to get to the very essence of what I’m trying to communicate. But I am a maximalist as a decorator because I like to surround myself with lots of great stuff,” he tells me. But aren’t we living at a time when the mindset of “less is more” has really come into play, especially since the pandemic? And with the subject of sustainability at the centre of one of the planet’s most compelling conversations, aren’t we constantly asking ourselves if we really need all this stuff? I asked Adler how he reconciles the dilemma. “I have a very simple motto that’s tailor-made for your question, which is the way I decide if something is going to make it into my collection,” he retorts. “I always say, ‘If your heirs won’t fight over it, we won’t make it.’ So, I think that one shouldn’t just make stuff that’s disposable. That’s always been at the centre of everything I’ve done — trying to make the things that you would never throw away, because after you kick the bucket, your heirs are going to want your stuff. When my inspiring Auntie Mame of a grandmother died, my brother and sister and I almost came to blows over the various tchotchkes that she had accumulated over her rich and glamorous life. And I want to make the stuff that is going to engender, despite some lawsuits, disputes between siblings in the future.”
Still, tastes do change, especially from generation to genera- tion. Can we be sure that our kids are really going to want our stuff? Adler is convinced that great design always has longevity. “Tastes may change, but I think objects that are singular and cre- ated with passion will continue to resonate, regardless of tastes and trends. That’s how I try to roll,” he explains. “It all sounds very high-minded and virtuous, and I don’t always succeed. But my beloved brother and sister and I reverted to the playground,” he laughs, recalling the fight over his grandmother’s tchotchkes. “So that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Beyond the passion Adler hopes to inspire in people, he’s also a firm believer in practicality and is not only intent on making life fun for everybody, but easy as well. “I guess one thing that I think the pandemic has done for everyone is that people have been spending a lot of time at home, and they weren’t just watching Tiger King and Squid Game. The world has gotten tiny, and people want their spaces to function really well,” he says. “I think people now, more than ever, have really been thinking long and hard about how to max out their space — how to make it work for themselves.” So, besides having authored several books on how to make your life easier and of course, happier, like My Prescription for Anti-Depressive Living or 100 Ways to Happy Chic Your Life, Adler has also come up with a “Three F” guide to what to keep in mind when perfecting your personal spaces. “The most important F is function. People are thinking about how their houses function now more than ever, and that’s obviously most important. Then form is the second, which is all about what style you want your house to be — deco, modern, traditional etc. And the final F is fun, which is the layer of personality and spirit that makes your space memorable,” says Adler. “My three Fs are in that order: function first, form second and then fun is a whisper at the end that can make your space really sing.”
But as fast as this designer dances in his professional life, he’s quick to remind me that his personal life is grounded by a won- derful relationship with his brilliant husband, who he married in 2008. “I met my Simon 27 years ago on a blind date. We knew of each other because I was selling my stuff at Barneys, and he was the creative director. But at the time, I was a struggling bohemi- an potter who was just trying to figure things out, and he was a little Miss Fancy Pants fashion person,” he recounts. “ I think he thought he was getting someone very bohemian and I thought I was getting someone quite bourgeois. Then, like in most things in life, we did a complete bait and switch, and it turns out he has the most bohemian spirit of anyone I’ve ever met and I could not be more bourgeois, so nothing’s as it seems. But what I will say about my Simon is that he is a genius, and a polymath, and truly creative and hilarious, and the sweetest person. And it’s unbearable,” he laughs. “My dad was a great, great, great guy and my mother always used to say, ‘There’s nothing worse than being married to the nicest, smartest guy on earth. It’s not easy.’ I think history must repeat itself. If Simon ever does anything where I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s not perfect!’ then I just reread one of his books and I’m just like, ‘Oh, he is! I hate him.’”
Meanwhile, life on Shelter Island is super sweet for Adler, who’s come to one especially poignant realization: “You need to go to the big city and you need to find yourself, as well as fame and fortune. And then you need to get the hell out.” And while that may not speak to everybody’s life journey, it certainly makes sense for this prolific potter — as long, of course, as he keeps being his fabulously creative and driven self. “I’m always doing eight billion things, designing new products and making furniture and pots and designing spaces,” says Adler. “I’m just trying to be my peripatetic self and stay relevant for as long as I can.”