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Free Spirits: Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan

Michael Adams • March 19, 2018
Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan. Photography by Robert Malmberg, Mike Schwartz, and courtesy of Jonathan Adler

Photos: Recent Projects

Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan are a match made in heaven. Their styles, often eclectic and tongue-in-cheek, come together in perfect harmony. Most importantly, the married partners are arbiters of taste, with an affinity for luxury mixed with a bit of kitsch and, of course, color. That vibrant aesthetic has propelled them into the upper echelons of design and fashion. Adler, a much-coveted designer, potter, and author, has launched ceramic collections for Barneys and home furnishings for his eponymous New York boutique, which now spans 30 stores—not to mention the success the New Jersey native found designing the Parker Palm Springs in California, as well as multiple residential properties. Meanwhile, the UK-born Doonan, known for his role as a window dresser at Barneys—and currently serving as the brand’s creative ambassador—has cultivated a second career commenting on culture and style by writing columns for the likes of online magazine Slate and publishing six books, including Eccentric Glamour: Creating an Insanely More Fabulous You.

For HD Expo’s opening session on May 2nd, Adler and Doonan will sit for a candid and freewheeling interview. As a prelude, we met with the duo at Adler’s two-story office/workshop/showroom in Greenwich Village in New York. Here, they speak about being makers, the fantasy world of design, and the freedom found in creativity.

Let’s start with how you two met.
Jonathan Adler: We met on a blind date 23 years ago. An ex-boyfriend of mine set us up. At the time, I was a clay-spattered bohemian potter and Simon was a legendary fashion celebutante. I thought it was an oil-and-water situation, but here we are.
Simon Doonan: I was in my pinstripe suit—admittedly it was Romeo Gigli—and thought, ‘Well, I’m 42 and he’s 28.’ At the time, I was executive vice president of creative services for Barneys, so I had a full-on job. It never occurred to me that he’d like me, but our mutual friend said that he did, so I called him. We have a lot of things that are completely different, but the right things are similar. We laugh at the same things. We both like me. Neither of us drink, and we are weirdly outdoorsy and sporty.
JA: We’re a potter and a window dresser, those are sort of outsider callings.
SD: To have a trade is weird in itself, but we like our trades. I never thought, ‘Why can’t I be doing something else?’ I never complained about it.
JA: I told my parents, ‘I have a new boyfriend, and he’s a window dresser.’
SD: And your [mom] snapped the stem of her wine glass and spat her food across the room.

But of course that has changed.
JA: She still wants me to find a nice hair colorist.
SD: Jonny’s family is very brainy and academic. And I’m not.
JA: But you’ve become a trenchant cultural critic.

What are your most recent accomplishments?
SD: Besides my creative relationship with Barneys, I’m working on an NBC reality [competition] TV show called Making It with [executive producers and hosts] Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler. I’m one of two judges [alongside Etsy trend expert Dayna Isom Johnson]. The show is a clarion call to put down the phone and start making things.
JA: By the way, I was up for the same role.
SD: And I got it and he didn’t.
JA: He was off to Malibu to lens a network show, and I went to the bowels of southern China to visit a furniture workshop.
SD: He got his revenge by telling everyone I was in rehab. I’m also working on a book [Soccer Style: The Magic and Madness] that’s coming out in June. It celebrates the culture around soccer. It’s something I’ve always been interested in—the money, the style, the clothes. It’s a humor book.
JA: It’s impossible to answer what I’m up to because I’m constantly making things—interior design projects, decorating houses, a possible hotel project out West. I just make stuff all day.

What do you like about hotel design?
JA: Hotels are my favorite thing to design. It’s like creating a theatrical fantasy land. Any hotel developer should pick up the phone and give me a jingle.

One of your projects was referred to as ‘very Jonathan Adler.’ What does that mean to you?
JA: I hope it means that it looks young, rich, and thin. I call my brand ‘modern American glamour.’ I hope to capture the optimistic spirit that is uniquely American. That means memorable, bold, and a little bit shiny. As a designer, I see myself as a slimming mirror for my clients.
SD: When people are in one of Jonny’s hotel rooms, they might sit on the bed, read a book, or just daydream that they’re in a Slim Aarons photograph. You can inhabit that fantasy while you’re there.

Do you have the freedom to critique each other’s work?
SD: I rely on Jonny to edit my writing. He’s a great editor, I get his opinion all the time. He doesn’t need my opinion on design things.
JA: I love to show you [what I’m doing]. And we have a frame of reference to understand about what each of us is trying to achieve and critique it.

How do you each refresh your creative spirit?
JA: I never struggle to be inspired.
SD: We have that in common. With windows, it’s very forgiving. You do a window, you slap it together, you move a mannequin. If you don’t like it, it’s gone in a week. He started with pottery, some things crack in the kiln. If you don’t like it, you can break it and remake it. There isn’t such anxiety around creativity. Everything’s malleable. Both of us have freewheeling attitudes toward creativity.

Any favorite hotels?
SD: Claridge’s in London.
JA: La Scalinatella Capri [in Italy]. Amangiri in Utah.
SD: Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California.
JA: What they all have in common is that they are…
SD: Bone-crushingly expensive.
JA: Yes, but they all capture a sense of place.

And playgrounds?
SD: London. It’s not the place I left years ago. It’s exuberant, completely explosive, and lots of fun.
JA: And Capri. But our spiritual home is on Shelter Island [in Long Island, New York]. We have a home there. I’m never in a bad mood there.