After starting out as a humble potter, Jonathan Adler has grown to become a well- established design force, with his signature witty and colorful touch evident in everything from vases and pillows to furnishings, accessories, homes, and hotels. Yet he still has his hands in the mud. Here he tells of his amazing rise; why, despite his love for design history, he has always considered himself a design outsider; how he was influenced by fashion; why Madonna remains his muse; and the challenges he faces in bringing wit and charm to interiors and product design.

Jonathan Adler
Jonathan Adler. Photo: Todd Tankersley

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Michael Boodro  0:00  

This is The Chairish Podcast and I’m your host Michael Boodro. Jonathan Adler is a phenomenon. His passion for pottery began at summer camp when he was 12. And even when he was studying art history at Brown, he couldn’t stay out of the pottery studio at nearby Rhode Island School of Design. He sold his first collection of vases and vessels to Barneys New York and shortly thereafter, in 1993, he founded his firm that now produces furniture, accessories, rugs, and pillows, as well as lighting, and of course, more vases and vessels. Everything he makes is imbued with his wit, his love of color, his passion for fashion and popular culture, and his belief that beauty and joy are connected. His collections are now sold at 10 of his own stores in the US and one in London, and more than 1,000 retailers across the country, as well as on Chairish. And as if that were not enough, he has become a highly successful interior designer, a star on reality TV, and is the author of four books celebrating his happy, chic aesthetic. I’m so pleased he’s here today to talk about his vision, his amazing saga, and what he sees ahead. Welcome, Jonathan.

Jonathan Adler  1:32  

Thank you so much. It’s great to be here. It’s lovely to see you, albeit virtually.

Michael Boodro  1:36  

I know! Because you’re in Palm Beach, your beloved Palm Beach, I understand.

Jonathan Adler  1:40  

I am. Every morning I wake up and I’m like, wait, I own palm trees?! This is crazy.

Michael Boodro  1:48  

One of the things I found so interesting when I was reading up on your bio, which I didn’t know – I mean, I knew, obviously a certain amount about you, Jonathan, but the fact that your father who was a lawyer who also made pottery, was so interesting.

Jonathan Adler  2:07  

Yeah, my dad, unfortunately my late dad, as he died about 20, almost 25 years ago. But he was a really interesting guy. He was very intellectual. He was sort of part of this cohort of people who went to the University of Chicago in the mid century. And he went when he was 16. And it was all like Susan Sontag. And then he was a brilliant artist and illustrator. And he went to law school. And then my mom had been working at Vogue in New York and had gone to Wellesley. They were sort of part of this very kind of groovy mid century world. They got married, and my dad was like, all right, now we’re heading back to my tiny farm town hometown, and welcome to Green Acres. Then my dad who was sort of a successful lawyer, and you know, provided a nice upper middle class lifestyle, spent all of the time he wasn’t working, making art. And as much as I would like to believe I’m a completely self created souI generous being, I’m really very much a product of my parents. There’s a direct line.

Michael Boodro  3:13  

Yeah, it’s in your blood. 

Jonathan Adler  3:15  

It’s in my blood.

Michael Boodro  3:16  

Yeah, that’s great. But one thing that was interesting to me is at the time when you started making and selling your pottery, ceramics and pottery at that time was kind of a rarefied world, shall we say? And I imagine it was somewhat of a snooty world. I mean, everything had to be you know, in America, it was an art thing. You know, there was art, pottery and all of that. And you came along and I think you blew all of that up. So how did you think about your early work when you were making it? Was it just, this is what I want to do or was it sort of a conscious load of rebellion against some of the shall we say, pretension of the arts and crafts world?

Jonathan Adler  3:55  

Well, it is a codified world and I’m sure people who are listening are not familiar with the ins and outs of the ceramic world. The ceramic world you see before you today, which is a world in which it’s quite celebrated actually in art circles. 

Michael Boodro  4:13  

I think ceramics are really having a moment again, yeah.

