The New York-based designer, potter and author Jonathan Adler is one of the great contemporary polymaths. Inspired by mid-20th-century design heroes such as Gio Ponti, Alexander Girard and David Hicks, he recognizes no boundaries between different disciplines and works across ceramics, furniture, lighting and textiles, as well as creating interiors for private and commercial clients. Adler’s unique take on “happy chic” has seen his business grow in the past 25 years to encompass more than 20 stores worldwide (including London), while landmark projects include the interior design of the Parker Palm Springs hotel.
“I describe myself as a potter, but I have morphed into many other things as well,” says Adler. “The idea of having a whole business being a normal potter seemed impossible, so early on I decided that I would have to evolve and change. I developed a habit of saying ‘yes’ to everything.”
Among his list of influences he cites ceramicists such as Hans Coper and Bjørn Wiinblad, but also visual artists including LeRoy Neiman and Andy Warhol. Colour, pattern and texture are all key elements of Adler’s maximalist designs, with paintings, murals and ceramics forming important ingredients within his multilayered interior design work. That’s very true of his own New York apartment and his retreat on Shelter Island, both shared with his English husband, the writer and Barneys creative ambassador Simon Doonan.
To what extent did you grow up in a home surrounded by art?
It was an art-filled home in the absolute middle of nowhere. My dad was a lawyer and artist, and art was as present as water and air. He was a lawyer by day and a painter by night. It worked perfectly for him. He might have been on to something, because it meant that he totally loved being a lawyer and loved painting, but he didn’t for one second have his vision compromised by any commercial concerns. He could do what he wanted, and somehow I have managed to create a career where I get to do whatever I want, which is a miracle.
"Art is one of my many frames of reference; my knowledge of art history informs everything I do."
Your work sits at an axis of art, craft and design – how much inspiration have you drawn from artists, as well as designers?
I don’t see any difference between artists, craftspeople and designers. I was an art history major at Brown University, and I’m an avid art fan and collector. When I was making my Globo Table Lamp, my inspiration was a bunch of grapes. But when it came to choosing the colour palette, something about it suggested the simultaneously mournful and celebratory work of Félix González-Torres. Art is one of my many frames of reference; my knowledge of art history informs everything I do.
The mid-20th century is clearly an important period for you. Can you give a few examples of artists of that time who mean a lot to you and why?
I work in myriad idioms, most of which are informed by mid-20th-century art – from the expressiveness and materiality of Peter Voulkos to the Pop provocation of Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. There is a nostalgia to a lot of what I do. There was an optimism about Modernism in the 1950s and 1960s that I’m inspired by, although I try to put everything through a contemporary filter. I always think of Bjørn Wiinblad, Bonnie Cashin and Alexander Girard. They were designers who really followed their own path.
What period or styles of art do you tend to collect for your own homes?
Is 1960s Op Art one of these? I’m mad for it. Nothing looks better behind a sofa than a bold Op Art painting. But for myself I like things that are a bit more representational. Ed Paschke is one of my all-time favourite painters to collect.
Do you collect ceramics and glass, as well as paintings or prints? What are your greatest passions in terms of collecting?
I don’t really collect ceramics, even though I’m a diehard fan – obviously. I think I don’t want to be distracted from my own path. Whether it’s a pot, a painting, a sculpture, or a teapot, I know when I see it that I have to buy it. I seem to remember a number of murals and art pieces in your house on Shelter Island – in the kitchen and bathroom in particular.
What drew you to the idea of using murals at home?
I’m an applied artist. I think site-specific applied art adds a layer of panache and permanence. It’s an under-considered arrow in a collector’s quiver. The whole idea of applied art was really important to us for the house on Shelter Island. I wanted to make tiled walls galore, because how often does one get the chance to build a house for oneself? So I did all these custom tiled walls and a custom aerated cement screen. Our friend John-Paul Philippe did a mural directly on the kitchen island and then there are other pieces by Danny Balgley, who did a work on the wall in the bathroom that says “mishegas,” which is Yiddish for “crazy.”
How would you sum up the relationship between art and design in your own interiors?
Dominic Bradbury is a writer specializing in architecture and design. His Making House: Designers at Home is published by Rizzoli USA.