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Another Potter Makes Magic

With his ceramics, textiles and furniture, Jonathan Adler mixes art with commerce.


Jonathan Adler has many heroes, sculptor Isamu Noguchi among them, so while he's in Los Angeles to check up on his new shop on Melrose Avenue, he suggests a visit to the Noguchi Sculpture Garden in Costa Mesa. The expedition makes sense. Adler is a 35-year-old potter--not just any potter, but a hip brand name of a potter who's made his three stores offering accouterments for the home into temples to his credo that handcrafted tchotchkes are life-enhancing. Noguchi, the California-born artist known as a master of line, texture and form, is one of the prime influences on Adler's aesthetic.

Before flying West from his New York home, Adler told several friends of the plan. "You're going to the Gucci sculpture garden?" they said. "I didn't know Gucci had a garden."

Soaring south on the 405, Adler relates the comment with glee. It suits his world view, one in which fashion, shopaholics, malls and merch are as amusing and inspirational as fine art. He's excited about seeing Noguchi's work, but he is as likely to speak reverentially of another of his heroes, Billy Winthrop Ikehorn Orsini, the fictional owner of Scruples, the Beverly Hills boutique Judith Krantz immortalized in her 1978 novel.

"Krantz rules," Adler explains. "When I read 'Scruples' as an adolescent New Jersey farm boy, it made L.A. seem so exotic. Scruples was store as hangout. Store as theater. I feel as if I'm living my Billy Ikehorn Orsini fantasy, having an L.A. retail emporium." On the November afternoon when a young movie star spent $10,000 on gifts in the new shop, Adler felt he'd attained Scruplesque glamour. "Krantz was actually very prescient in the way she predicted the lifestyle trend that's happening in stores now," Adler says.

Along with his ceramics, furniture and hand-loomed textiles, Adler sells new and vintage books in his Melrose shop just west of Crescent Heights, which opened Oct. 13. The Noguchi garden is tucked into a courtyard near South Coast Plaza. It's a few days before Thanksgiving, and the gigantic shopping center is ready for the holidays, as tarted up as a dowager wearing too much rouge and jewelry. On the way to a dose of high culture, Adler traverses indoor acreage festooned with ribbons, tinsel, faux snow and glitter. He winds around towers of pre-wrapped gifts to get through a department store. "I think pre-wrapped Christmas presents are the most depressing things in the world," he says.

The Noguchi garden doesn't appear on any of the shopping center's maps. Adler has a vague idea where it is, but being a bit lost as he heads in what he thinks is the right direction isn't unpleasant. "It's just so bizarre that the sculpture garden is part of a mall," he says. "It's such a contrast, like between art and commerce, or perverse restraint and excess. There's something so familiar about malls. You could be plunked down in any mall in America and somehow you know where everything's going to be. I feel like there's a microchip in my brain that has the layout of all the malls in the world in it, so I can always find my way."

Since Adler lives with Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys and a sought-after fashion pundit whose appreciation of high and low culture complements his own, one might think shopping would be a regular activity. In fact, Adler says he never buys anything, and the pair, who have been together seven years, are homebodies, in his words, "misanthropic shut-ins."

His navigational chip steers him through South Coast Plaza, yet his interest in the mall's stores is purely academic. The elements of his personal wardrobe haven't changed since the seventh grade: Lacoste shirts, corduroys and navy Docksiders. "There's something so lurid about this mall," he says, pausing in front of the Versace boutique. "Can you explain Versashe?" he asks, deliberately mispronouncing the Italian name. "I mean, entre nous, who wears this stuff?"

Adler doesn't analyze popular brands for sport. There is no model for what he's achieved in the marketplace. "It isn't a typical potter thing," he says, "maybe because I rejected the notion that a potter is someone ensconced in a garret who devotes his life to making the same pot over and over and that equals artistic integrity."

His Jonathan Adler stores in Soho, Easthampton and Los Angeles feature collections he compares to fashion designers' seasonal offerings. "I can be inspired by surrealism one season, and the next by Africa. Commercialism has had the most nurturing effect on my work, because I don't operate in a vacuum. My stores tell me when we need something new, and that gives me a challenge. I'm not interested in the art world, which is about creating a market based on limitedness. It seems so false to me. I just want to make really nice stuff that people will want to buy."

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