Why Jonathan Adler Is Glad He Got Fired Four Times

The guru of “happy chic” opened up about early career flubs and designing for the Obamas at a lecture Tuesday night.

By: Laura Wainman

Jonathan Adler. Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Adler.

It’s hard not to smile when the petite Jonathan Adler bounces into a room in crisp white pants and a checkered shirt. But that’s to be expected; after all, the designer has made a career out of the words “happy chic.” Speaking to a nearly sold-out audience at the Corcoran on Tuesday, Adler set the tone of his talk by opening with a joke. Pointing to an image of a bearded, disheveled hippie on the screen behind him, the first words he spoke were, “Ohh, there I am!” Once the laughter fizzled out he launched into the story of his “improbable and accidental career.”

Adler spent his entire childhood dreaming of being a potter, and after taking courses at Rhode Island School of Design, he approached his professor to ask whether she thought he had what it took. The professor, whose name “begins with a J and ends with ackie Rice,” answered with a resounding “no” and advised him to pursue a career in law. Disappointed, he moved to New York and found a job in the movie industry.

“Luckily, I proved to be incompetent and unemployable and found myself fired from four jobs,” Adler said. “I decided to try to forget about Jackie Rice and follow my heart. I got a studio and just started making pots.”

Still self-conscious after the confrontation with his professor, he hesitated to show anyone his work. But with encouragement from his parents he called up Barneys New York, which sent representatives to his apartment to view his work. They placed an order, and Adler’s pottery career was born. Well, after he learned what an invoice was and how he wouldn’t get paid without sending one (true story).

With his 18th storefront set to open July 6 in Georgetown, Adler shows no signs of slowing down. He’s currently designing a new line of hair-inspired pots (think Flock of Seagulls and afros) and working to make needlepoint “groovy again,” and his fourth book is due out this fall. Though he has pulled back on interiors, he is looking to start working on more industrial designs, such as the line of colorful sinks he just launched for Kohler.

“I’d love to do a car or appliances,” he said.

He opened the door to questions by inviting guests to ask him their most “hard-hitting, inappropriate, and perverse” queries. The audience responded with proclamations of not-so-secret crushes and pleas to be hired. Our own question, naturally, was Washington-based—we wanted to know which local home he was dying to get inside.

“You have to go for the top—the Obamas’, of course,” he said.

After the talk, exemplifying the same sunny disposition that has made his art famous, Adler stayed to autograph books and snap photos with his many fans.

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