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Jonathan Adler ’88 finds success in impracticality

Adler reflects on his journey from 'clueless' college graduate to celebrated furniture designer

Designer and author Jonathan Adler ’88 — founder of the namesake furniture design company with retail locations worldwide — was once a young, soon-to-be Brown graduate “intimidated by the whole prospect of leaving studentia.” 

In an article in The Herald’s 1988 Commencement Magazine titled “The Clueless,” Adler mused about the “nauseating feeling” that overcame him when entering Career Services and his lack of post-graduation direction. 

Now, reflecting on his career, Adler told The Herald that “it was a delight to see (the article again) and if only I could hold on to my hair.”

Rather than embarking on the “epic stretch of joblessness” he had anticipated in 1988, Adler spent the year after graduation studying pottery at the Rhode Island School of Design. “I had one passion, which was making pottery,” he said.  

But when Adler, interested in pursuing a graduate degree, went to the head of the ceramics department at RISD, the professor bluntly rejected him, saying he had “no talent,” Adler recalled.  

Her discouragement proved valuable for Adler. “It meant (I could) just chart my own path without having to look for academic affirmation,” he said.

After a year at RISD, Adler moved to New York City, where he struggled between periodic jobs and unemployment. A self-described “terrible employee,” Adler found himself “unemployed and unemployable” at the age of 27. 

At this point, it had been five years since he had last touched clay, but Alder decided to pick up pottery again, teaching night classes at a pottery studio in exchange for studio time during the day. Eventually, his work caught the attention of a buyer at Barneys New York Inc., launching his career. 

“I went from being a slacker to being an animal,” he said. “I started working 12 hours, seven days a week for about five years straight.” 

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="650"]

In The Herald's 1988 Commencement Magazine, Jonathan Adler '88 was featured among "the clueless," in a story about students who lacked post-graduation direction.[/caption] 

Four years after landing his first order, Adler opened his first furniture store in Soho. Since then, his brand, Jonathan Adler, has grown into a worldwide wholesale business, selling chic, modern and fashion-forward pieces of furniture in 30 Jonathan Adler stores, in 1,000 other locations globally and on its e-commerce website

“I never did a business plan or a roadmap,” Adler said. “I just kind of bumbled along, bit by bit, one foot in front of the other."

Adler added that he calls his style “Modern American Glamour.” “I strive to make things that are a little bit sparkly, confident, bold and even a little bit sexy,” he said. 

At Brown, Adler concentrated in Semiotics and Art History and developed a “really strong foundation” in artistic periods. On his company’s website, a timeline of Adler’s career and business notes that while he was “allegedly” studying at the University, he “actually (spent) all his time at RISD making pots.” 

“I think the best thing for me about Brown was that it was not really like a career-focused trade school. It led to me being completely impractical and unable to function in the world and ultimately, to make ... a successful career out of something that was very impractical,” Adler said. 

In light of the uncertain prospects for this year’s graduating class, Adler said that he also entered the job market when there was “zero opportunity.” Having left college as a “clueless” graduate amid a financial crisis and telephone strike, Adler’ advice to graduating seniors is: “Show up 10 minutes early and leave 10 minutes late.” 

He added another piece of advice: “Don’t panic about anything until you’re 27.” 


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