Jonathan Adler  4:16  

They’re having a moment. So it’s sort of two things that make ceramics prominent today. It’s like the art ceramics are having a moment and the maker movement ceramics, like the Williamsburg ceramics are also having a moment, none of which has any relevance to what I was doing. I started 30 years ago, and I sort of, in a funny way, even though people would never think of me as like a Brooklyn dude, I would like to think that I had a small part in kind of making Brooklyn possible. Because I kind of became this production potter making everything myself in a truly artisanal way almost 30 years ago, when nobody was doing that. And at the time, yes, ceramics were still bifurcated, I’ll be less relevant. There was a rarefied world of art ceramics, which was an incredibly insular world and had no relevance to the art world at large. And then there were sort of crafty potters making production stuff, none of whom were in any way relevant, or particularly successful, actually. So I guess the point is, when I went in, I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was a very, very low stakes world. It was absolutely irrelevant. And I didn’t really have a plan at all other than to make groovy shit.

Michael Boodro  5:39  

And what I loved about your work, right from the beginning, was how witty it was and how much humor you got into. You know, a simple vase, which is not easy. Pottery is not considered a medium for comedy, per se. But you had charm and wit and you know, your breast vases and all of that. Was that something that you just wanted to express, and you’re going to do it no matter how?

Jonathan Adler  6:04  

It’s a really great question. And it’s something that I think about and grapple with a lot. I hope that my work feels very, very light and lively, which is not in any way shape, or form who I am as a person. I’m quite the opposite, actually. But I suppose there are elements of me that are, you know, a little bit glib, and I hope witty. The idea of infusing content, and wit into design is something I think about a lot. It’s a very, very challenging space to occupy. Because you don’t want anything to be wacky, you know. It doesn’t want to be like Mrs. Roper’s outfits from Three’s Company. You want it to have a base of unimpeachable chicness, and just a little whisper of wit or content. And so that’s a balance that I think about a lot and it’s hard to strike. As for why that became part of me, I guess it’s because I am culturally voracious. I’m an innately postmodern person, in all of its different aesthetic meanings, meaning like, I came up in an era in which sampling and quotation and postmodern architecture were all the rage. That famous love and rocket song, No New Tale to Tell, which was sort of about, at least in my mind, it was about the fact that it all has been done before. And for some people, I guess that’s a sort of creatively crippling idea. For me, I found it to be an extraordinarily creatively liberating idea. The idea that it all has been done before and it was just up to me to sort of play with history, and all of the past was mine to play with and in the low stakes world, like pottery, I could do whatever I want. It didn’t matter. You’d have nothing to lose, and not much to gain.

Michael Boodro  7:59  

At the beginning I am sure it wasn’t easy! 

Jonathan Adler  8:01  

I was a broke unemployed 27 year old who was sort of eking out a meager living teaching night classes at a pottery studio in Hell’s Kitchen, sort of asking my parents for help, and then I got an order and, and I thought, alright, cool, I’ll make pots. But I will be living a life of penury. And at the time, I thought, that’s fine. I’ll surrender to penury if I at least get to express myself. Cut to, who owns palm trees? This guy!

Michael Boodro  8:37  

That’s what I’m saying. It’s quite a turnaround. And it’s really exciting. Because, you know, I do think in terms of design, per se, and decorating, charm and wit are undervalued in our society, I think. And it’s something that you have brought to the forefront, but I think still there’s this sense that that’s not so important to one’s life, but I think it really is. And, you know, I’ve been so impressed by your success and so heartened by it.

Jonathan Adler  9:05  

Oh, heart emoji. I really, really do appreciate you saying that and I feel seen finally.

Michael Boodro  9:13  

You have been seen by a lot of people.

