Designer Jonathan Adler's colorful, eye-popping pillows, rugs and vases adorn the interiors of many discerning homeowners, but his dream of creating a home furnishings empire was nearly deferred. Early in his career, discouragement from his pottery teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design and several unfulfilling jobs at talent agencies in New York City left Adler at his wit's end. But these events only fueled his fire to live out the pottery dream. Adler taught night classes at a pottery studio called Mud, Sweat & Tears (potter puns!) and eventually opened his own studio. By 1994, Adler sold his first pottery collection to Barneys department store. Today, his home décor products and furniture are now sold in 25 stores bearing his name, and over 1,000 retailers around the world.
Adler joined Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg to chat about his design aesthetic. While The New York Times described it as "cynicerity" ("a careful balancing act of cynicism and sincerity"), Adler preferred to call it "full of style, craft and joy." He said, "I hope my designs are very chic. ... I'm also a rigorous, thoughtful designer, but I also want my work to communicate the joy that I experience in making it."
We wanted to know if the man who coined the word "chambeige" ("beige with a buzz") in his book Jonathan Adler on Happy Chic Colors knew how certain colors got their name. So later in the show, we put him in the puzzle hot seat for a game called "Happy Geek Colors." Find out if Adler knows which color is named after a desert-dwelling animal that also gives its hair to make overcoats. Plus, Adler offered the episode's grand winner tea for two at Adler HQ.
This episode originally aired on January 9, 2014.
On his path to becoming a potter
I wanted to go to RISD for grad school, and my teacher said, "Jonathan, I gotta be honest with you: You're not talented. I don't think you should go to grad school at RISD." I always had her to rebel against, and she stoked my fire to become a successful potter.
On his first ceramic collection, and learning the business
It was very stripey and nifty, and zippy and mod-looking. Bright colors. And it was good! I look back at it and think, "Wow, I was pretty good at being a potter." I was a terrible businessperson though. I got that order, shipped the pots to Barneys and didn't get paid for six months. I called them up and said, "Hey, I don't mean to bother you, I'm that guy who made those stripey pots, and was just wondering if I could maybe get paid?" I was an idiot. They were like, "Well, you're the guy who didn't send an invoice. And I said, "What's an invoice?" I've come a long way.
It takes a lot of mud, sweat and tears to make happy-looking stuff.
On wearing white after labor day
That's a do! I don't understand that [rule]. White jeans are my everyday attire, and it's one less decision I have to make in the morning.
His No. 1 design tip
Follow your heart. Ignore any rules. Wear white after Labor Day. Have an "F-it" attitude.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
You're listening to ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR and WYNC. I'm Ophira Eisenberg and let's welcome our Very Important Puzzler, designer Jonathan Adler.
EISENBERG: Welcome, Jonathan.
JONATHAN ADLER: Thank you. I'm so happy to be here. I'm a huge fan so this is, like, chakra-tingling.
EISENBERG: That's very nice. Now, I call you Jonathan. Are you - do you go by Jonathan professionally?
ADLER: I go by anything. Jonathan, sure.
EISENBERG: Do you go...
ADLER: My husband calls me Johnny but whatever.
EISENBERG: All right. Johnny, Jonathan, you started as a potter. You went to RISD which is, if you don't know, is the Rhode Island School of Design. Were you, like, at the top of your class?
ADLER: Well, no. Actually, it's funny. So I actually went to Brown and I wanted to go to RISD for grad school.
ADLER: And my teacher at RISD - I took classes there.
ADLER: I asked her if I could apply to grad school and she said, Jonathan, I gotta be honest with you: You're not talented.
ADLER: I don't think you can go to grad school at RISD. And it really happened and she was a very mean teacher. And I shouldn't say her name. I'll just say that her name begins with J and ends in acquelyn Rice.
ADLER: Just saying. Just saying. So I always had, you know, her to rebel against, and she's stoked my fire to become a successful potter.
EISENBERG: So, yeah.
EISENBERG: So someone tells you that, no, this is not your calling whatsoever and what do you do?
ADLER: I moved to New York and got a job at a talent agency and luckily proved to be a terrible employee. I got fired from every job. Like, slept with everybody in the office.
ADLER: Kept getting fired. And then I was at wit's end. Had no job prospects and just got a pottery studio and taught classes at night at a place called Mud, Sweat, and Tears.
ADLER: Potters love puns. And the rest is pottery history.
EISENBERG: Well, now, I wouldn't say you look like the archetype of a potter.
ADLER: No. I think Jonathan might look a bit more like the archetype for a potter.
EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton looks like the archetype of a potter. Yeah.
JONATHAN COULTON: Wait a minute.
EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
COULTON: I don't know how to take that.
ADLER: Well, I just - potters are not, like, big fans of shaving and grooming.
