Tips for finding your personal style from designer Jonathan Adler

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Potter, designer and author Jonathan Adler’s career has been filled with creative highlights, including designing swanky hotels, serving as a judge on HGTV’s Design Star: Next Gen, and creating a real-life Malibu Barbie dream home. His furniture, cushions, rugs and vases are sold around the world, including in 11 Jonathan Adler stores, and he recently launched his first tile collection for Lunada Bay.

His most recent appearance is the 13-part educational series Decorate Like a Designer, with Jonathan Adler, which premiered in May on Wondrium, a subscription-based educational content streaming service. “I’ve spent my life thinking about how design works,” says Adler, 55. “I felt it was time to share my knowledge.”

The themes of the show are broad: lighting, accessories, recycling old objects, colour, the magic of repetition – and an engaging lesson in the history of design over the past 100 years. (He even shows viewers how he makes a pot.) It’s a well-organized introduction to the basic principles of design for those looking to hone their skills, and for young designers looking to learn from a seasoned professional.

But be careful: don’t watch all 13 episodes in one day. (I’m speaking from experience here.) It might have you muttering the show’s mantra, “glamor equals swagger,” in your sleep.

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We met Adler in a phone interview last week from Shelter Island, NY, where he lives with his husband, fashion guru Simon Doonan, who also appears in the Wondrium series. (The two also have a home in Palm Beach, Fla.) We asked Adler for advice on finding your own style.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How do you explain to people how to find their own style?

A: I like to explain how I get my own style. There are three filters through which I see the design world, three voices that flow into all my work, from objects to furniture to decoration: pop, natural and deluxe. About bright, bold, minimalist, slightly sassy voices and muses like Andy Warhol and Ellsworth Kelly, pop is an opportunity to be witty and artistic. Natural comes from the fact that I am an artisan and believe in impeccable materials and honest, timeless craftsmanship. And Deluxe is even more luxury. [In the Wondrium lesson, he mentions velvet, sparkles, gold and chinoiserie.] I hope that one of these styles resonates or that people create their own personal, idiosyncratic style.

Q: Where do people find designers and taste makers to inspire them?

A: The holy trinity for me: Pinterest, Instagram and 1stDibs. I’m transported from Pinterest. It almost makes me comatose and I lose track of time and space. The company 1stDibs is great because they break things down by designer. If you like a person’s items and furniture, you can see everything that person has done. This is a great way to get a sense of design history and context.

Q: Can your clothes be an indication of what style you like in your home? [Adler’s uniform is white jeans year-round and Stan Smiths.]

A: In an ideal world, your fashion and decoration styles would be the same. I often see women looking very groovy and chic and edgy and I imagine they live in a minimalist artsy home but then I get there and it’s an English country cottage look with cabbage rose. Sometimes there is a complete dissonance between a person’s styles of clothing and decoration. It’s a lot easier to change your clothes than your decor. Decor is often a snapshot of where someone has been, and clothing is more of the now, so it doesn’t always work.

Q: How do you decide if you are a minimalist or a maximalist?

A: You really have to think about what makes you happy at home. Are you a person who loves having a handbag that you use every day or do you need 10? Although people might not think I’m a Marie Kondo type, I’ve learned that I only have pieces around me that bring joy. (I happen to have a lot of these.) I’m a minimalist/maximalist. I try to keep it sleek and modern and elegant and clean. Design should be a process of stripping things down to be clear and communicate, but there can still be many elements in the end.

Q: How do artistic pieces you have made fit into your decor?

A: If objects have personal meaning and history, then they are worth exhibiting. There’s an incredibly deep and life-affirming feeling that comes from doing something. I’m very open minded and very anti-snobbish. Not everything has to be expensive, and it shouldn’t be about what other people think. It’s about things at home that make you happy. It’s about finding your voice, not a trending voice.

Q: How do you find the colors that really are you?

A: My people think I’m a very colorful character. I’m actually a lot more reserved in my use of color than people might think. I would follow my lead and move towards timeless, eternal colors like black and white, which are the foundation of everything I do. Then use an accent color on smaller items like pillows and accessories. This can be a good formula for creating a design that is permanent and not too short-lived. The colors you are considering should last a while, being more restrained in larger pieces and freer in smaller ones.

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