Don’t be surprised if you spot famed designer Jonathan Adler around town. He has a place locally, and after overseeing a stunning redesign of the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, he’s likely to be visiting even more often. Adler chats with us about his unconventional road to success and the happy chic aesthetic he’s famous for today.
When the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa cut ties with the Ritz-Carlton brand in 2013, there were whispers all over town:
How would the rebrand affect the staff, the spa, the restaurants and the quality of a stay there?
So for the resort’s creative director, Ayelet Rahav, the stakes were high. She could not initiate a redesign just for the sake of a redesign. This redesign had to be jaw-dropping good.
She wanted a design that branded a new Palm Beach – one that fused the town’s luxury and history with a younger, more modest sophistication. Iris Apfel meets Kate Middleton. Chanel mixed with Zara.
This new design had to create goosebumps.
There was only one person for the job.
This person happened to be a regular at the Eau Spa, so Rahav waltzed right over to the spa manager and said: “Get me the number to Jonathan Adler.”
Ayelet Rahav was not the first person to set her heart on working with Adler. The designer has a dream resume: He’s designed the set of E!’s “Fashion Police,” the Barbie dream house in Malibu, Trina Turk boutiques and The Parker Palm Springs Hotel. He’s collaborated with Starbucks, Lacoste and JCPenney.
There’s a long list of people and brands vying to work with Adler, and the reason? His eccentric yet glamorous designs are instantly recognizable – and like nothing else out there.
The Adler philosophy says it all: “If your heirs won’t fight over it, we won’t make it.”
His pieces are always luxe – and always cheeky. His pottery collection, for instance, looks nothing like the red-clay pieces you made in your high school home ec class. Porcelain kitchen canisters are brandished with labels like “prozac” and “glitter.” He makes a mohawk-shaped match container; a ceramic, peacock-shaped lollipop holder; and a vase in the shape of a banana peel. It’s the kind of stuff you didn’t know you wanted – until you see it and suddenly have to have it.
His furniture pieces are old-fashioned, drop-dead dazzling. His take on a bar cart is brass with nickel and Lucite accents, and giant, overstated wheels. His lighting is like jewelry for the home, with designs that resemble giant puzzles made out of solid brass or upside-down rain clouds made of glass and brass.
He even makes board games indulgent, with an $800 Lucite chess set, and a $200 brass and marble tick-tack-toe set.
His prolific vision carries through more than 1,400 original pieces for sale on his website. Fans of his work can shop in more than 30 Jonathan Adler stores internationally or find his products at the more than 1,000 locations he sells wholesale to.
The Jonathan Adler aesthetic is a hit. But it wasn’t always that way.
Adler will be the first to tell you:
It took him a while to figure things out.
Ironically enough, the best thing that ever happened to him was getting fired. And then getting fired again. And again.
At 23, he had quite a different lifestyle than he does today at 48. If you’d met him then, you probably couldn’t have guessed he would become one of the most sought-after interior designers in the world.
How he puts it: “I was a disaster,” he says. “I was unemployable.”
He’d take personal calls at work. When his bosses asked him to do something, he’d retort, “Um, one minute? I’m just finishing up a call.” He had inappropriate relationships with his boss and co-workers – at the same time.
It seems like a far cry from the easygoing Adler speaking today, who laughs often and answers questions in a singsong voice, whose vocabulary heavily favors expressions like “totes,” “dude,” “okie doke,” and “fab,” and who gestures enthusiastically with his hands when he talks.
But back then? “I deserved to be fired,” he says. “And every day I thank God that I was.”
Adler has always embraced a tell-it-like-it-is attitude, and has spoken openly at conferences, in interviews and in his books about his struggles in his early 20s.
His shaky early career started with a college professor at the Rhode Island School of Design who gave him tough advice around the time he was graduating. He approached her and told her he wanted to become a potter. He wanted to know if she thought he had what it would take to succeed.
Her answer was no. He wasn’t good enough. He should give up his dream and get a real job.
Adler listened. He moved to New York and began work at a talent agency. He spent the early 1990s jumping between assistant-level jobs in the entertainment industry.
But after three years, he grew tired of being fired. Out of work for the last time, he began teaching classes at Mud Sweat & Tears Pottery in exchange for free studio space. He began making his own pottery again and within a year, he had built up a collection he was proud enough of to present to Barneys New York.
They booked an order.
And suddenly, just like that, Adler was working harder than he ever had in his life. He’d be in his studio seven days a week, producing hundreds of pieces by hand each day.
It was the beginning of an empire.
When it comes to hotels, Adler’s philosophy is simple:
“Everything in a hotel room should be something that you want, something that you’re going to want to steal,” he says.
