Jonathan Adler talks ‘modern American glamour’ on Miami stage

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World-renowned designer Jonathan Adler’s path to success started with failure — a lot of it.

“After college, I got fired from a million jobs and was unemployed and unemployable,” he said, while seated next to real estate icon Sherry Chris on the Inman Connect Miami stage. “At 27, I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to surrender to my first love, pottery.’”

“I assumed that I would live a life of penury, and I thought, ‘All right, I’ll live a life of penury, but at least I’ll be able to find my authentic voice,’” he added. “So, I started making this kind of pottery, very graphic and colorful, and the DNA of my brand was born in my pottery studio.”


Adler said his authenticity and dedication to what he calls “modern American glamour” have opened the door to opportunities he once thought were impossible, such as crafting the design for the Parker Palm Springs hotel and several other high-end properties across the U.S. and Europe.

“I don’t think anyone knows exactly what glamour means, but to me, glamour is about swagger and confidence and being memorable,” he said. “I do it all. I went from potter to design icon.”

Adler said it took years to create his signature style and required a consistent openness to experimenting with different art techniques and mediums and taking on projects that challenged his skill set. Those experiences, he said, allowed him to grow as an artist and entrepreneur.

“The key to growth was to continue to sort of like just roll up different materials, different voices, different projects and most importantly to say ‘yes’ to everything,” he said. “The Parker, for example. I had never designed a hotel or even thought about it. The only project I had done before was for one of my best friends from college who said, ‘Hey, do you want to design my house?’”

“Then the Parker owner saw that and called me up and was like, ‘Do you want to design a hotel?’” he added. “Taking those risks and those leaps whilst, of course, very scary has led to me becoming the design icon you see before you.”

Adler encouraged agents to take risks with their staging, eschewing the “very beautiful but very white and universal” styling that’s risen in popularity.

“It’s sort of universality versus particularity, I suppose,” he said. “For me as a designer, I want to live. I’m a visual thrill seeker as is my husband, Simon Doonan, who is a legendary window dresser and was the creative director of Barney’s.”

“I guess the particular thing can even have more of a premium or less,” he added. “Everyone has their own taste, I guess.”

When stepping outside the box, Adler said it’s important to remember inspiration can come from the oddest places. All someone has to do is keep an open and curious mind.

“I try to keep my eyes and my mind wide open, which is true in the sense that I think inspiration can strike at any moment,” he said. “You just have to be open. I often get ideas from dreams or just weird moments.”

“I was paddle boarding a couple of years ago and saw a cloud and thought ‘I wanna sit in that cloud,’” he said. “I made a cloud sofa. That’s sort of keeping your eyes and your mind wide open.”

Adler encouraged the audience to become cultural connoisseurs and learn about all the ways people live. New Yorkers, he said, are masters of maximizing small spaces, while Californians love expansive mansions and estates.

“New York, of course, it’s apartments, apartments, apartments and some townhouses, but it’s mostly apartments. And then, to get out of New York as I have and see, you know, the scale of houses — it’s shocking,” he said. “It’s a very different mindset and it’s informed a lot of my furniture designs.”

No matter the layout, Adler said the key to good design is choosing furniture and decor that fit the scale of the space; however, he said, it’s always OK to break the rules.

“Karl Lagerfeld famously, when he got super successful, he bought, like, a gigantic chateau, and he ended up just putting a little, single mattress in the room. That’s where he lived,” he said. “He’s like, ‘Why have the chateau?’ Then he moved to a smaller place.”

Adler ended the session with a reminder to foster curiosity, which spun into a brief lesson about psychedelics and American counterculture.

“I’m the most clean, controlled, bourgeois person on earth,” he said, garnering laughs from the crowd. “I don’t take drugs, but I’m fascinated by the idea of drugs and perhaps it comes from the fact that I am a potter. Just the whole idea of being a potter is a consequence of the counterculture.”

“I try to have an open mind, sans drugs,” he said, stoking another round of laughter before showing off two of his favorite needlepoint pillows. “That’s ultimately what it’s all about. It’s love and needlepoint.”

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