Jonathan Adler  9:17  

It’s funny. The idea of charm is something that my husband Simon Doonan, and I have actually been talking about a lot. He wrote a great series of articles probably about 10 years ago for Slate Magazine called Charm Offensive, about the idea of charm. And it’s an under-considered and really significant part of life. To me the idea of charm is about a lightness of touch. It’s about being self deprecating, and not taking yourself too seriously. And I do think no tea, no shade to our beloved world of decorating. But I think it’s often a charmless space, a space in which people try to be overly serious and overly grown up. Like I look at a lot of interiors and sometimes I think, wait, were you ever even a child? Like, I think a lot of people in and I don’t mean to throw shade at my beloved design world because of course, I am very supportive of everyone’s aesthetic journey. I would just exhort people to remember a sense of charm, lightness of touch, and a little bit of humor. I think that is missing and it’s something that I try to infuse. 

Michael Boodro  10:31  

I want to talk a little about your inspirations. Because obviously, like you were saying, you grew up in a sort of a hip artsy mid century family. And then when you were starting out, like, you know, postmodernism was big, that sort of Philip Johnson kind of thing. Memphis. Were those things that you were aware of that you’ve responded to? Or?

Jonathan Adler  10:53  

Yeah. I was obsessed with the history of design. I’ve always been a very connoisseurial person. And I think that’s an incredibly important part of being a designer, or an artist, or whatever.I feel like you should really know in great detail all the source material, so that if you’re breaking rules, you know what the rules are. If you’re referring to something, you know what you’re referring to. And I think that one should be incredibly informed and analytical about how to explain what you’re doing. And yeah, so in terms of inspiration and design, the movements you just spoke about postmodernism and Memphis, they were all very meaningful to me. But I think one of the things that I didn’t really know much about when I started my journey, was the more fluffy side of decorating and design. Meaning when I was in school studying art history at university and then studying pottery at RISD after college, the reference points were very highfalutin. Like in making pottery, the only world that was encouraged at RISD was a sort of fine art ceramics world. The idea of decorating was completely alien to me. I barely even knew decorators existed, and it would have been completely looked down upon. And I think, when I was starting off as a potter, in my mid 20s, I was going through this incredibly intense love affair with the world of decorating and design that I had never been exposed to. I was incredibly, kind of surreal, and well informed about the art and design world in an extremely academic way. But I wasn’t really familiar with David Hicks, or Billy Baldwin, or any of those people. And so, it was this moment in my life, when suddenly I would go to The Strand every day, the beloved New York used bookstore, and buy cheap decorating books from the mid century, from David Hicks and from all these different people. And it was sort of like this incredible moment of surprise and wonder at this magical world of fun and style and decorating. It was the idea of infusing style into art and was something that in my fancy world wasn’t really present. So I know, that’s a strange question. It was a journey of discovery for me about decorating.

Michael Boodro  13:35  

Right. And it’s so interesting that you learned about it from going to The Strand. And you know, like, I always say, I learned about decorating from reading the magazines. You know, it wasn’t something that was taught. You know, I studied art history as well but you did it from a very connoisseur curatorial timeline sort of way. But the fact that people in Europe were living these glamorous lives day to day or even in, you know, a lot in America as well, it was like not what I grew up with. And it just felt so appealing to me. And I could see how, as a struggling pottery person that became so inspiring to you. 

Jonathan Adler  14:14  

It really was because pottery, in particular, was a world in which those references were nowhere to be seen. Young people probably wouldn’t even know what the hell we’re talking about. But like, when I graduated from Brown, the idea of going into decorating or design or fashion was like, what, that’s not a thing. It never would have even crossed my mind. I didn’t know it existed. And so in a strange way, even though I’m incredibly, I am connoisseurial. And to some degree, I would say I’ve become a cultural Insider. I really started out as naive. I was very much an outsider, with no access to any of these worlds. And though of course I had, you know, again a highfalutin educational background, I was an outsider.

Michael Boodro  15:05  

Right. Now, I’d love it if you talk a little bit about how you went from selling your first collection to Barney’s to becoming who you are. Capsule sort of sense of the narrative here.