ADLER: Just saying.
COULTON: Oh, yeah. No, no, I know what you mean. Yeah, yeah.
ADLER: You look great.
COULTON: No, you're right. You're right. Neither am I.
COULTON: I bathe. For the record, I bathe.
ADLER: No, you look clean.
ADLER: Just for the listeners, he looks very, very lovely and clean.
EISENBERG: Very clean. He's very, very clean.
ADLER: He's just not a fan of the razor.
COULTON: If you get up close, I smell fantastic.
ADLER: I believe that.
EISENBERG: So your first ceramic collection was sold to Barneys Department Store in 1994?
EISENBERG: And what did that collection look like?
ADLER: It was very stripey and nifty, and sort of zippy and mod-looking. It was really cute.
EISENBERG: It was mod.
ADLER: Yeah, very mop.
EISENBERG: And colors? You're known for colors.
EISENBERG: And they were - so it was glazed with bright colors.
ADLER: Bright colors. And it was good. I look back at it and I was like wow, I was pretty good at being a potter. I was a terrible businessperson, though. I got that order, shipped the pots to Barneys and didn't get paid for six months. And then my dad was like you've got to get paid.
And I called them up and I was like, hey, I don't mean to bother you, I'm that guy who made those stripey pots, and I was just wondering if I could maybe get paid? Because I was an idiot. They were like, well, you're the guy who didn't send an invoice. And I was like what's an invoice?
ADLER: So I've come a long way in the intervening years.
EISENBERG: They were like, oh, little potter.
ADLER: I know. I was a naive little potter. So I'm less naïve.
EISENBERG: And so your design, I think it has a lot of humor to it. There's a lot of wit. I know you have these canisters, these ceramic canisters, in your store that has labels on them. There's one that says viagra.
EISENBERG: And one that says Prozac. Very funny.
ADLER: Prozac, Quaaludes, poppers.
ADLER: All your essentials.
EISENBERG: Right. You know.
EISENBERG: And I like that someone described your esthetic as - what was it? Cyni-serity. Which was cynicism and sincerity mixed together.
EISENBERG: Which I really liked that.
ADLER: And a lot of sibilant Ss which, you know, can be dangerous.
EISENBERG: I know. It was like si...
ADLER: But yet. It is cyni-serity, I suppose.
EISENBERG: How do you like your style described? Or how do you like it not described? How about that?
ADLER: I like my style described as full of style, craft, and joy. That's kind of what I strive to communicate in everything I make. But, you know, I believe design. I hope my design is very chic and I'm sort of a very rigorous, thoughtful designer but I also want my work to communicate the joy that I experience in making it.
EISENBERG: Huh. You're happy, huh?
ADLER: Intermittent. Actually, you know what? My work looks happy but it takes a lot of, like, mud, sweat and tears to make happy looking stuff.
EISENBERG: OK. Now, Jonathan, we're going to bring you back later in the show for your very own challenge but right now you are going to help us with our phone game.
EISENBERG: OK? You ready? Hello, caller.
ABBY DURLESTER: Hi, Ophira. Hi, Jonathan.
DURLESTER: This is Abby Durlester from St. Louis, Missouri and I am calling from my grandmother's guest bedroom because she is the only person I know who still has a land line.
EISENBERG: I know.
DURLESTER: And she is in the other room listening to "Murder, She Wrote" loud enough that I can still hear the plot. So it's been perfect.
EISENBERG: This is just a ploy for us to get our listeners to visit their grandparents, actually.
EISENBERG: This whole caller thing on a land line.
DURLESTER: And it's worked. She's grateful. So.
EISENBERG: That's awesome. Abby, are you a fan of Jonathan Adler's work?
DURLESTER: Huge fan.
EISENBERG: Do you own any of the pieces?
DURLESTER: Yeah, I have a bunch. I have a poof.
DURLESTER: I have - I think my favorite is probably the bull because I'm a lawyer but I like to have a fun office so that I don't feel like a lawyer. And so I like to keep him there. He cheers me up.
ADLER: Oh, nice. Well, I'm glad to hear it.
EISENBERG: And her hobby is also refurbishing housewares and furniture and I'm told that you recently went on Etsy and had a sale.
DURLESTER: I did. I'm very excited. My first one.
EISENBERG: Well done. OK.
DURLESTER: Mazel tov.
EISENBERG: So this game is called Random Questions with Jonathan Adler. Abby, before the show we asked Jonathan a few random questions with two possible answers. Like Prince or Michael Jackson?
EISENBERG: And all you have to do is answer how you think he did. For example, Jonathan, what did you say, Prince or Michael Jackson?
ADLER: I think I said Prince. It's a "Little Red Corvette" thing.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah. Totally. OK.
