Out designer, author and TV personality Jonathan Adler touched down in Philadelphia Dec. 15 for the grand opening of his latest home décor-boutiques in Old City.
Adler’s entrepreneurial spirit and artistic ambitions have taken him a long way considering his humble beginnings. He grew up in a New Jersey farm town and has gone on to develop his love of making pottery after being introduced to the art form at summer camp. He continued to develop his skills while studying art history at Brown University.
Soon after, career pragmatism started to creep into his life and he soon found himself working in New York City for a talent agency. After three years, he burned out on that career path and took refuge by focusing on his pottery. By 1994, his work had caught the eye of Barney’s department store and it wasn’t long before his products and expertise as an interior designer got him his full-time job.
In 1998, Adler opened his first store in SoHo. Twelve years later, store number 13 opens in Philadelphia, which joins New York City, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco as cities where consumers can lay hands on Adler’s “happy chic” furnishings, which include all manner of accessories, gifts and all things cheeky.
These days anyone with a website, a digital camera and a fancy business card can call himself or herself a designer. And anyone with an IKEA credit card and a free weekend can try to decorate on his/her own. But Adler, through what seems to be a bottomless well of charisma, does a pretty good job of selling his vision and creations. In person, the 44-year-old Adler is every bit as colorful and engaging as his broad range of products.
“I have a motto in my company, which is we won’t make it if your heirs won’t fight over it,” Adler said about his wares at the Philadelphia location’s grand opening. “I think the key to that is to make things that are completely unique, unforgettable and singular. So I hope that people will find here everything that they can’t find anywhere else. It all comes from me. We’re still a small company and everything that we make comes from the heart. About 98 percent [of the products] is stuff I designed.
Damn, 98 percent? That’s on top of being a regular guest on TV shows such as Bravo’s “Top Design” and writing books.
No pun intended, but that’s a lot of plates to keep spinning, isn’t it?
“It’s actually really easy,” Adler said. “I just came out with two new books (“Jonathan Adler on Happy Chic Colors” and “Jonathan Adler on Happy Chic Accessorizing”). TV I just sort of hop on to now and again. I’m always working more and more. I’m working on a third book and a fourth book. When I did everything myself, I made and glazed all these pots. That’s when I really worked hard. When I started, I literally did everything myself. Many were the Christmases where I would ring the register until 8 o’clock on Christmas Eve. Now, things are so much easier. I can breeze in and do things a lot grander than I used to. Now that I’m lucky enough to have creative people with me, I get to be more of a conductor. I don’t work that hard. I’m just lucky to do what I love and build a business that enables me to come up with any idea, however insane, to fruition.”
Ah yes, lackeys. Everybody should have them.
Adler added that his exposure on TV has also helped heighten the profile of his business ventures.
“TV is so important these days,” he said. “You kind of have to be on TV. Gore Vidal famously said you should not turn down an opportunity to have sex or be on TV. So I’ve followed Gore Vidal on that.”
Hopefully not both opportunities at the same time.
“Never say never,” he said. “No one’s asked yet. I‘m an open-minded fun-ster.”
Good to know.
It probably doesn’t hurt that Adler is married to longtime partner Simon Doonan, a fellow style expert, author and TV personality seen on VH1 and “America’s Next Top Model.” Doonan is also the creative director for Barney’s.
Adler said having someone with intimate knowledge of that side of the retail industry has its perks.
“I’ve been selling at Barney’s since the beginning of my career,” he said. “Simon certainly taught me a lot. He’s always been an amazing sounding board.”
Sure, but do Adler’s and Doonan’s strong senses of style ever clash?
“We really don’t,” Adler said. “We pretty much never disagree because we have a very similar sensibility in that we both design and write. Any endeavor should be communicative with an element of fun. I think we always come from the same place and we are both in visual fields. We understand that you need to experiment.”
Adler and Doonan were married in California during the brief window when it was legal and, even though on paper it still stands as legal, Adler said there are vast shortcomings in what rights legally married gay couples have.
“I think even most gays realize the federal rights we don’t have,” he said. “There are lots and lots of them. But one of them is the inheritance right. If I were to walk out the door and get run over by a car, suddenly Simon would have a whopping estate tax that he wouldn’t have if we were a straight couple. I still think that the issue of gay marriage has a lot of explaining that needs to be done. Simon and I have been together for 16 years and we are so married. What makes me absolutely and completely insane is the thought that we don’t have the same rights as straight people. And I feel like, outside of [the gay] community, there are not very many people that really care.”
Besides gay-marriage rights, Adler also is an advocate for a number of LGBT charities.
“I’m most involved with God’s Love We Deliver, which is not explicitly LGBT,” he said. “It’s an AIDS charity. Luckily it’s now branched out for all different kinds of illnesses. That’s my main charity. But I think the most important thing that I or any gay can do is be out loud and proud. My husband and I have never thought about not being out, loud and proud and I’m mystified by people who aren’t.”
Speaking of out, loud and proud, we had to ask Adler what kind of customers his distinct sense of décor tends to attract.
“I think that my customers are creative, young at heart — no matter how old they may be — and fun,” he said.
Since his stores have locations all over the country, Adler said he tries to take into consideration the different cultural flavors of the areas his shops are in when he designs his products.
“Certainly, the inventory is slightly tweaked for locations but, more than anything, I feel design should have a sense of place,” he said. “So when I design, I’m inspired by different locales, although you won’t necessarily see different merchandise in the store. For better or for worse, I have a fairly codified viewpoint. I’m a design-obsessed person. I have tons of influences. If you look around here you’ll see a really eclectic group of things that don’t make you realize that we design everything. So it’s a weird, eclectic assortment but it’s all reflective of my many moods.”
Adler said he’d like to see what people do with his creations once they leave his stores — so much so that he lets people show off their living spaces online.
“We actually have a section of the website called ‘Show us your JA style,’ in which people send pictures of how they use our stuff,” he said. “It always surprises me, in a good way. I’m always interested in seeing how people interpret what I do. I think design should be personal, so I’m glad to see people take my stuff and use it as sort of a starting point.”
Both “Jonathan Adler on Happy Chic Colors” and “Jonathan Adler on Happy Chic Accessorizing” are in stores now. Visit Jonathan Adler’s new store at 33 N. Third St. For more information or to shop online, visit www.jonathanadler.com.
Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].