The Washington Post
Designer Jonathan Adler on finding your personal style
Designer Jonathan Adler joined staff writer Jura Koncius last week for our online Q&A. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: How do you and your husband, Simon Doonan, negotiate decorating together? I know you are doing a new place in Palm Beach, Fla. What tips do you have for a couple figuring out how to express both personalities in a shared space? A: Simon and I both work in creative fields and understand the creative process, as well as the pros and cons of collaboration vs. dictatorship. In the case of our house, Simon kind of lets me be the dictator, because he understands that this is my canvas. Decorating is war, and I think somebody should always try to vie for dictator status. True collaboration rarely works and often results in a watered-down vision.
Q: What is the cutoff for the number of plants in a room? How do I incorporate the plants’ pots in design?
A: There is no cutoff at all! But be thoughtful, and don’t forget about negative space. With plants, as with everything, I like to create a cluster and some negative space around it. Plants are magical objects designed by Mother Nature herself, so treat them with respect, and give them space.
Q: What is your favorite seating configuration for the perfect living room?
A: Living room seating is everything. I have spent countless sleepless nights contemplating it. There is no right answer, but there are some go-to strategies. My first stop is always opposing sofas around a coffee table. (I find this to be a good organizing principle.) Then I layer pieces around that. I think there should always be a couple of pull-up chairs that are light and airy to add a casual vibe. Once you create your solid foundation, add some insouciant touches. Little chairs are my go-tos.
Q: How many inches should a pendant be hung above a floating bedside table in a room with eight-foot ceilings?
A: Although there are real rules and regulations in the decorating business (table height, seat height, chandelier height, etc.), I don’t think the bedside pendant rule has been established yet. I would instead think about the function. Does it provide ambient light, or is it a directional kind of light? And hang it accordingly. Most importantly, be sure you won’t clunk your head on it. Sit on the bed with a book, and make your long-suffering spouse hold the pendant up to establish the right height. That’s what I do.
Q: How do you address painting the underside of an archway splitting two consecutive rooms?
A: This is the eternal question! But there is an answer. You should think about how you move through the space and which side you’ll usually look from, then privilege that color. For instance, Simon’s office is just off our living room. His office is blue, and the living room is pale green, so we painted the doorway pale green, because that’s the main view.
Q: Should my rug be bigger than my sofa?
A: Rug placement is a whole thing. It can be smaller than the sofa and sit in front of it and hold a cocktail table, or it can be bigger than the sofa and the sofa can sit on it. The general rule is that as long as the two front legs of a sofa or chair are on it, that’s fine. However, I’m a fan of having a big rug on which all the furniture floats. That’s my truth.
Q: I live in a condo that has a two-story foyer shaped like an octagon. Two of the sides contain the walkway through the space, and two of the perpendicular sides house doorways to other rooms. Each wall is 40 inches across. I put in a large spiral LED fixture but have no idea how to design this space. I want to decorate it, because it’s the first space you see. Many of my rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows, making art placement a challenge. Do you have thoughts?
A: I think you need a center table, because you don’t have much wall space. Take the focus off the walls and toward the center with a table under the chandelier.
Q: Who are your design icons? A: I reckon my holy trinity is Alexander Girard, David Hicks and Bonnie Cashin, all of whom were mid-century designers who were incredibly prolific and colorful. To me, their work really communicates the joy of creativity and design. A few more people: Bjorn Wiinblad, Josef Frank, Sheila Hicks, Christian Dior, Peter Voulkos and Paul Smith. And, of course, my husband, Simon Doonan.
Q: I’m a 50ish female attorney taking on a director role. How do I make my new office welcoming, feminine and a little fun without sacrificing gravitas? A: I think the answer lies in confidence, meaning even if you make it look like a Barbie Dreamhouse, your office isn’t the source of gravitas; it’s you! It’s all about your attitude. That’s my deep, Oprah-esque answer. A more practical one might be to try to add three unexpectedly feminine flourishes to satisfy your style without overwhelming the space. Perhaps a throw pillow of note, a lamp and a bit of art.
Q: What design trends do you think will phase out? What new trend do you think we’ll see next?
A: I think we are lucky to live in the era of “anything goes” freedom. Design trends used to be dictated from above and would filter down, but now, no such order exists. It’s a time of total chaos: Down is up, up is down and street style influences
the runway, so there are no overarching trends. If pressed, I’d say I’m loving the split reed/ bamboo/rattan moment we’re living in.
Q: We have a large built-in bookshelf housing tchotchkes from our travels. It is looking very cluttered, but we love them all. How can we maintain our maximalist vibe without looking like hoarders?
A: Pity the poor bookshelves, the repositories for all of our junk! The truth is that bookshelves should get an annual checkup and a total refresh. A nice rhythm of objects and books, thoughtful lighting, bits of art: These are the keys to creating a successful bookshelf-scape. As for your question, I think you’re too much of a softy. You have to be Marie Kondo about bookshelf-scapes. Seriously.
Q: My condo is painted greige (Benjamin Moore’s Silver Fox) and had greige stained floors. My open-concept kitchen has gray cabinets (Benjamin Moore’s Chelsea Gray). My wooden furniture is either black-stained oak or white, while my sofa is greige. How can I add color to brighten things up a bit? I have Juliet balconies around my public spaces that are teal, so I added teal pendants to my kitchen. But that and my burntorange dining chairs are my only colors. Is there a third color I can bring in, and how much color do I need to add to make it look intentional?
A: I try not to be too dogmatic about color schemes, because it’s stultifying. One way to think about it is to determine a family of colors that has a similar value or vibe. From what I can tell, it sounds as if your teal and burntorange world could use a soupcon of moss green, egg-yolk yellow or lavender.
Also at washingtonpost.com Read the rest of this transcript and submit questions to the next chat, Thursday at 11 a.m., at live.washingtonpost.com.