Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Breaking the Mold: Lessons I Learned from Jonathan Adler

I'm hoping that you won't be scared off by this picture. In my defense, Adler is actually a really cute dude in real life, and he looks pretty terrible here too.
Last night I had the privilege to hear design legend, Jonathan Adler, speak at the Corcoran. (Thanks to my talented friend, Darlene Molnar, for the amazing opportunity!) Adler was hilarious, modest and inspiring all at once. He opened up the second half of the night by inviting audience members to ask their most irreverent, specific questions. AND ASK THEY DID. Here, in no particular order, are some of the insights that I took away from his talk:

1.) "Trusting Yourself" may sound trite, but it is vital.
When Adler asked his RISD teacher/mentor if she thought he had what it takes to make it, she didn't beat around the bush. Her answer was a resounding NO. Luckily, he chose to tune out the criticism and preserve.
 2.)"Good design looks like it has been uncovered rather than created."
3.)"People want to see faces."
OK, so I knew this one, but when he mentioned that this was one of his revelations and the source of inspiration for one of his collections, I felt affirmed. I have been working for what seems like forever on a urban portrait project based partially on this assumption.
4.)Being business savvy doesn't mean selling out.
Adler joked that he has two gifts in life: "One is potting and the other is delegating." Creating a team of professionals to run his business has allowed him to keep the production at arms length, and therefore freed up his creativity. 
5.)Don't be afraid to break the mold.
We take for granted the fact that Adler's clean ceramics are universally appealing. They are easy to appreciate. What I never considered though, was that he was breaking the potter's potter mold when he first started creating ceramics with the goal of a factory-made aesthetic. He did not want to live in a yurt in VT, perfecting a single organic style and watching his facial hair grow to extreme proportions. Instead, he wanted to follow a fashion business model, creating a new collection each season. Recognizing that he was not just a "Potter" but rather a purveyor of "Craft, Style and Joy" in any medium allowed him the liberty to create what he felt compelled to make, and to become enormously successful to boot! 
As an artist operating at the intersection of fine art and street art, I find this personally comforting. Definitions can prevent us from doing what we are meant to do, simply because there hasn't been anyone who has done it our way before. While I respect the idea of standing on the shoulders of those who have walked before you, I think that we have to remember that we are all unique individuals called to a unique purpose that will go unfulfilled if we are not afraid to break the mold.


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