With his seventh retail store just opened in Chicago, his first book about to be released in November, and his latest furniture collection winning praise across the country, Jonathan Adler might be mistaken for the classic overachiever. But this potter-turned-design-demigod says happenstance, not ambition, has guided his career. "I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated, and I actually was profiled in the Brown Daily Herald as the epitome of the graduate who had no idea what to do with his life," Adler notes while speaking on his cell phone between meetings in Manhattan, one of his three home bases (the others are Shelter Island, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida).
After graduation, Adler stayed in Providence for a year to take pottery classes at RISD, indulging a passion he had discovered while a youngster at summer camp. "At the end of the year I went to my pottery teacher and asked, 'Do I have a future in pottery?' " he recalls. "She said, 'Absolutely not.' So I took her advice, moved to New York, and got a job in the mail room of a talent agency."
But within a year Adler was filling a shelf at a communal pottery studio in the city, making pots as a means of self-expression. "I was liberating myself from all expectations," he recalls. His graphic, shapely vessels drew attention; in 1994 he received his first order from Barneys, the upscale Manhattan department store with a hip fashion- and design-minded clientele.
Adler wandered into interior design in the late 1990s just as serendipitously, when a Brown classmate, photographer Andrea Stern, bought a modernist house and asked him to decorate it. "That project became the catalyst for my furniture collection," says Adler, who designed a few pieces for his retail store in 2001. His first full furniture collection debuted earlier this year and includes more than twenty upholstered pieces. Adler describes the new collection as "eclectic and modern" in style, and "very accessible" in price, with sofas retailing for $1,200 to $3,000.
Despite a design empire that now stretches coast to coast (three stores in New York, plus stores in Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago), Adler maintains his happy-go-lucky approach. "I absolutely love what I do, and I'm glad to have been clueless at first because it enabled me to just let things happen," he says. Of the future he says simply: "I have no idea what's next."
Adler draws his design inspirations everywhere from pop culture to his childhood home in New Jersey ("I grew up in a groovy modern house, and my parents had a great design sense," he says. The message he strives to convey in all his work - which now encompasses pottery, furniture, bedding, bath accessories, and lighting - is that a house should be happy and chic, two words that aren't typically paired in the often sterile world of high design.
His new book, The Jonathan Adler Book: My Prescription for Anti-Depressive Living (HarperCollins), drives that message home. "It's essentially a picture book of my interior design projects and products, and it's all about my work and design philosophy," Adler says, summing up that philosophy succinctly:
"Throw out your Prozac, and your house can make you happy."