Hubert Burda Media

Talking Design with Jonathan Adler

Can the potter and homeware designer be as cheeky and amusing as his products? We find out.

“How do you flip someone off in Hong Kong?” Jonathan Adler asks midway through our photo shoot. Do you do it like this, he wonders, sticking his middle finger up in the air, or is it more of a two-fingered salute? 

Adler isn’t angry with anyone – he’s just curious. But it seems an appropriate question to ask, since the potter, and product and interior designer has spent much of his career metaphorically flipping off the rest of the design world with his eccentric and stylish home accessories. His catalogue includes everything from undeniably phallic statues of bananas to a luxurious brass pillbox in the shape of a Xanax tablet. Recently, he’s even released a hashish-scented candle. 

These tongue-in-cheek products – which range in size from small tabletop dishes to king-size beds – are loved by both diehard design fans and casual decorators around the world. Here in Hong Kong, they’re available at Lane Crawford, where we recently met Adler for a chat about everything from the highs of his nearly 20-year-long career to why you should never, ever listen to anyone’s advice. 

When you describe your work, you often use the phrase “irreverent luxury”. Is there one piece in your archive that you think really embodies that idea? 

I think that the Georgia Vase [a tall, thin vase completely covered in breasts] is the perfect example. It’s called Georgia because it’s inspired by Georgia O’Keefe. At the risk of sounding immodest, I think it’s kind of flawless. It’s thoughtfully and carefully designed – I made it in my pottery studio and wanted to get every breast to look absolutely perfect. It’s made of the most luxurious porcelain and it’s undeniably irreverent. 

You nearly didn’t make it as a potter after one of your professors, Jacqueline Rice, told you that you had no talent. You obviously rebelled against her and didn’t take her advice. Is there anyone whose opinion you listen to? 

The Jacqueline Rice thing is hilarious and I hope that you’re smearing her name throughout Asia. The good news is that now when you Google her, my name comes up. I’ve erased her! She’s been scrubbed from the interweb. The best advice I’ve ever gotten was from my husband [Simon Doonan],

it was, “Never give anybody advice because nobody really wants to hear it. You need to figure it out yourself.” 

You’re obviously a creative person, but you also run a global business. How much of a thrill do you get out of the business side? 

It’s not about that at all. I don’t mean to sound like a spiritual or lovely person, but I only care about the creative. For me, the business side is a fantastic platform to enable me to be more creative and to not have to ask anybody’s permission to make what I want to make. That’s the magic of having my own stores and getting to work with brilliant partners like Lane Crawford, is that I can still be completely authentic and true to myself. 

You still make things with your own hands every day that you’re in your studio in New York. Do you miss that when you’re away? 

No. I spent my pretty years as a production potter. My late twenties, early thirties, I was like the hardest working factory worker on Earth, so no, I don’t miss it. It was gruelling, backbreaking work, so now I have the luxury of just making prototypes and I don’t miss it. 

What’s been the highest point of your career so far? 

It’s yet to come! Though I will tell you something really cool – I just made a seven-foot-tall bronze banana sculpture. It’s my first work in bronze and it’s a seat – the bronze peel is a seat that I’ll totally work. I did this for a hotel I designed in Palm Springs. So I think that’s my favourite thing I’ve made so far. It’s quite a seat and it’s quite a feat – a seven-foot-tall bronze banana in Palm Springs. It’s going to be a one-off, but I kind of want one for myself. 

Adler’s Muse collection of pottery

Is your home full of your own products?

Yes, I feel like if I’m going to make it and have other people buy it, then I need to know that it works well. If I don’t love it, I won’t sell it. 

You also design some things that are purely decorative and some things that are decorative and functional. 

I like to think I’m decorative and functional. My employees probably think I’m purely decorative, but I’m decorative and functional. 

Do you get any more pleasure out of one or the other? 

I don’t see any distinction between art and design. I studied art history in college but to me, everything you surround yourself with should be great, whether it’s decorative or functional – there’s no distinction. 

Do you collect art? 

I guess I do have a lot of art, but it’s very personal – it’s mostly stuff by friends or stuff that really just moves me. Some of it’s noteworthy, some of it’s not. Some of it’s expensive, some of it’s inexpensive. I hate art collectors. If I walk into one more $10-billion New York apartment with a Richard Prince nurse painting I’ll just like [puts gun to head]. They’ve become trophies. I think that fancy art has become more trophy than creative. Those are deep thoughts from a shallow person. 

Adler’s Versailles collection of pottery

Do you think the same thing could be happening with design? 

The nice thing about design is that the stakes are lower financially. So there are certainly iconic trophy design pieces, but it’s a more free and creative world. When I was starting my career, I had no idea what I was going to do and I was more familiar with the world of art pottery, having spent a year at art school – I wasn’t familiar with design. And I’m so glad I chose to become a designer because I think artists, the model for being an artist is that you sort of need to zero in on a style, stake a claim to it and then just keep repeating it ad infinitum. That’s what art has become. And ultimately I think that’s much less creative than what I have the opportunity to do, which is to make squillions of things in squillions of materials and the stakes are lower and it’s less about marketing and more about what I want my life to be about, which is making shit. 

What are you working on at the moment? 

I designed this tie I’m wearing and it kind of expresses my philosophy [Adler’s tie is covered in an endless loop of “more, more, more …”]. So my husband wrote this book, it’s called The Asylum and it’s his musings of a life in fashion, and in it he says he’s always imagined that life is like a giant disco cube, like at a disco when you hop up on a cube and jiggle around. So he said he thinks you should jump on that cube and dance around as fast and as hard as you can, till eventually you fall off and it’s somebody else’s turn. And I think that’s what life is. I’m still jiggling on that disco cube, making more, more, more, more. Eventually I’m going to fall off but, for now, I’m going to keep jiggling.