Jonathan Adler  15:17  

It has been an odyssey. An extraordinarily unexpected and very bumpy odyssey. I’ll try to make it quick. When I first got my first order from Barney’s, I told you I was naive. I didn’t even know anything about business. I was a true moron. I didn’t know to include an invoice in my order. But eventually, I figured it out. I realized early on that the cheapest resource I had was me and my blood, sweat and tears. Ironically, I taught night classes at a pottery studio called Mud, Sweat and Tears. Just because potters love puns, sorry. Shout out to Mud, Sweat and Tears. Thank you. It was a very, very long and tortured odyssey. The one thing I’ll say that I think is kind of interesting was that I was very inspired by the idea of fashion. Again, I was not an insider in the fashion world. But I recognize that fashion designers are always coming up with new collections every season. They were always like this, especially during the time of post modernism in the Todd Oldham’s and Isaac Mizrahi’s, they would say, this season, it’s about blah blah blah this season. And that creative paradigm was completely different from anything I had seen in the craft or art world, for that matter, in which in the craft or art world, you’re really supposed to come up with a style and then just like, keep doing the most minute little tweaks here and there to make sure that your look is identifiable. And I saw that as an incredibly creatively stultifying approach to creativity. And so when I elected to enter the low stakes world, assuming I was entering a world of penury, I was like, well, at the very least, I should be creatively fulfilled. And so yeah, that was a very important idea to me. The idea of constant reinvention. Shout out to Madonna, and my forever muse. 

Michael Boodro  17:34  

Because it was not about getting a Jonathan Adler look, and then slight tweaks of it, the whole thing. You know, I mean, a lot of artists think they have to be sort of timeless or above trends, and they’re not susceptible, and they have this personal vision that they’re going to pursue at any cost. 

Jonathan Adler  17:51  

Yeah, well, I think people who said disco sucks missed out on the party. I think you should engage with whatever’s happening in culture. And that’s kind of part of life. As I’ve said many times on this podcast already, knowing the art world as I did, and knowing the ceramic art world, I always saw that becoming a fine artist, I think can be very creatively constipating. Because the way to create value in art is through scarcity of output. You really can’t be too prolific and you can’t have too wide bandwidth in your art, or else it won’t have any value. And while I understand that can be lucrative, and it can make you memorable and noteworthy, having a very clear style from which you’ve sort of vary very slightly, I thought that that would be very creatively stultifying to me. So I wanted to create a world in which whatever I was interested in, I could try to engage with and I think, even though a lot of my work has – Like, I work in myriad idioms and styles and vibes, I hope that in retrospect, one can look at the sort of breadth of my work, and at least see some through lines that make it me, even if it’s not immediately visually apparent. 

Michael Boodro  19:23  

I think that’s true. I mean, I can look at a pillow. And I say, oh, that looks and maybe it’s not you. It could be somebody ripping you off, because now you are being ripped off on occasion. But you know, I would look and say that’s very Jonathan Adler. There’s a sensibility, I think. I’d love for you to talk about when you first moved beyond pottery and started making furniture and other accessories. Was that inspired by somebody asking you to help them design their apartment or something? How did you go from the pottery per se into your larger aesthetic?

Jonathan Adler  20:26  

Well, the first thing is that I realized I was going to be broke. And there were few opportunities. So I thought to myself, any opportunity that comes along, I should just say yes to. So I’m a true yes man. 

Michael Boodro  20:45  

Philosophy of life.