ADLER: Mm-hmm. That's what was - that sealed the deal for me.
EISENBERG: "Little Red Corvette." Yes.
EISENBERG: So if you said Prince you would get a point for that and if you get enough right we will send you an ASK ME ANOTHER prize.
EISENBERG: That's right. That's right, Abby. Get excited. So here's your first question. Are you ready?
EISENBERG: Weather white after Labor Day - do or don't?
DURLESTER: Well, I am going to say that Jonathan said that was a do because I don't think he cares about goofy rules like that.
ADLER: That's a do.
EISENBERG: And just to let you know, he is currently wearing white pants.
DURLESTER: Oh. See?
ADLER: I am.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Yeah.
EISENBERG: So, yeah, you don't care about that white rule. It's ridiculous.
ADLER: No. I don't understand that. And white - and white jeans are my everyday attire and it's one less decision I have to make in the morning.
EISENBERG: Exactly. Where did that rule even come from?
ADLER: I don't know. Like the 19th century or something.
DURLESTER: I can go ask my grandmother.
ADLER: Yeah, your grandmother.
DURLESTER: She'd probably know.
COULTON: Don't interrupt her show, though. She's watching her show.
DURLESTER: Oh, completely. I just hope, you know, one of her friends doesn't call with the call waiting.
EISENBERG: Oh, boy.
DURLESTER: Because that would be bad.
EISENBERG: It's going to be a mess and then they're going to come over and find out what's wrong.
EISENBERG: We posed this hypothetical question to Jonathan. You're on one of those people movers at the airport terminal. Do you stand on the right or do you walk past people on the left? What do you think he said?
DURLESTER: Well, Jonathan lives in New York which means he walks past people on the left.
ADLER: I actually walk over people on the left.
ADLER: Like, if you're on one of those people movers and you're in front of me, get the hell out of my way. Because you are annoying me. Just move. I am a zippy, zippy person.
ADLER: So you're correct.
EISENBERG: I like punching them as I whiz by. Do you ever do that?
ADLER: Right. Yeah.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's fun. Very smart. Very smart, Abby. OK. Who does the dishes more in the house, Jonathan or his husband Simon Doonan?
DURLESTER: I was going to say Liberace, their dog.
DURLESTER: But I will say Simon.
ADLER: (makes buzzer sound)
ADLER: That is incorrect. I grew up with a mother whose main focus in life was making sure that every dish that went into the dishwasher was spotlessly clean. And I spent my whole childhood mocking her and now I have become her. So if Simon does the dishes I'm, like, hanging over his shoulder, like, making sure there's no specks.
ADLER: So I do them.
DURLESTER: I am also Jewish, Jonathan, so I feel like we have that true understanding.
COULTON: I feel you.
EISENBERG: I like how we all just cut to the chase culturally, huh?
ADLER: Well, we were skirting around the issue. It's all euphemisms for the same thing.
COULTON: I think we know what we're talking about, here.
EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly. I'm at my grandmother's. You get it. Yeah. I got it.
EISENBERG: How does Jonathan pronounce the thing you put flowers in, vaz or vase?
DURLESTER: Ooh. I'm going to go with vase.
ADLER: Thank you. Yes.
DURLESTER: Yeah. Yeah.
ADLER: Never understood vaz.
ADLER: Never understood aunt. They all sound too fancy. I'm vase and ant.
EISENBERG: Well, you feel like people are just lying when they do that, right?
ADLER: Yeah. I'm like were you ever a child?
ADLER: Like it sounds so old.
EISENBERG: Right. Or just like one of your friends when you're eating, you know, the Italian food they're like (in Italian accent) the ravioli!
EISENBERG: You're like, OK, relax. All right?
EISENBERG: All right. Well, I think you did really well. I think...
ART CHUNG: I think she won. I think Abby won.
EISENBERG: You think she won? OK.
EISENBERG: Our puzzle guru said you won.
EISENBERG: So, Abby, we are going to send you an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's cube signed by Jonathan Adler. That's right.
DURLESTER: Oh, my goodness. I'm so excited. Thank you so much, you guys. It was a real treat.
EISENBERG: Thanks so much, Abby. And enjoy Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur.
ADLER: Don't forget Shavuot.
EISENBERG: Shavuot. Jonathan, we'll see you later for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge. Have another hand for Jonathan Adler.
ADLER: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EISENBERG: Would you love to be a contestant on our show but can't get a direct flight to Brooklyn? Not to worry. You can now play over the phone. All you need is a landline or a friend, parent, or grandparent with one, and you too can compete and maybe win a prize. So reach out to us by sending us an email to ASK ME ANOTHER at npr.org or you can find us on Twitter or Facebook. Operators are standing by.
(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.