"I want to make things that are chic and make people wonder, ‘Huh, what is that? I wonder why that’s there? Why would someone make that?’” laughs Jonathan Adler, the creative force behind his eponymous label, an empire of eccentric and colourful home furnishings, décor and accessories. Every corner and surface of his Shelter Island retreat, in Suffolk County, New York, invites those questions, teaming with curios, pattern, colour and quirky shapes – the potter’s signature style.
As a busy executive he is based in New York City’s Manhattan, but it’s this private haven on Shelter Island, in the idyllic environs of the Hamptons, where Jonathan truly unwinds. In this space, packed to the brim with personality, the potter at heart makes the most of his time away dreaming up new creations. “Unlike most Hamptons residents, I am not a finance person,” he observes. “I am like a bohemian who’s made good somehow. My home here is very personal, and there are no rules.”
The contemporary single-storey house was built six years ago by Gray Organschi Architecture and Hamptons builder Carlos Routh. It’s a compact space of 2,800 square feet with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a gym, and a sprawling living room, which seems smaller being packed wall-to-wall with retro-glam furniture, art deco lights and statement artwork, most of which Jonathan designed himself. Maximizing the indoor/outdoor living space was a priority, he says, with a large patio area, swimming pool, pavilion and expansive windows that allow him to feel “at one with the beautiful view”. He describes the low-slung home as a “modernist California meets Sweden meets Japan.” Rather than being an iconoclastic statement, the black exterior is inspired by his travels. “I’ve always loved the black houses in Japan and Sweden. They merge beautifully with the landscape,” he explains. “I wanted this home to be neutral and at peace with the surroundings.” However, in this case, neutral is far from boring. Splashed across this base is Jonathan’s signature use of bold colour, pattern and quirky accessories – an eccentric style that points to his adroit skill as a decorator. His other mandate was to be inspired to “make lots of stuff ”. This is where his creativity is unleashed, and the house is often a testing ground for objects that might make their way into one of his 30 international retail stores and 1,000-plus stockists. A sculptural divider between the living room and kitchen is composed of aerated concrete. The organic, modular structure was one he first sculpted in the studio and then had cast. It’s now in several of his shops around the world. One of his favourite items is a mural on the kitchen island painted by close friend and artist John-Paul Philippé. “I asked him to paint a mural that was inspired by what I see – such as the many birds that flock to Shelter Island. I sit outside and see ospreys hunting with fish in their beaks. Now there’s an owl, which is so rare to see, that comes and hunts at dusk. It’s a nature wonderland out there.”
His illustrative woodland figurines on the kitchen island, which look as if they came straight from a story book, are evocative of his popular ceramic and brass bird figurines, which were ideated at the same time as the mural. “I am always paying homage to my favourite animals. I mean, I do love a bird,” he quips. Jonathan grew up in a remote farm town in New Jersey and first tried pottery at summer camp when he was 12 years old. “I’m not a spiritual person, but something just clicked. I became obsessed with it,” he recollects. He went on to study semiotics and art history at the Ivy League Brown University, but spent more time making pots at the nearby Rhode Island School of Design.
While he considered matriculating to an advanced programme his teacher told him he lacked the talent and should forgo graduate study. Taking her advice, he moved to New York City where, for three years, his passion for pottery remained as unfulfilled as a cold kiln. He then took his first step on the road to design stardom, teaching classes at a pottery studio called Mud, Sweat & Tears, in exchange for free studio space, baking and glazing his first collection. His big break came in 1994 when he pitched and triumphantly sold a series of handmade ceramics to Barneys New York, made in what would become his signature style – mod-influenced, striped black and white. “It was a huge break,” he smiles. “I just decided to surrender to it, to work as hard as I could and not think about how impoverished I was going to be, and to see where it led.” Not only did it lead to a hugely successful ceramic range in one of the most prestigious department stores in America’s most fashionable city, but it was also where he met his partner Simon Doonan, Barneys' creative ambassador-at-large.
Over two decades later, Jonathan’s home décor products, textiles and furniture lines are now sold all over the world, with Neimanmarcus.com satiating our appetite for his eclectic accessories in the UAE. He is an interior designer on both residential and commercial projects, retail tycoon, author and lead judge on the Bravo television series Top Design. Jonathan’s Animalia collection is a bestseller in the Gulf, combining gold with statement animal motifs, which are stylish yet fantastical. His AW15 collection features even more gilded items, including the Ultra collection, which combines rose gold with marble, and a gold-splattered china range called 1948, so named after the temperature at which gold melts. “There’s a sense of ornament and an embrace of gold that I really enjoy in the Middle East,” he says. “I’ve travelled there many times, especially to India as I manufacturer a lot of my designs there. I am truly inspired by both the Middle and Far East, infusing minimalism with a layer of pattern and ornament, which creates a really interesting combination.”
Words by Nausheen Noor. This article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Harper's Bazaar Interiors