Designer Jonathan Adler is as fabulous and vibrant as you’d expect by judging his homegoods collections. More fabulous, in fact.
Warm, hilarious and down to earth, he’s the kind of guy you'd hope to be behind the flippantly upbeat — yet sharply designed — eponymous line. You meet the maven behind the Mecca and it all makes sense: You suddenly see that the cheeky "pharmaceutical" references repeated throughout his products serve as a playful reminder to loosen up; that there’s an alternative to stark minimalism; and that by embracing your inner-kook, you might create a gorgeous home.
In Austin on Thursday for his first-ever visit to the Jonathan Adler Fifth Street storefront, we had the chance to sit and gab with Adler about repetitive interviews, fast fashion and the key to creating a memorable home.
CultureMap: [Sitting down as another interviewer departs] I have to ask you because I always wonder when I interview people as established as yourself, don’t you get tired of answering the same questions?
Jonathan Adler: You know, it’s funny you say that. Somebody just gave me this book 4,000 Questions for Getting to Know Anyone and Everyone and for this interview — Leslie Blodgett from Bare Essentuals — I opened it randomly to ask a question and it said, “Do you believe sex offenders should be chemically castrated?” [Drops jaw, stares blankly]
Everybody asks me, “What inspires you,” and I answer [looks down at nails, feigns interest], “Oh you know, walking down the street there are so many inspiring people and I keep my mind and my eyes wide open...” So, you can ask me anything!
CM: I’m afraid you’ve just blown any question I might have out of the water! I’ll try to switch it up, but we will have to talk about your newest book. However, since we’re sitting in a Jonathan Adler Winter Wonderland, tell me what in the world were your holidays like as a child?
JA: Oh, totes. When you’re Jewish growing up, you’re so jealous of Christmas folk. I grew up loving Hanukkah but always with a little bit of jealousy — and I think that might have contributed to my current life. I’m sort of a holiday elf... I slave away all year long making the gifts that people are hopefully going to give. I’m just an elf — and it’s not just my scale or my tiny little points on my ears — it’s what I do with my life. I make gifts all day.
Simon [Doonan] will get in bed with a decorating magazine and I’m like, “You’ve just ruined my nights sleep, this is supposed to be a safe zone!” - Jonathan Adler
CM: Do you even have the wherewithal to give a darn about your own home once you are done with the day’s work?
JA: My husband [Simon Doonan, Creative Ambassador of Barneys] and are both sort of Christmas elves, so when it comes to our own home it’s just like... nothing. Simon will get in bed with a decorating magazine and I’m like, “You’ve just ruined my night's sleep, this is supposed to be a safe zone!” We’re super JV about decorating for the holidays.
CM: You’ve immersed yourself in such an array of projects, be it a straw designer for Pepsi or a television judge, is there anything that you were surprised to find you really enjoyed?
JA: To be totally honest, my entire career is the most unexpected thing on earth. I’m a potter, so I started 18 years ago thinking that the height of my success would be hawking my wares at a rain-soaked craft fair. That’s how I saw my life unfolding! So everything is a surprise. I’m surprised that the more I design, the more I want to design. It’s kind of dangerous.
CM: Do you mentor other people or bring up-and-comers under your wing?
JA: I’d say our office is full of creative funsters who are oddballs. So I suppose in that sense that’s mentoring.
Do you remember the [Blind Melon] “No Rain" video? How annoyingly young are you? I hate you already. It’s the one with the bumble bee. I sort of realized that’s what [my company is]. We’re all essentially unemployable creative people who have found a field to dance in in bumblebee costumes.
CM: So what is it with the idea that an artist has to be intensely brooding to be taken seriously?
JA: That’s actually really horrible. It’s something my husband and I think about a lot because he and I have similar sensibilities. The sad truth is that in order to be taken seriously as an artiste, you kind of need to be a dour obscurantist. That’s sort of the truth, that people project gravitas onto people who are dour.
CM: But you’re certainly not.
I'm sort of a glib person, but when it comes to design, I'm as serious as the dourest artist — I am Vincent Van Gogh cutting off my ear and being tortured and miserable. - Adler
JA: I think to some degree I do myself a disservice by not being dour because I'm incredibly serious about design. I'm sort of a glib person, but when it comes to design, I'm as serious as the dourest artist — I am Vincent Van Gogh cutting off my ear and being tortured and miserable.
It’s just that in my life, I'm pretty content and I have sort of a glib personality. I don't think you need to be dour to be creative. That's an unfortunate myth.
CM: Do you ever scientifically look at how design affects mood?
JA: I just like to make great shit and hope that it will brighten. The truth is I pretend to have a missionary zeal for making people happy, but all I really want to do is make myself happy by making great stuff.
CM: You have a wide variety of work but the mark of Jonathan Adler is so clear, whereas you witness a fashion designer drastically reinvent himself each season. What's the design cycle like?
JA: Fashion is weird. I feel like fashion [moves at] such an insane pace that it’s challenging to maintain a distinct vision when you pump out 12 collections a year. It’s become this cycle where people buy vintage, copy it, slap it together — it’s madness and mayhem. Luckily, people consume fashion at that same pace, whereas home [design] has a slower design cycle and, fortunately, a slower consumption cycle, as well.
CM: It’s not H&M.
JA: It ain't H&M. I strive to maintain a consistent vision but also to not be inhibited by trying to be too brand obsessed.
CM: Ah, the ever-present “brand.”
I’m a potter, so I started 18 years ago thinking that the height of my success would be hawking my wares at a rain soaked craft fair. - Adler
JA: I actually think one of the most horrible words ever to be invented in the history of the universe is the word “brand.” I hate it. It’s like the only word anyone mentions, if everythings “on brand,” and I think that can be the enemy of creativity. So I strive to design in a vacuum, not think about brand and if it comes out looking consistent, then that’s a happy accident. I hate that word “brand.”
CM: Yet so many corporations and careers are devoted to that very word.
JA: Every celebrity is a “brand” — just shut up. Make some shit! [Laughs]
CM: Okay let’s tackle the obvious question, if I could only take away one thing from your latest book 100 Ways to a Happy Chic Life, what would you want it to be?
JA: My design philosophy is about being chic and optimistic at the same time. It’s about taking risks, being bold, being memorable.
CM: How did it come about?
JA: Simon and I built our dream house in the Hamptons, and it’s really the basis of that book — lots of pictures from that house. It was a fun experience, building my own house and spreading my design philosophy with that “missionary zeal.”
CM: What is it about writing that you like? It’s so different than making something with your hands.
CM: And lastly, will you get to see anything in Austin beyond this store?
JA: I’m here for like 30 seconds, but I did make it to a few stores. By George, Fray Antiques and Stag. I’ve actually been obsessed with Austin ever since seeing Slacker. Slacker really spoke to me because I am a complete slacker. I’m a potter, and the faux-mini-design-empire you see before you today is complete accident. I’ve always been fascinated by Austin after seeing that inspiring movie.
CM: Well, I hope you are at least able to steal away to dinner after this event.
JA: I hope I get to eat some food because I’m a complete pig! It's a vicious cycle, I eat like a high school athlete and workout like a high school athlete.
CM: That's a wrap, and I hope we live up to our reputation!
JA: Thanks! It was such a pleas[...ure].