C'MON, GET HAPPY
Home decorating guru Jonathan Adler puts the fun in functional with a new design book intended to enliven your spirits, as well as your living room.
By all rights, Jonathan Adler should be headed for a breakdown. By the end of this year, the 39-year-old potter turned interior designer will have launched his second furniture line, put the finishing touches on the Parker Hotel in Palm Springs, opened retail stores in Miami Beach, Chicago and San Francisco, turned out more of his in-demand housewares and textiles and still found time to publish his first book, My Prescription for Anti-Depressive Living. That kind of pace would send most men racing towards the loony bin, but with the loving support of husband Simon Doonan and the humorous, life-affirming philosophy he espouses in his design guide/self-help manifesto, the "It" boy of home design still has his feet planted firmly on the ground. "I'm just very blessed," Adler says modestly, "I love what I do and where I'm at in my life. That keeps it all in perspective"
Raised in the farm town of Bridgeton, New Jersey, Adler was surrounded by creative energy from a very early age, growing up in what he calls a groovy, modern home. "My mother was into Marimekko and my father was a lawyer who spent all his free time making art," says the boyish designer. His own artistic outlet didn’t surface until a fateful day in summer camp found him sitting at a potter's wheel. "When I first touched that clay it was a revelation," says the master potter, adding that "it didn’t hurt that the teacher was super-foxy." Adler's parents bought him his first wheel as a bar mitzvah present--despite protests from his mother that he would track clay through the house--and the seeds of a design empire were planted.
That empire didn't blossom overnight, though. Adler resisted the call of the kiln for years, studying semiotics at Brown in the mid-'80s and embarking on an unfulfilling career as a New York talent agent in the early '90s. After leaving show business and refocusing on his craft, Adler's big break came in 1994, when the venerated department store Barneys New York placed a large order for his pottery. "I was so green, I didn’t know what an invoice was," he recalls. "I think I charged them $20 for a pot that took four days to make."
Getting his wares in Barneys raised Adler's profile tremendously, enabling him to take pottery away from the world of crafts fairs and adult education classes and single-handedly transforming it into an ultra-chic art form. "It was unbelievable," he says, "but my career has been always been full of serendipity--one lucky break after another."
Today, Adler's ceramics embody a wide range of styles--from a minimalist bowl with a metallic oxide finish to a surrealist vase covered with dozens of pendulous breasts. His eye-catching creations are still available at Barneys and his namesake stores, while his more moderately-priced towels, shower curtains and other housewares can be found at Bed, Bath and Beyond.
With the release of Anti-Depressive Living, however, Adler moves into the rarified world of the lifestyle expert. He was inspired to write the book, he says, because he wanted to help people transform their homes into havens from the stresses and heartaches of everyday life. "People are too moderate in their homes, and I really think it can induce depression. I want to encourage people to be over the top and exuberant. You should walk into your front door and feel joyful."
Each chapter of the beautifully photographed volume is devoted to a tenet of Adler's 'happy chic' philosophy, paired with ideas for more blissful living. "Minimalism is a Bummer," for example, suggests a prescription of giant chandeliers, trippy wall hangings and antique milking stools for chasing away the blues. "Don't be tentative with patterns," Adler advises. "You only go around once, and you want to look back and remember the brocaded walls not the white lampshades." Other dictates include "Complement lavishly" and "Spend all day surfing eBay instead of working." Sprinkled throughout the book are some of the lavish yet funky interiors Adler has created, including images of the Parker Hotel and his own abodes in Manhattan, Shelter Island and Palm Beach, all of which bear his signature unpretentious elegance.
Adler admits to having a "missionary zeal" when it comes to happy chic. "Chic design doesn’t have to be cold and unfriendly. I try to make it warm and un-pretentious." His designs for home are fun; combining modern shapes with retro patterns, luxurious fabrics and bold colors. Think needlepoint pillows emblazoned with a portrait of Studio 54-era Liza Minnelli, robin's egg blue lacquer bath accessories and circus-tent cookie jars with labels reading "Prozac" and "Quaaludes." In a word, they're groovy.
According to Adler, his unconventional style was developed by studying at the feet of an old family friend. "Our neighbor, Sylvia Goldstein, had this innate sense of style--her house was flawless. There was Pop art and ceramic animals everywhere. She even decoupaged the kitchen with covers from The New Yorker." He's adopted his eccentric muse's approach as something of a mantra. "You know how born-again Christians say 'What Would Jesus Do?" Adler asks, jokingly. "I say 'What Would Mrs. Goldstein Do?'"
Of course, you can't talk about Jonathan Adler without mentioning another style maven--Simon Doonan, creative director for Barneys New York and Adler's husband of ten years. The two met on a blind date and have evolved into one of New York's most envied (and photographed) power couples, even if Adler tries to downplay their fabulousness. "I'm proud of my husband and I love to do photo-ops with him, but we lead a very quiet life," he offers modestly. "My biggest thrill is sitting on the couch with Liberace"--the couple's beloved Norwich terrier--"and watching 'America's Next Top Model.'" Maybe the fact that he and his hubby are two of the country's hottest style arbiters keep friends from inviting them over--for fear they'll criticize everything from the hors d'oeuvres to the china pattern? "Oh, no," Adler laughs. "We're intensely no-judgmental. Simon says he just wants people to look and live like themselves."
While other celebrity couples split at the drop of a press release, Adler and Doonan are heading into their second decade together. They're strong supporters of gay equality, but Adler says the longer they're together, the less his life is defined by his sexuality. "Being married for so long, I don’t even think about being 'gay' anymore. I just think I'm married." Sadly, the couple passed on the opportunity to stage what could have been the hottest nuptials since Prince Charles and Lady Di. "We didn't have a real ceremony. We just bought a pair of super-groovy '70s rings from George Jensen and went for ice cream."
The publication of his book puts Adler on an equal footing with his veddy English mate, whose most recent tome, Nasty: My Family and Other Glamorous Varmints, was released in May. But when it comes to decorating their homes, Adler calls the shots. "Simon pretty much steps aside," he laughs. "But it's like the story about the cobbler's children who have no shoes. I'm always changing things around in the house—he's learned not to get too attached to anything."