One day last week, Jonathan Adler's employees were bustling around his newest shop, readying the designer's 13th retail location for its opening this week. Adler had driven to Old City for the day from his SoHo headquarters to check out the store's progress.
Though Adler, who grew up in Bridgeton, N.J., is at the helm of a growing empire, he's more Willy Wonka than imperious monarch. Dressed in jeans and orange-and-white Adidas sneakers and always ready with a witty quip, Adler's the embodiment of his "happy chic" brand that has become even more well-known since his 2007-08 turn as lead judge on Bravo's Top Design.
Two seasons on the reality show were good for his brand, if not his productivity. "Gore Vidal said, 'Never turn down an opportunity to have sex or be on TV,' " says Adler, who is 44. "It was superfun, but it was a huge distraction from real life, which is making things."
Being a maker, as he describes himself, is Adler's main passion. "That's why I work so hard building the company," Adler adds, "so I can make more stuff."
That passion is evident from a glance around the new store. "I don't have a problem coming up with new ideas," he says. "My problem is editing."
Though Adler started his career as a potter, his design eye now knows no bounds. At 3,800 square feet and two floors, Philadelphia's is the second largest of Adler's shops and a giant opportunity to show his breadth of work. He creates pieces for every surface (floor, wall, tabletop) of every room of the house, from typical (bedroom, kitchen) to aspirational (bar, game room).
There are salt and pepper shakers, vases, rugs, furniture, lamps, a kids' line, bedding, Judaica, ornaments, games, pillows, stationery, frames, candles, wallpaper, coasters, a lollipop holder, and two new books, Happy Chic Accessorizing and Happy Chic Colors.
In the last year, he has also made licensing deals with Starbucks, the Home Shopping Network, and Steuben. In 2009 he was tapped to design Malibu Barbie's Dream House. All of his work shares a unique yet familiarly bold, colorful, and mod design sensibility. His influences boomerang between WASPy country club, Barnum & Bailey, and midcentury modern.
Asked to pick some of his favorite pieces, Adler eyes two needlepoint pillows that read Peace and Love. "I'm obsessed with those pillows," he says. "They're iconic."
Next he points to a backgammon set whose board has been executed in cozy needlepoint, and to a menorah in the form of a porcelain peacock. "I like to take things that have always been there and that aren't as good as they should be," he explains, "and then make them as good as they should be." Taking unhip genres such as needlepoint and Judaica and making them hip is part of his life philosophy.
"My husband," Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys department store, "and I have very underappreciated metiers," he says. "We're a potter and a window dresser. Just because something's not perceived as cool doesn't mean it can't be."
Adler knows he's onto something good when the excitement burbling up is equivalent to his 6-year-old nephew's. "He can get excited at the most mundane thing," he says.
Lately Adler's excitement is on overload. "This has been an amazing year for us," he says - so much so that the designer decided it was time to open shop in the town he frequented growing up. He doesn't hold it against Philadelphia that his proximity to the city during his formative years is responsible for the single note of pessimism in his otherwise sunny character.
"My brand ethos is happy chic," he acknowledges, "but my devotion to the Eagles has cultivated an innate pessimism." True to his nature, he immediately follows that comment with a happy one. "So when the Eagles win, it really turns that frown upside down."
Besides cheering for the Eagles, Adler spent his youth becoming familiar with the city's museums, thanks to parents who dragged him here most weekends. His father, an attorney, was a vigorous modernist. "Our house was full of Knoll furniture - it was very white and très chic," he recalls. His father was also devoted to art - every moment of his free time was spent sculpting, painting, and drawing, and he commuted into the city to take classes at Fleisher.
Adler's mother loved pattern and color. "And that's exactly what my design sensibility is," Adler points out. "Rigorous modernism with a layer of pattern and exuberance."
When he was older, Adler spent a summer interning at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and taking classes at the Clay Studio. His favorite shop back then was Urban Objects, the well-curated boutique that once occupied a narrow storefront on the 1700 block of Sansom Street. His own store is taking over a space formerly occupied by another well-loved and now shuttered store, Foster's Urban Homeware, which filed for bankruptcy in spring.
Foster's wasn't the only home-and-design store in Philadelphia to go belly-up in 2010. Why does Adler think he can succeed where others have not? "I think people are focused on finding value," Adler says, "and we offer a real range of price points. I work hard to make stuff that's really great and not bone-crushingly expensive." Prices range from $18 bottle stoppers to a $5,600 sectional. Also, he surmises, his message of exuberance is one that resonates when times are tough. Some have claimed you can't walk into a Jonathan Adler store and not get happy.