Of Pots and Potters and Peru

Jonathan Adler brings brio to ceramics, textiles, furniture and more

HAND/EYE: You hung out your potter’s shingle in 1993, and by 1997 business was so brisk that you began producing ceramics at an Aid to Artisans-ordained workshop in Peru.  Is that what they call “the potter’s fast track?”

Jonathan Adler: I wish it had been faster!  I spent four years as a production potter working 7 days a week, 14 hours a day.  I would get to the studio at 7:00 a.m., turn on NPR, and I knew it was time to go home when All Things Considered came on for the 78th time.  I was burnt out.  
 Like many craftsman I was frustrated with the grind of running a cottage industry.  I knew that the only way to grow my business and grow creatively was to get help with production but I didn't know where to turn.  I didn't have any capital, I had no connections, and, to be honest, I couldn't afford to take time to look for resources.  But I knew that I couldn't afford not to find a production resource.

When Aid to Artisans suggested a workshop in Peru, I got on the next plane.

H/E: Take us on the journey of a Jonathan Adler pot.  How does a lump of clay in your New York design studio become a gorgeous ceramic objet on someone's coffee table?

JA: All of my ceramic pieces begin their life in my Soho studio.  A good example is the Dora Maar vase.  We painstakingly make the prototype from clay.  I throw the form on the potter’s wheel and then we sculpt the decoration, fire it, and send it to our workshop in Peru.  Then they make a mold and hand-slip cast the piece in porcelain.  Or, for something like the Moko vase, I throw the original piece in my studio making sure the lines are just right.  Then I send the prototype to the workshop in Peru and the skilled potters hand-throw the production to my specifications.   

There are always some unexpected wrinkles in the process.  I named the Moko collection after a jet black African sculpture that I had seen.  Unfortunately, in Peru the word Moko means…wait for it…snot.  The Peruvian potters have gotten plenty of chuckles out of the Moko collection.

H/E: Aid to Artisans played a major role in your Peruvian introduction.  How did that all come about?

JA: Aid to Artisans (ATA) is fabulous.  Their mandate is to connect designers with artisans in developing countries in a business relationship that benefits both parties.  They seemed too good to be true.  But true they were. 

The folks at ATA facilitated the beginning of my relationship with my Peruvian workshops.  Then they were smart enough to get out of the way and let capitalism occur.  The truth is that my business couldn't succeed based purely on good vibrations--I had to figure it out from a business standpoint.  ATA was there to help but wasn't too intrusive.

H/E: What impact has your business had on the potters at your workshop?  

JA: I hate to sound like the Angelina Jolie of the craft community, but it's been tremendously gratifying to see the growth at the workshop and the hundreds of jobs that have been created.  I think my happiest moment was when I learned that one of the workers named her son Jonathan.  Very, very sweet.

But, again, I ain't a saint.  This has been a relationship that has benefitted the workshop and benefitted me!    

H/E: How does your Peruvian workshop differ from, say, an American factory?

JA: For starters, the workshop is beautiful.  It's in the countryside and surrounded by beautiful gardens and right near the beach.  And at lunchtime, all the potters run into the field and play an impressive game of soccer.

H/E: How did venturing to Peru change your business?

JA: Of course Peru changed my business unimaginably--I went from being a one-man band with a small cottage industry to having a real business.  But, more importantly, Peru changed me creatively.  I now have the best job in the world--I design anything and everything I want--and I could never have gotten to this point if I hadn't found ATA and Peru.

H/E: Are you influenced by the Peruvian aesthetic, consciously or otherwise?  

JA: This whole interview has been about my pottery, but equally important to me has been my work with Peruvian weavers.  Peru has an incredibly rich textile tradition.  I fell in love with Peruvian textiles, met a weaver, sketched some pillow designs and started making textiles.  Now I make pillows and alpaca throws and llama wool rugs in Peru and textiles have become a passion of mine - and a huge part of my business.

H/E: Of the many collections you’ve produced, does one stand out as the perfect melding of Jonathan Adler and Peruvian vibes?

JA: I believe that the key to good design is beautiful craftsmanship--simplicity married with exquisite materials and techniques.  I think that my hand-loomed alpaca throws are a perfect melding of my sensibility--pop patterns, simple forms, crisp colors--that take on a much richer life when they are woven by incredible Peruvian artisans using hand-dyed alpaca wool.  I love that tension between modernism and traditional craftsmanship.

H/E: You’ve professed a weakness for sweets.  Do you have a favorite buttery Peruvian treat?  

JA: Peruvian food is SUBLIME.  They make these caramel filled biscuits called alfajor cookies that are figure-destroying. The ceviche is also amazing.

But, truthfully, it's the people that keep me coming back.  Sorry to sound so cheesy but it's true.

For more information, see www.jonathanadler.com.

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