Jonathan Adler's Los Angeles boutique is humming with valets, pop music and the first party guests arriving for a charity fundraiser. Inside, the designer is midway through a guided tour of fall additions to his collection when husband Simon Doonan, the author and fashion commentator, approaches in a waiterly gait bearing a glass of water.
"Thank you," Adler says, thick with graciousness. "What's your name again?"
Doonan offers a sweet smile. "Dorothy," he says, before spinning away.
"Thank you, Dorothy," Adler says, deadpan, and then without missing a beat he’s back into the collection.
An unspoken wink and a smile have long animated Adler’s home décor empire, which has grown from retro cookie canisters cheekily labeled "Quaaludes" and "poppers" to seriously considered furniture and, this summer, a secondary line of Happy Chic home décor that anchors the design renaissance at JCPenney.
Of his 26 signature boutiques, the first to receive the New York designer’s latest work is the Melrose Avenue store, which Adler visited a week ago to see its installation and to host the fundraiser. For this edited Q&A, the man who still defines himself as a potter talked about how every new piece — whether ceramic, brass or, now, Lucite — starts as a clay model.
It’s interesting to see your designs expressed in a different material. Why Lucite?
That’s kind of my jam. I’m a potter, so I live to discover new techniques, invent new techniques, explore new techniques. It’s like solving a puzzle. Do you know Anish Kapoor? “Cloud Gate” in Chicago, that whole thing? Well, with animals I like things as pared down as possible. The hippo is the same shape as a small brass piece I did earlier, but it’s a different material.
[Adler picks up another orange Lucite piece, this one like an irregular asterisk rendered in three dimensions.] Here I wanted to do an undersea-amoeba-starburst sculpture that can go any which way. I’m always interested in working in new materials that allow me new dimension. I want every sculpture to act as an abstract, beautiful form.
This is a piece that I’m really proud of. [He walks to a glass-topped side table where the base is a peacock in solid brass.] I wanted do a peacock that was pared down to nothing. I strive to create stuff in which abstraction and realism collide, effectively. And then I make poppers canisters [laughs].
How do you search for new techniques?
Luckily now there is the Interweb. And agents. I knew I always wanted to do brass. When you are a potter and you can make stuff in clay, you get a little hungry to take the same stuff and do it in different materials that have properties clay doesn’t. So brass, Lucite.
And that also must help you stay ahead of people mimicking you.
And then there is that. I’m doing a talk in a couple weeks with Dwell magazine about originality and authenticity and copying with my sister, who is a law professor at NYU. Her specialty is intellectual property. We’re doing a panel together about issues regarding copying — whether it is good or bad. Without copying there would be no trends. But yeah, people copy me and then I move on.
What are your other obsessions heading into fall and winter?
What’s tingling my chakras right now? Gold tones are always tingling my chakras. [He points to his expanded Utopia line of vases and mugs based on novelty hairstyles.] Mullets are always tingling my chakras.
While you’re in L.A., what’s on the itinerary?
I always go to the Grill on the Alley. I need a dose of that Beverly Hills geezer chic. Inevitably when I’m there, I’m sandwiched between Judge Judy and Larry King. Then I always hit Lucques, which is Suzanne Goin, the chef, one of my oldest and best friends from college. I always stay at L’Ermitage. It’s easy. And Fred Segal for lunch.
And you’re hosting this benefit for the It Gets Better Project?
[Founder] Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, are going to be here. They are truly my heroes. I have been a fan of Dan’s for years. When he did the It Gets Better Project, I just thought it was a profoundly clever and inspiring and meaningful initiative. I just wish I could invent a time machine and send It Gets Better videos back to myself when I was a young gay.
How would you describe yourself in high school?
I was a tortured potter. The bad news was that I was tortured — not by others, but by my inner turmoil. But the good news was that I found a refuge in the pottery studio. In some sense, being a struggling gay is what drove me to become a potter. But it was really hard, and I think what Dan and Terry are doing for the young gays is fantastic. They are making It Gets Better a thriving, continuing effort to help gay youth.