Jonathan Adler talks inspiration and innovation

PALM BEACH ISLAND, Fla. — When he took to the stage as the keynote speaker for HOTEC Design 2017, being held this week at the Eau Palm Beach, Jonathan Adler spoke with surprising candor to 200 suppliers and designers, touching on everything from the artist’s early years and inspiration to his thoughts on design and his opinions on what hospitality is meant to be. 

With a cheerful, cheeky sense of humor that he was quick to turn inward, Adler shared some anecdotes from his earlier interview with HOTEL MANAGEMENT and expanded on many of the themes, encouraging the gathered designers and suppliers to gather inspiration from a wide range of sources and to appreciate the value of what they do. 

How Things Could Be

“We all are in the business of creating fantasies, which is what, to me, hotels are,” Adler said. “It’s the ultimate in what design can and should be. I see design as an opportunity for transformation and as an opportunity to create something from nothing. Hotels are exactly that. Hotels are an alternative universe of fantasy. When you leave your house, it’s the same sofa that needs to be reupholstered. You go into a hotel, and it’s how things could be—and how things should be. It’s like hotels are like real life cranked up to 11. What we do is fantastic.”  

Related content: Watch Jonathan Adler's keynote speech on HOTEL MANAGEMENT's Facebook page.  

Adler’s philosophy of design harkens back to music. “I think a lot about musicians and the idea of melody,” he said. “To me, melody is something that comes from up above and just exists. A lot of musicians just harness melody. When I’m at my best as a designer, I hope I’ve achieved that same feel—something that needed to exist in the universe, and I just uncovered it.” 

SImilarly, he said, when an object is well-designed, it looks like it was “just supposed to be that way,” as if it was uncovered rather than created. “Whatever I do, I really want to capture the essence of something. I think that's what design should be—it’s an opportunity to capture the very essence of something and quintessentialize it.” 

Oh, Palm Beach

Citing a clay pot that he designed to look like the interlocking teeth of a zipper, Adler noted that inspiration can come from something as mundane as zipping up a coat in the morning. It can also come from a sense of place. “My main inspiration is creating fantasy places,” he said. When he created the Eau Palm Beach, he was inspired by Palm Beach itself. “To me, Palm Beach is like lemon sorbet for the soul [with a] crisp, clarifying, dreamy quality.” 

To evoke those feelings, Adler focused on blues, whites and yellows. “So when it came time to design this project, the palate was already there.” He took special note of the white walls, and lamented that few hotel designers are willing to use basic white on such a large canvas. “To me, there’s nothing dreamier than a seaside hotel with white walls and a crisp palate. So I hope that you feel like this captures the spirit of Palm Beach.”

Natutical Design at the Parker

Adler’s first hotel project was for the the Parker Palm Springs Hotel in Palm Springs, Calif., which he approached with the same mindset. “I really wanted to sum up the essence of Palm Springs, and to me, Palm Springs is about a loose, hedonistic getaway for Hollywood people who are trying to escape the paparazzi, probably because of a scandal,” he said. “So the lobby in the hotel really captures the eclectic, international, global bohemian glamour of Palm Beach.” Dominating the lobby is a vintage “Drugs” sign that Adler said has become iconic and has been seen frequently on Instagram. The lounge, meanwhile, is “very hangy-outy and eclectic. A lot of it is vintage mixed with a lot of my own and a wall of macrame owls.” 

As a nod to his sense of humor, when Adler went to design the spa, he found a “beast of a building” with architecture that he could only describe as “not good,” and quipped that Merv Griffin must have built the structure from styrofoam. “I thought, ‘how can we make this good? What does Palm Springs not have?’” he recalled. “It does not have water, so let’s call this the Palm Springs Yacht Club and make it nautical themed. So we took this beast of a building and turned it into a nautical fantasy in a desert environment, and it came out really great.” 

The Parker is also home to Adler’s first large-scale public sculpture. “There was a spot in the Parker that needed something,” he said. To fill the space, he created an 8-foot-tall bronze banana sculpture, with “peels” that can double as seating. To make the piece happen, Adler and his team built a scale model in his studio, scanned it, 3D-printed it, rebuilt it and distressed the final bronze product to “give it a sense of the artist’s hand.”  

“It’s a amazing time to be a creator because there are so many technologies available,” Adler said. “I can make a model in my studio and end up with an 8-foot-tall bronze banana that functions as a seat.”