Jonathan Adler  20:46  

Yeah, philosophy of life, may it extend to the bedroom, perhaps. It is a good question. How does one go from being a production potter? The answer is slowly and it wasn’t an overnight or easy situation, which I think is very important for young people to realize. These days things seem so easy and instantaneous. And typically, they ain’t. My journey certainly was not instantaneous. I was a full time production potter for about five years. I didn’t take a day off. I worked like a million hours a week. I would rollerblade to my pottery studio, get there at 7 am and leave at 11 pm after hearing All Things Considered on NPR about 10 times that day. And that went on for years. And finally, I was whining to my poor husband who would have to, when I got home, he would have to just rub moisturizer into my hands. Because they were so dried up from all the clay. I was like, never gonna do anything. He’s like, you have got to find some help. You have to find somebody to help you make your pottery. And I found a great workshop in Peru through a series of happy accidents. And I was sort of like Jesus, take the wheel. And I went there for a couple of months and sort of transferred my production, thereby freeing up tons of time. And I thought, alright, finally, Jesus has taken the wheel now. Now I can think about what my next step is, rather than just thinking about, you know, making the mugs for the Saks Fifth Avenue order.

Michael Boodro  22:26  

Scaling up is always hard.

Jonathan Adler  22:29  

Now the idea is to come up with a business plan and know what everything’s gonna be and blah blah, and I’m happy to say that was not at all my journey. And I think there’s something to be said for pushing things to their breaking point before taking the next step and scaling up. Like I don’t believe in being overly prepared, you know. I think you should develop a need, an organic need for growth, rather than be overly prepared for growth.

Michael Boodro  23:02  

And you need to be open to serendipity, I think.

Jonathan Adler  23:05  

Serendipity and saying yes to everything. So serendipitously, I found this pottery studio. And then I found that I had free time. And I remember very clearly talking to my husband and being like, I have all this free time. He’s like, cool, what are you gonna do with it? I was like, I don’t know, I gotta come up with more stuff to do. And he’s like, well, beyond what your pottery looks like, what are you trying to say, with your pottery? And I thought that was a profound question. And I said, you know, I believe that design should be unimpeachably chic. I sort of came up with all the different things that I believe in and I even wrote a manifesto. We were having dinner at this restaurant in Long Island and like, between salad and the main course, I wrote a manifesto that, dare I say so, was quite legendary. It was a moment. And it was a serendipitous and spontaneous thing and so I had the workshop in Peru and I thought alright, if my work is going to be about being unimpeachably chic, about craft mixed with style, that ethos can translate into other materials. So I designed a line of pillows, I found some great weavers in Peru, and then, you know, I had pillows and I thought, well, I need a chair to put a pillow on. You know, why not make a lamp if I make a lamp, I need a table. So it was very slow and organic. And then one other huge break was when a friend of mine had bought a really glamorous mid century iconic house on Shelter Island, and she asked me to decorate it. And I was like, okay, and I figured it out. And that kind of opened me up to the world of being an inferior desecrator. By the way, I did this TV show with our beloved friend Margaret Russell. And shout out to Russell. And I used to kick people off on the show and my tagline was See you later decorator. And I remember, a very fancy decorator whose name I won’t mention, threw a hissy fit at me and said, how dare you say decorator? We are not decorators. We are interior designers. And I was like, alright, slow your roll, but like, oh, no, I don’t really care what you call me. Right?

Michael Boodro  25:23  

But there was that moment where people were very concerned about, I think not being taken seriously. Or, you know, them not being considered a housewife who, you know, goes to the DND and picks out some fabrics or whatever. And, you know, but that’s all about insecurity.

Jonathan Adler  25:40  

I’ve never understood the impulse to create a fancy name for yourself, you know. I’m perfectly fine to be called a potter or a decorator or desecrator or whatever. There’s that famous Nancy Mitford, I think wrote the article U and Non-U, which anyone who hasn’t read it should. Or should at least familiarize themselves with it. But she sort of asserted that if you’re going to use a euphemism, always go down instead of up, you know. Don’t call yourself a visual merchandiser. Call yourself a window dresser. Don’t call yourself an interior designer, call yourself a decorator. You should know what you are inside and not worry about people recognizing you as such, because it’s, in my opinion, unnecessary and kind of a self chart. It’s charming to be self deprecating.

