Why Jonathan Adler's hotel designs reject disruption

Jonathan Adler designed the lobby of the Parker Palm Springs Hotel in Palm Springs, Calif. (Parker Palm Springs Hotel Lobby)

When Jonathan Adler takes to the stage in June as a keynote speaker for HOTEC Design at the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa in Palm Beach, Fla., he will be returning to the site of one of his design triumphs. The triumph did not come easily, however, but on the heels of a lifetime of overcoming challenges with increasingly creative solutions.

A Passion for Pottery

Adler attended Brown University in Providence, R.I., to study art history and semiotics, but preferred to visit the nearby Rhode Island School of Design to practice pottery—“Chanel-inspired teapots and updated takes on Sevres urns,” as he describes it in his bio. As he recalls it, a professor offered some advice that proved useful: "You have no talent. Move to New York and become a lawyer."

Jonathan Adler
Jonathan Adler

Adler headed to New York, where he did not become a lawyer but instead worked for three years as an assistant to “various tyrants” in the entertainment industry. “I was fired from one job after another,” Adler said. “Since I was unemployable, I decided to take a year off to make pots and figure out my life.” As he created art, he realized that he needed to be self-employed—and that he needed to find a way to earn a living from his artwork. “My parents were cutting me off, so I had to make it work. Hunger is a great motivator.” 

After cold-calling buyers from Barneys New York, Adler got his first break when he was asked to design a line of pottery for the luxury store. “I worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week to fulfill their order, sent it off, and waited for payment,” he said. He was so inexperienced that he didn’t know to include an invoice for his work. 

As his pottery career took off, Adler moved onto textiles. “I figured the pillows needed a sofa to sit on, so I started making furniture. I figured there should be lights to go on the furniture, so I started making lighting.” In this way, he developed a name for himself as a designer with experience in a range of verticals—and then a new opportunity arrived. 

Designing Hospitality

In 2004, Adler expanded his business to include hospitality when he designed The Parker Palm Springs Hotel in Palm Springs, Calif. “The owner was familiar with my work and called me up,” Adler said. “He was a creative and extraordinary guy who understood all my ideas and what I wanted to do.” Working on that hotel, he said, he learned that the client is just as important as the project, and that finding the right people to work with is vital for a project’s success.

As he designed the rooms, Adler began creating a “story” for the target demographic that helped him figure out what elements each room needed. “The story tells me what of kind of person is staying on the property,” he said. “What does she wear? What does she eat? What does she do for fun? How does she live? It guides the entire process. Once I have the story in place, the rest of it is easy.”
Ten years later, Adler created rooms for the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, where his design reflected the hotel’s geography. “I used blues and yellows and whites—the colors of the sky, and sun, and the clouds in Palm Beach. The colors are crisp and clean, the textures are squishy and luxurious, and the whole look says jet-set glamour with a nod to nauticalia.” 

Disrupting Disruptors

As he forayed into hospitality, Adler found a key difference between designing art and designing a hotel room: “It can’t just look good, it has to work,” he said. “People should be able to figure out how to turn the lights off and how to flush the toilet. A hotel room isn’t about gimmicks, it’s about creating a squishy room that immediately makes you feel you’re on the vacation of a lifetime. Also, don’t forget the art—so many hotel rooms are saddled with depressing corporate art.” 

Similarly, Adler feels that “disruptors” are overused and overrated in hospitality. “Some things just don’t need to be disrupted—a light switch should be a light switch,” he said. “I don’t want some inscrutable ‘control panel.’”

Asked what he loves about designing hotel spaces, Adler praises the “scale” of hospitality design, but acknowledges that the scale also presents unique challenges. “Sure, you can make one room fantastic and glamorous and layered, but can you make 300 rooms that way? And can you do it on time and on budget?” 

As he gets ready for his presentation at HOTEC, Adler is still impressed that he has been able to make a career in design—and that he would be able to keep doing what he loves. “My entire career has been a series of happy accidents,” he said. “Every day brings a new challenge. When I started I had no idea that the logistics of a company like mine were so…awful. If I had known, I might not have started!”