The door to a nondescript Vancouver Convention Centre meeting room opens and in bops Jonathan Adler, energetic and warm. Shuttled through the back door so as not to cause a fan ruckus amongst the Interior Design Show West attendees outside the room—because yes, he is that famous—Adler looks at the horseshoe-shaped table lined with seats and jokes about being a diplomat secretly arriving for a political summit. (He suspects his foreign policy would be “centrist and realistic”, by the way.)
This is the Adler known to the world: a man of spunk, pep, delight, positivity. It’s a platter of happy adjectives that he has essentially built his design empire on. But soon after taking a seat at the “summit” table, he reveals the “true truth”: he has a deeply dark side, too. “I have kind of a dichotomous nature,” he explains. “I am one-half very optimistic and giggly like a preteen, who is full of optimism and joy; and half of me is like a depressive, Eastern European Jew, like a Franz Kafka kind of person.” It’s an ongoing battle for the New York-based home decor and interior designer, who calls his brain “a tireless whirlwind of restlessness and joy and frustration.” He needs both sides to yield his best work, though: the optimistic part to create, to imagine, to experiment; and the negative, scrutinizing part to ask the tough questions, to push himself further, to make sure what he’s producing has a raison d’être.
Adler made this trip specifically for the design show, at which he gave a talk, easily packing the seats in front of the convention stage. His immense popularity has spanned decades—he opened his first store in 1998 in New York’s SoHo—beginning humbly by studying pottery at the Rhode Island School of Design and now including everything from furniture and rugs to candles, lighting, and dishware. He is known for bright patterns and is a true champion of accessories, which he calls the “jewellery of the home”. It’s a playful luxury, a mature sense of glee.
His chops go beyond the home, certainly, and he made a splash with the Parker Palm Springs, his first foray into hotel design. The space is a desert dream, equal parts whimsy and luxe, and undeniably Adler. “I think that I’m restless and I like to do a lot of stuff,” he says, explaining that next he would love to design a car (“If some Canadian carmaker is reading this, please give me a jingle”).
He is determined to do as much as he can before he kicks “the bucket”, and it can be hard for him to retreat from his own thoughts. “I think as someone who has his own business I live in a fugue state where I’m sort of always engaged, 24 hours a day,” he says. The only time he can really turn off his brain is when he paddleboards, an activity during which he says his “most transcendental moments happen”. That’s usually a warm weather activity, though, so he has an escape for winter, too: “I have a rad ping-pong table in my living room and my husband and I play nightly, and I slaughter him,” Adler says. He is married to Simon Doonan, a writer and Barneys New York creative ambassador. Their home is in constant flux, always changing at the hands of Adler—that’s what you get for living with a home decor professional. “My poor long-suffering husband will come home and there will be a beloved sofa that has just been jettisoned for something new and different,” explains Adler. His constant need to reinvent, refine, reform is reflective of his work ethic. Back in that Rhode Island pottery class, his instructor told him he had no talent for the craft. For a few discouraged years he listened, working in New York’s entertainment industry before realizing he needed to follow his heart, today symbolically emblazoned on his navy sweater. Perhaps that experience left him with the critical eye he needed to form his kingdom. “I’m always saying to my design team, ‘What does this mean? Does the world need it?’” he says. “That’s my constant question.” That’s Adler’s analytical side talking, the pessimistic part that fuels the forward march. After all: from darkness, we learn, comes light.
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