Michael Boodro  26:32  

Right, exactly. And again, back to the importance of charm. So to get back to the narrative here, you decorated your friend’s house, which as you know, I mean, I’m not a designer myself, I know how complicated it is. So was this a shock to you to realize, oh, my God, I not only have to design all this stuff, but I have to have it made and I have to have it shipped and I have to make sure that you know, the house functions. Was that difficult for you? Or something that was innate?

Jonathan Adler  26:57  

I think that my years of experience as a potter were invaluable because they opened my mind to the importance of logistics and the importance of thinking everything through and having an existing kind of a fugue state, in which you’re constantly thinking if this then that, if this then that.

Michael Boodro  27:18  

So you were running a business as well as creating pottery, right?

Jonathan Adler  27:22  

I was running a business. I was making pottery and  I didn’t sleep for about five years of my life because I was like, alright, is that porches and bungalows ready? And if so did I make all the you know. There’s that teapot and there was a lid that broke, I need to make it. Like, I was just going through every eventuality in my mind. I think that prepared me very well for the world of decorating. Because it is very logistical. You know, everything is very logistical. I think I come from a family of intellectuals, none of whom have a single intellectual bone and single logistical bone in their body. They’re all extremely disconnected from the physical world. And being a potter, being a dude with mud, air, fire and water has made me very primitive and very, very physical. And I think that that’s really important because it exposes just the idea of logistics, the idea of physical eventualities and the idea of what if this, then that. And, oddly, for some, that’s a very important skill and approach to life if one is going to be a decorator. Because there’s a lot of if this then that. If pink, then what? You know, how’s it going to look with the rug? Like it’s everything from, will the fabric come in time to, if you do this color or scale, how will it impact the other elements in the room with which it’s in dialogue?

Michael Boodro  28:51  

Right, you have to respond. You have to be responsive and flexible.

Jonathan Adler  28:55  

Responsive, flexible, but also really think about the ramifications of each and every decision you make.

Michael Boodro  29:02  

So I know you keep doing it and you’ve done hotels and more, is interior design something that you like to do? Because it’s more complicated than if you’re in your studio, designing an object. It’s a lot more interaction with other people and factors as we were just saying.

Jonathan Adler  29:23  

I’m very ambivalent about it. If I’m being honest, like, I think it’s really important. I think it’s very, very important for my business when I do a great job and I get to design a great space. I absolutely love it. I however am not necessarily super great at working with other people.

Michael Boodro  29:47  

I love to admit that.

Jonathan Adler  29:48  

Oh my God, beyond. You know again, in as much as people might know who I am, presumably people listening to this know who I am, and would assume that I am very connected and insidery, I’m really not. I’m an incredibly insular, incredibly, incredibly insular person. And my design journey is very, very insular. I’m not at fancy decorator parties ever. My posse is my old school posse. Like I never really entered the world of fancy decorators, which is very much a social world. And again, no tea, no shade towards it. Like I love you know, I know a ton of decorators and people in the world and I think they’re all fantastic and love them. But it’s just not my world. So that’s not really my world. I’m not so great at working the crowd. I’m very, very insular. And when groovy decorating projects come up, and people really want me to do them, and I think they’re going to be very creative, I of course, do it. And it’s been fantastic. And I love it. It’s just got to be a good fit.

Michael Boodro  30:54  

The right fit.

Jonathan Adler  30:55  

It’s a tough business.

Michael Boodro  30:58  

Right. Oh, yeah. I’d love to talk to you about your shops, like when you opened your first shop, how did that influence you – because I presume that when you opened your first store, you started interacting more with your customers?