And the newly designed rooms at the Eau exemplify just that, with giant, flower-shaped mother-of-pearl mirrors, ice-cream-cone-shaped vases, his-and-hers coffee mugs with lip and mustache imprints, and needlepoint throw pillows that say “Palm Beach.”
When Rahav called up Adler about collaborating with the Eau’s redesign, he didn’t need much convincing. He’s had a place in Palm Beach for about 12 years. He can’t get enough of the culture or the restaurants, and visits as often as he can.
“I love lunch at Belle and Maxwell’s. And, I love Friday and or Saturday night at Chez Jean-Pierre – I think I would be insane if I didn’t go,” he says.
Adler and Rahav meshed instantly. From their very first conversation, it was kismet.
“It was like in the movies. I’d talk one sentence; he finished the other,” Rahav says. “We speak the same language. When we say Capri, we mean the same Capri.”
During the redesign, which began in February and was completed at the end of November, Adler was involved in every step, visiting constantly and staying in close contact with his production team. He touched every part of the design, from the nailhead chairs to the patterned lamps, to the Lucite vanity tables.
“I wanted every surface and every piece to be interesting and unexpected, and tres, tres chic,” Adler says in a video he made to promote the redesign.
Adler took the resort’s outdated, peach-colored walls, and covered them with brilliant bamboo-Mylar wallpaper. He painted the hallway ceilings teal to match with the hotel’s color palette.
The entire design is Santorini meets Capri meets Palm Beach. Visitors will never forget that their rooms are steps away from the sea, with nautical touches incorporated in every part of the design: from the grayish-blue carpet patterned with white sailor’s knots to the seaside-inspired décor – giant octopus prints; tortoise shell statues; sea anemone, silver-capped chandeliers; brass eel objects; and seahorseand seashell-shaped lamps.
The bathrooms were designed to look like “the chicest yacht imaginable,” Adler says. Teal-colored mirrors make a statement above the refaced bathroom cabinets with campaign hardware. The Mylar wallpaper looks almost like overlapping clouds in various shades of blue.
Almost everything is designed by Adler himself – either a piece from his collection or a piece custom-designed for the resort. He never for one second forgot that he was designing in Palm Beach, incorporating prints by socialite photographer Slim Aarons shot on location in Palm Beach, and pillows embroidered with the town’s name.
That jaw-dropping design Rahav wanted? Done, and done.
Adler will always introduce himself first and foremost as a potter.
He discovered pottery while at summer camp when he was 12. “I am not a particularly spiritual person, but the moment I touched clay I felt an immediate spiritual connection – [I] just knew that it was my future and that it was right,” he says.
He studied semiotics and art history at Brown University, but snuck away to make quilted, Chanel-inspired pottery at the Rhode Island School of Design as often as possible.
After Barneys started selling his work in the mid ’90s, things took off, and every year he hit another milestone: outsourcing production and opening boutiques in major cities in the late ’90s; taking on interior design projects in 2002; adding bedding, towels and stationery to his line in 2004; making his reality TV entrance as the lead judge on “Top Design” in 2007.
The potter had transformed into an interior designer, and that interior designer had become a celebrity.
But of course, the road to success was not without hiccups. It took him six months to get paid for his collection at Barneys because he didn’t know what an invoice was or that he should submit one.
And, as in any production industry, Adler’s had his fair share of well – disasters. Like the time he caused a huge fire in a 40-story office building in SoHo. “That was one of the instances in which I lay on my bed in the fetal position for three days before getting back on the horse.”
His office today? “It’s pretty rad, actually. I have a full-floor office building in SoHo. Um, not the one I burned down,” he clarifies.
The swanky office, dubbed the “Fantasy Factory,” always has at least 10 dogs running around. The center of the office is Adler’s own pottery studio, where you’d often find him, dressed in a Lacoste shirt, white jeans and sneakers, focused intensely on his work.
Adler is so focused on his work that if a sofa doesn’t sit just-so or a teapot doesn’t pour properly, he’ll lose sleep at night thinking about how to make it right. For him, the best compliment is hearing that somebody drinks out of one of his mugs every day, that his products are actually being used and loved.
Looking back on it, Adler doesn’t blame his first bosses for firing him. If he were to run into them today, he feels they’d even be proud of how far he’s come.
“I think they’d probably give me a hearty mazel tov now that I’m like, their age,” he says. “I have employees who are 22 and 23. I realize those are the ages to experiment and be young and stupid, and it’s fine. ... Of course, I’m always on their side. I always – I still feel like them.”
As for Adler, he is always looking forward, not backward, always most obsessed with whatever project he is working on at the moment.
His future in his own words: “Just making more stuff,” he says. “More, more, more.”
And with that, he heads back into his studio to do just that.