Labors of Love: How Jonathan Adler Made the Big Time

Jonathan Adler has hundreds of children—some in the form of handcrafted pottery, others in the form of chic furniture. Since the age of 12, when he first sat behind a potter’s wheel at summer camp in New Jersey, Adler has had a paternal connection to each of his creations. “Everything I make is birthed by me in an excruciating, laborious process,” he says. “I love it all.”

Today, Adler has developed his knack for pottery into a design empire that praises color, glamour, and a good sense of humor. His brand encompasses a youthful collection of home décor, furniture, and fashion accessories inspired by Pop Art and pop culture; 31 stores and over 1,000 retailers worldwide; and four books that encourage self-expression in interior design. Here, Adler shares how hard work, passion, and a bit of rebellion have turned him into a household name.

Rider Dining Chair in White/Nickel, also available in Black/Brass, $895; Jacques Pedestal, $1,250; Jack Mirror, $795; Malachite Stripe Urn, $448; Meurice Rug, available in four sizes, $2,495-$6,795


What was growing up in New Jersey like?
It was actually a pretty dismal place, but we were fortunate enough to have a neighbor—Mrs. Goldstein—whose house was the ne plus ultra of modern decorating. She put her house together with a sense of panache and confidence that I strive to equal to this day.

Maxime Lounge Chair in Teal Velvet, also available in Shearling, 35" H x 27" W x 27" D, $1,750-$2,250


Where did your love of design come from?
My father was a lawyer by day and a super-talented painter in his free time. My mother’s ebullient sense of color is unparalleled. I’m super fortunate to have had them as parents.


Chippendale Lounge Chair in Turquoise Linen, $1,950; Purple Palm Springs Throw Pillow, 12" x 16", $88; Harlequin Floor Lamp, $775; Canaan Accent Table, $1,650; Malachite X Vase, $148; Denim Nixon Area Rug, available in six sizes, $995-$8,950


In college, an art professor told you to move to New York and become a lawyer because you had no artistic talent. Can you talk more about that?
It was the best advice I never took. I think every creative person needs a naysayer to rebel against.

Bel Air Mini Scoop Vase in White, available in seven other colors, $98


How did you go from crafting pottery to producing a full home décor line?
My entire career has been an unplanned creative odyssey. I started making furniture because I needed stuff to put my pottery on. I designed lighting so I could light it all up. I designed a giant brass finger because, well, I wanted to.

Menagerie Llama in Midnight, also available in White, $78


You opened your first store in Soho, New York, in 1998. Were you nervous?
I didn’t know enough to be nervous. I just did it. I knew I had to make it work because I was unemployable anywhere else. I believe in that old adage that “genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”


Mrs. Godfrey Chair in Vapor Berry with Walnut base, $2,195 as shown; Purple Palm Springs Throw PIllow, 12" x 16", $88; Leather Moroccan Pouf in Fucshia, $345; Channing 3-Drawer Console Table, in White with Polished Nickel base, $1,850 as shown; Barcelona Table Lamp in Blue, $585 as shown; Lucite Butterfly Obelisk, $495; Bel Air Mini Scoop Vase in Cobalt, $98; Brass Hand Ring Holder, $128; Slim Aarons “Princess Bianca” Photograph, $995


When did you first feel like you had “made it”?
I was in my Soho store shortly after it opened, and I overheard a woman on her cell phone telling her friend that she was “at Jonathan Adler.” I was officially a place.

Jaipur Elephant Beaded Linen Throw Pillow, 16" x 16", $145


What’s your design philosophy?
Modern American glamour. I want everything I make to make you feel even more glamorous than you already are.


Who inspires you and your designs?
Bonnie Cashin, Alexander Girard, and David Hicks are my holy trinity.

Dora Maar Bowl, $295


Are any of your pieces especially close to your heart?
My favorite piece is my Dora Maar bowl. It looks like it was unearthed rather than designed; it looks like it was supposed to.


Jaipur Scales Throw Pillow, 22" x 22", $245


You’re a hugely successful designer and your husband, Simon Doonan, is a best-selling author and style icon. Between those two creative minds, who decides what hangs on the wall in your home?
Why, thank you! At home it’s me, me, me. I don’t tell him how to do his job and he doesn’t tell me how to do mine.


Barcelona Floor Lamp in Lavender, $1,095

When you really splurge, what do you buy?
I make everything I want, so I’m not a big shopper. Maybe travel? I’ve never said no to a trip to Capri. It’s like heaven on earth.

How often do you rearrange your furniture/home décor?
Constantly. My poor husband never knows what he’s going to come home to and is constantly bumping into sofas, tables, chairs, and lights that weren’t there when he left the house in the morning. But I love everything I make, and I feel like it’s my job to road-test it and live with it.

Categories: Furniture & Accessories