Jonathan Adler  31:12  

Yes, I did very much. And opening a shop was a very improbable journey for me. As I said, I kind of came from intellectual stock. Nobody was a merchant or nobody had any business sense. And my parents were also very risk averse. So at first I said, you know, I think I want to open a shop. And they were like, don’t and I was like, God, I shall. Whoo, that’s me, rebel. And having a shop was one of the most incredibly mind expanding, and work expanding things ever, for so many different ways. I just learned so much. It gave me just a space to continue to refine and hone my message. And also, this was I guess, I opened my first shop, and probably, whenever I did. Late 90s, like 1999 or 2000. And, you know, it wasn’t a technology period. And I remember being in my shop, working behind the counter, which I would do a lot. And it was early cell phones. And I heard some chick on herself having a conversation while perusing my friend saying, yeah, I’ll be home at seven and let’s get brussel sprouts. I’ll go pick up the dog. Where are you? I’m just at Jonathan Adler right now. And I was like, she’s at what? She’s at where? I’m a place, I’m a thing? And, yeah, so a retail shop was an incredibly important moment in making me a thing. You know, at the time, I couldn’t have a website, but suddenly, if I could have a shop, suddenly, it was like, I’m at Jonathan Adler. And I was like, Yeah, you’re at Jonathan Adler. Boom.

Michael Boodro  33:01  

Yeah. Cool. But of course, now, brick and mortar stores are being challenged, obviously, by the Internet. So do you still find that it’s important that you have them?

Jonathan Adler  33:15  

I don’t know what you’re talking about, brick and mortar stores being challenged. I’ve never heard of such a notion. It’s a great question. And as a seasoned aka old business woman, I can tell you that the business paradigms are constantly shifting, and there’s always pendulum swings. And one minute will be like, retail, retail retail. The next one would be like, get rid of your brick and mortar. So I’ve seen all of them. I’ve seen all these shifts during my years. And I think my ultimate conclusion for now is that one should be kind in every space, but very, very judiciously, you know. Do everything really well. But be careful. You know, at one point, I over expanded my retail footprint because I was responding to the paradigm and I very carefully and industriously sort of pared back my footprint to just the best stores. And that was a great move. I’m sorry, I had expanded as much as I did. But now I think we have a very good and very sustainable footprint of retail stores, which to some degree function as marketing for online sales. And I think it’s a world in which one has to be available to people wherever and whenever you can grab them.

Michael Boodro  34:42  

Right. Well, it’s interesting that so many Internet brands are opening stores because I think for exactly what you’re saying, I think it’s great marketing for Internet sales and it allows people to see your vision. And I think that they understand it better if they can see it in it. In New York, at least, you’re starting to see more home stores, which I find very encouraging. But I wanted to ask you about what you see ahead, because of your aesthetic and you know, partly because you and Simon, you have Palm Springs and Florida, there’s a very sort of colorful, almost tropical sense people have of your aesthetic. And I think that’s really, you know, mid century, which you have, you know, blown up and blown out and made so much more fun and less pretentious and all of that. But how do you see your aesthetic moving ahead? What are you looking at now?

Jonathan Adler  35:39  

Well, it’s funny. I think in my own life, I sort of express a range of sensibilities and, you know, I think you can slice and dice my collection to create. You could create the most minimalist, austere monastic look. A lot of my stuff is very minimal. I think as a product designer, I’m truly a minimalist. When designing products, I strive to use an economy of gesture to communicate what I want to communicate. I hope you know, if one looks at my work, and I think you should look at my work in tremendous detail, I hope you will see that. That my stuff is minimal. Communicative. For me, design is a process of stripping down. I start with an idea. And then I try to get rid of extraneous gestures. So that whatever I’m doing can be communicated as clearly as possible. So I think that my products are very, very minimalist. My overall design aesthetic is maximalist in the sense that I believe in mixing things with abandon. I think that I’m a natural eclecticist. And I think that, I hope that my idea for my work and my world is that you can go into a Jonathan Adler shop or the site and create a space, which looks like you have spent a lifetime curating the best of the best from all over the world and all different sensibilities and times and create a space in which you are to show yourself to be a connoisseur, fun, charming person. So it’s really a sense of designed eclecticism. You know, one stop shop for design eclecticism. And I think that overarching idea of designed eclecticism gives me tremendous runway and leeway to do whatever I want and to just keep trying, playing, expanding, as long as it’s sophisticated. I hate that word. But I’ll use it. Sophisticated, connoisseurial, well designed and charming.

