For the record: The only pants Jonathan Adler owns are white jeans. The designer, turning 52 in August, calls himself a "prissy potter" — he's not about to sacrifice style just because he's working with clay. Please. Jonathan rolls up the sleeves of his pale blue button-down shirt, declaring that he's going to make an urn. Today's challenge isn't perfecting a piece of pottery, even though what he creates will likely become a prototype for his ceramics collection sold around the world. That's second nature to the artist. Instead, he pauses, his face turning contemplative.
"Here's my goal," Jonathan says. "I'm going to make a big pot today, but my goal is to get exactly zero clay on my pants or my shirt." Now that's a true test of skill, but more practically, he has plans after work.
Jonathan's built a decor empire — with more than 1,000 stores selling his wares worldwide — and it all started with pottery. He's been working with clay since he first learned the craft at a summer camp when he was 12, eventually ditching his day job in the entertainment industry to pursue potting full-time. He sold his first collection of pots to Barneys in 1993, and his career has only exploded from there, leading to full furniture and accessories lines, four books, and a stint as a judge on Top Design. It's only fitting that one of his favorite places in the world is his potting studio, which sits right in the heart of his SoHo headquarters.
"This is going to be a little weird," Jonathan warns me, before lifting a pack of clay up and slamming it to the ground. "Sorry," he smiles as he throws it to the floor three more times. This is Jonathan activating the clay. It's loud, and there's dust flying everywhere, none of which ends up on his jeans.
When you step into the Jonathan Adler HQ, which he calls the Fantasy Factory, it's like stepping into Jonathan's catalog. It's glamorous, with bright prints and sleek furniture throughout the lobby. Go a bit deeper into the space, past all of his employees working — or as he jokes while giving me a tour, "texting or Grinding," — you'll find his pottery studio. The floors are worn, the tabletops covered in dust, and unfinished pots are scattered around. This, Jonathan says, is where the fun happens. In this tiny corner studio, ceramics are created that turn the fantasy factory into The Fantasy Factory.
Another loud noise, and this time, it's Jonathan wedging the clay, kneading it to remove any air bubbles. "When I was a full-time potter, I was fit A-F," he says. The clay is on the table, and he's rolling it into a spiral, his hands working deftly as he talks. He shares how he doesn't understand why the women of the Upper East Side that he sees flipping tires at the gym don't just wedge clay. "Being a potter — it should be the new tire flip," he says. Jonathan then decides that instead of CrossFit, it could be PotFit. He tells me we'll go into business together. "Shark Tank, hello," he says. The veins in his arm are pultruding, his muscles flexed. He's done wedging the clay. No air bubbles in sight; still, not a mark on his jeans.
As I watch Jonathan begin to pot, it's no wonder he's more stressed over potential stains on his white jeans than the task at hand. How easily I walk is how easily his hands shape the clay — they just go. "You need to think of yourself as a machine," he says. "If you try to be steady and forceful with the clay, it will submit." And, in Jonathan's hands, the clay does just that. Within minutes, it starts to form the shape of a squatty urn, as he slowly builds it upward.
If there's one thing I've learned about Jonathan so far — beyond his very un-potter-like uniform — it's this: You shouldn't ask him what his inspiration is.
"People always ask, and it's the most impossible question to answer. I should probably come up with something to say, because the reality is, I have no idea," he says. Jonathan stops for a moment, thinking.
"Inspiration is kind of anything, everything, and yet nothing," he elaborates, pausing again to acknowledge how woo-woo that might sound. "If I were to do like, a mind-blown thing with my hands right now, I'd get clay all over my outfit. And that's not going to happen. Not today."
Though now Jonathan's white jeans are as much of a staple as his colorful designs, it wasn't always this way. He actually spent his youth covered in clay. "I was a full-time potter and was like Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown. I had clay dust following me wherever I went. ... The older I get, the prissier I've gotten."
Don't be fooled by the self-proclaimed prissiness, or how Jonathan says he has "no idea" what his inspiration is; he's spent 25 years turning dreams into bestsellers. Literally — that's how he came up with his cloud-shaped sofa.
"Every once in a while, I'm lucky enough to kind of have an idea that starts like that," he says. "It comes from somewhere supernatural. That sounds insane, and I'm not, but yeah."
Jonathan lives for that feeling — the moment when your crazy ideas actually become reality, and they look just like you imagined. "It kind of washes over you and feels like heaven on earth," he says, adding that,"it's what keeps me coming in every day."
At this point, Jonathan, who's in the pottery studio several times a week, finishes his urn, placing it on the same table he'd been using to wedge the clay just 45 minutes earlier. "That's it. That pot happened," he says with a smile.
When he stands, he counts the splatters on his pants. Five. I ask if he has a trick for getting the stains out. He takes a fingernail and scratches the clay off. "No," he says. "It just happens." As much as he talks about being prissy, he shrugs it off nonchalantly, which is part of his magic: He gets that the key to a happy life is not taking yourself too seriously — and being willing to get your hands dirty.
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