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Jonathan Adler blurs lines of reality with his home-decor sculptures

LOS ANGELES – An unspoken wink and a smile have long animated Jonathan Adler’s home decor empire, which has grown from retro cookie canisters cheekily labeled “Quaaludes” and “poppers” to seriously considered furniture and, this summer, a secondary line of Happy Chic home decor that anchors the design renaissance at JCPenney.

Of his 26 signature boutiques, the first to receive the New York designer’s latest work is the Melrose Avenue store in Los Angeles, which Adler visited last month to see its installation and to host a fundraiser for the It Gets Better Project. The organization was founded by syndicated columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens.

For this edited Q-and-A, the man who still defines himself as a potter talked about how every new piece – whether ceramic, brass or, now, Lucite – starts as a clay model.

Q. It’s interesting to see your designs expressed in a different material. Why Lucite?

A. That’s kind of my jam. I’m a potter, so I live to discover new techniques, invent new techniques, explore new techniques. It’s like solving a puzzle. Do you know Anish Kapoor? “Cloud Gate” in Chicago, that whole thing? Well, with animals I like things as pared down as possible. The elephant is the same shape as a small brass piece I did earlier, but it’s a different material.

(Adler picks up another orange Lucite piece, this one like an irregular asterisk rendered in three dimensions.) Here I wanted to do an undersea-amoeba-starburst sculpture that can go any which way. I’m always interested in working in new materials that allow me new dimension. I want every sculpture to act as an abstract, beautiful form.

This is a piece that I’m really proud of. (He walks to a glass-topped side table where the base is a peacock in solid brass.) I wanted do a peacock that was pared down to nothing. I strive to create stuff in which abstraction and realism collide, effectively. And then I make poppers canisters (laughs).

Q. How do you search for new techniques?

A. Luckily now there is the interweb. And agents. I knew I always wanted to do brass. When you are a potter and you can make stuff in clay, you get a little hungry to take the same stuff and do it in different materials that have properties clay doesn’t. So, brass, Lucite.

Q. And that also must help you stay ahead of people mimicking you.

A. And then there is that. I’m doing a talk in a couple weeks with Dwell magazine about originality and authenticity and copying with my sister, who is a law professor at NYU. Her specialty is intellectual property. We’re doing a panel together about issues regarding copying – whether it is good or bad. Without copying there would be no trends. But yeah, people copy me and then I move on.

Q. What are your other obsessions heading into fall and winter?

A. What’s tingling my chakras right now? Gold tones are always tingling my chakras. (He points to his expanded Utopia line of vases and mugs based on novelty hairstyles.) Mullets are always tingling my chakras.

Q. How would you describe yourself in high school?

A. I was a tortured potter. The bad news was that I was tortured – not by others, but by my inner turmoil. But the good news was that I found a refuge in the pottery studio. In some sense, being a struggling gay is what drove me to become a potter. But it was really hard, and I think what Dan and Terry are doing for the young gays is fantastic. They are making It Gets Better a thriving, continuing effort to help gay youth.