He says he’s a potter at his core, but Jonathan Adler has become an icon of American design, branching out from his clean-lined, pop-art pottery to create furniture, textiles and even fashion and tech accessories with his signature style.
Adler sat down with The Observer last week during his so-called “maiden voyage” to Charlotte with husband Simon Doonan, creative ambassador for Barneys New York. Adler was featured during the Mint Museum Auxiliary’s Fall EnrichMINT Forum, a kickoff event of the museum’s Room to Bloom Celebration Season.
We asked Adler about his love of fashion, the power of surrounding yourself with things that inspire, and what he hopes will be the legacy of his work. Answers have been edited for brevity.
Q: Your first pottery line was inspired by Chanel bags. How has fashion influenced your work?
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A: Fashion has always been a huge inspiration for me, which is not what a typical potter says. When I was in college, I was doing pottery that was inspired by fashion, bringing the idea of fashion culture into an improbable medium. I think a lot of potters typically make one thing and then make it for the rest of their lives, whereas fashion designers, each season they do something new, and it’s a much more creatively dynamic world. So I think I was inspired by the business model, the creative model and the content.
Q: You have a cheerful design aesthetic. Is that consistent with your personality? How should things we surround ourselves with or wear speak to our personalities? Do you feel they should reflect who we are, or who we want to be?
A: I call my design spirit “modern American glamour.” It’s modern for sure, in a sense that it is, I hope, new and feels like today. It should always be glamorous; everything you buy and surround yourself with should make yourself feel a little bit more glamorous than you think you are. In as much as (his style is) optimistic, I think that comes from its American-ness. I think of America as a country of optimism. I think I’m optimistic, and my work reflects it.
I think fashion and home design are both aspirational and transformative forces in one’s life. When I’m decorating for other people, I feel like my job is to be a psychiatrist, to understand who they are as people, but then channel their best selves in their decor and in fashion. It’s like a life-enhancing force. I pack myself into white jeans everyday and feel like I’m in Capri even if I’m just cleaning out my warehouse.
Q: Is that your fashion uniform?
A: The truth is, I only have in my closet Uniqlo white jeans. I have about 40 pairs of skinny white jeans. I wear them to weddings, funerals, black tie. It’s the only pant I have. It makes my life very easy. I’m a big believer in a uniform, especially for dudes.
Q: You have a saying: “If your heirs won’t fight over it, we won’t make it.” In this disposable society, what do you hope will be the legacy of your pieces?
A: I think about this issue all the time. It’s sort of the socially responsible thing to grapple with. I built a business of making stuff and putting stuff into the world. I put out a lot of stuff, but I kind of give birth to every piece, and I’m very rigorous about making design that is beautiful and beautifully crafted and not disposable.
I think the real source of that was my grandmother who had lots of great stuff in her house. She traveled and collected beautiful objects from all over the world, and when she died, my brother and sister and I fought over lots of things. I thought to myself, that’s really what I need to try to do. The things we were fighting over were the things that were unusual and eccentric, and you could tell really came from the mind and heart of a person. I think about that all the time in my work.
It’s been a very funny journey for me because I started out as a potter and making everything myself, and I think people have this idea that I have a company where things just happen, but in fact, everything in my collection is lovingly birthed, whether it’s in a pottery studio, where I make the models of things, but nothing is mass produced or disposable. The stuff has to be next-level.
Q: What gets your design juices flowing?
A: I have two very, very different sides to myself that conspire to make me the designer that I am. On the one hand, I’m a blithe spirit that walks into the studio and goes, ‘I’m going to make a brass finger, and it’s going to be 3 feet tall, and it’s going to change everything. It’s going to be the best thing ever.’ Simon (Doonan, Adler’s husband) says I’m like Ariana Grande, this idiotic blithe spirit, and then the other half of me is like a brooding Eastern European, like Franz Kafka, so he calls me Ariana Kafka. And I think those are the two things that are necessary to become a successful designer. Because you have to think of something really unexpected and take the leap of faith that it’s going to be great, and then you need to refine it and brood over it and make it as great as it could be.
Q: What colors and textures do you love for this fall? What is inspiring you right now?
A: In my home design, I’m doing lots of gold, gold and gold. It’s a bold gold-and-glam moment. I’m doing lots of brass, and I’m using a lot of Lucite in things, combining brass and Lucite. And some ’80s colors. I’m loving emerald-colored Lucite. And a little bit of fuchsia never hurts.