Michael Boodro  38:08  

And of the things I wanted to ask you about was, you know, now there’s this sort of resurgence of ceramics and pottery, and there’s new respect for it. I mean, is that something you find? You know, at the same time, as we’ve talked on several of our podcasts, there seems to be a shrinking of the artists in class. You know, there’s not enough artisans and not enough makers. All the designers are complaining about this and how our culture doesn’t support makers and encourage them and treat them with respect. So at the same time, you know, especially in ceramics now, virtually every house that you see in a design magazine has a collection of ceramic at the moment, and I’d love to know what you think. Are you like, damn, I you know, I should get some credit for this or you’re just happy for everybody? 

Jonathan Adler  38:57  

Of course, I’m happy for everybody. If there’s a world in which makers are getting a claim, that’s fantastic. I chuckle when you say it because I knew it. So few people like that I meet, even know that I’m a potter. Like, they’ll be like, what do you do? I’m like, I’m a potter, and they’ll be like, oh, I didn’t know you made pottery and I’m just like, I’ve really screwed up. Or my publicist. Ryan, if you’re listening, I blame you. You really screwed up telling my story. I think as much as people think of me, they think I’m like a fool hard wearing decorator little realizing that I’m like, a gritty earthy potter at heart. Anyway, I’m thrilled that it’s happening. I think it’s really cool. I think it’s great that people have a platform to be makers and ceramicists. If I’ve had anything to do with that, I’m thrilled to have been a part of it. And it’s really, really cool that that’s happening. Yeah.

Michael Boodro  39:59  

You know what, the other thing I love about your work, Jonathan, is that you, you know, as we were saying, you’ve never taken it too seriously. You know, even everything you make still has elegance and sophistication. But it also has a touch of humor. It has a little drop of your personality, which I think is what makes it so strong, and so appealing to people, you know?

Jonathan Adler  40:26  

Yeah, I think a little drop of my personality is just the right amount. I always say, to not know me is to love me. And I think that’s true. And I think, well, no, I think that it’s funny. There’s this very famous English historian called Paul Johnson, who wrote a book called Intellectuals, in which he sort of talks about how people’s public persona and their private persona are completely at odds often. Most notably, what’s his face? Rousseau, he, you know, the idea that humans were innately good and that they were destroyed by society. He was just a monster. He was an absolute monster. And whilst I would never put myself in that level of import, I think the same truth applies to me. I seem very light hearted and fun and cheery, I’m anything but.

Michael Boodro  41:25  

You are a tortured artist.

Jonathan Adler  41:27  

I kind of am. There’s just a dissonance between my affect.

Michael Boodro  41:33  

But if you weren’t a little tortured, you wouldn’t be producing as much as you did. You wouldn’t have created as much stuff and come up with as many good ideas as you have.

Jonathan Adler  41:41  

You have to be really self critical, and really analytical, to get something to be good because, not unlike how writing is rewriting, design is redesigning. It’s about looking at what you’ve done with a sense of absolute self loathing, and seeing like, why am I so awful? What did I do now? And trying then to roll up your sleeves and fix it? Right?

Michael Boodro  42:09  

Well, I guess what we really hope is that you will go on loathing yourself, Jonathan, and coming up with continued great products, great designs, and really bringing a lot of joy and pleasure to so many people. And I think it’s so great. 

Jonathan Adler  42:22  

My self loathing and my self torture are here to stay. So stay tuned for lots more stuff.

Michael Boodro  42:30  

Great. Well, I want to thank you so much for being on. I want to thank everyone for listening to the Chairish podcast.

Lead image courtesy of Jonathan Adler


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January 10, 2023

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