Jonathan Adler is marking the 25th anniversary of his business with a 900-square-foot pop-up shop at Chelsea Passage on the ninth floor of Barneys New York’s Madison Avenue flagship, which is only fitting, considering the retailer in 1993 gave Adler his first order, setting his business on its upward climb.
“A friend of mine knew someone at Barneys. Phyllis Pressman came to my fourth floor walk-up,” said Adler, referring to the wife of Fred Pressman, who was the son of the retailer’s founder and namesake, Barney Pressman. “Phyllis didn’t have to go far — my apartment was on 16th Street and the original downtown Barneys store was on Seventh Avenue and 17th Street. I was charging $20 bucks [for each piece]. The order was probably for a couple hundred bucks. I was an Airy Fairy potter, that’s how non-business oriented I was.”
Luckily, Adler gained business acumen and the company has grown exponentially. He declined to discuss sales volume, saying, “Thank God, it’s significantly more than when I started. I have 20 stores, 1,000 wholesale accounts around the world and a full slate of hotel and residential projects.”
Adler always had an affinity for clay. “I tried pottery at summer camp when I was 12 years old. From the moment I touched the clay, I knew it would become my lifelong passion and muse,” he said. “Clay is like earth, air, fire, water — everything. It’s primal.”
“He had this strange facility from a very young age and created these pots that are truly extraordinary,” said Adler’s husband, Simon Doonan, a writer, window dresser, fashion commentator and Barneys New York ambassador at large. “From the time that he was 12 years old, he made elaborate, grandiose vases and I was making little pitch pots. He has a strange mysterious relationship with clay. He can do stuff with it that other people can’t do.”
Adler started out teaching night classes at Mud Sweat and Tears in Hell’s Kitchen. “If I hadn’t gotten the order from Barneys…Until then, my dreams of success would have been hawking my wears at rain-soaked craft fairs. Everything that’s happened in intervening 25 year has been a dream, with the occasional nightmare — welcome to being in business.”
Adler designs are modern and clean with a wink. For example, there’s the Dora Maar lamp, which is part of the Muse collection, and the Vice collection, happy striped canisters with monikers such as Ganja, Prozac, Calories and White Lies. “It’s pretty much everything for the home, everything from mugs to sofas. Now and then there are some things you can wear.”
E-commerce is a “huge part of the business,” but Adler plans open more stores. The Barneys pop-up is something of a homecoming. “About seven or eight years ago, we took a break from Barneys,” he said. “The takeover on ninth floor represents a relaunch and rekindling of our romance.”
The project triggered a burst of creativity in Adler. “When I had the opportunity to do this takeover, it gave me a chance to reflect on everything I’ve done and made over the years. I created special oversize huge pieces exclusively for Barneys. I also took some of my most iconic pieces and defaced them with gold paint.
“The partnership gave me a chance to think creatively,” Adler added. “Barneys has been a perennial muse for designers. My Muse collection, which debuted at Barneys consists of porcelain vases with faces and it’s been a huge anchor of my business. We’ve always treated that collection as sacred. I thought, ‘Why is this sacred? Let’s deface it, so I scribbled on the items in gold.”
At Barneys, pieces include Adler’s Palm Springs giant hourglass vase, $1,850; Caracas 16-light chandelier, $2,250, and club chair and ottoman covered with a black-and-white optic pattern. “Though I started out as a potter, my oeuvre has gone on to include millions of different materials,” he said. “If one were to see how I started and what I’ve become, my work and medium has expanded infinitely.”
“My husband Simon never tires of reminding of me that I’m from New Jersey and shouldn’t get too big for my britches,” Adler said. But Doonan had nothing but compliments: “He’s very approachable, warm, friendly and funny. His brand has endured because he really is that person. He has a positive approach.”