I invited Jonathan to lunch to talk about his new book, My Prescription for Anti-Depressive Living. He was in a great mood, partly due to the holiday gift I had just given himâ€”a pretty scarce book, and more importantly, one he hadn't discovered yetâ€” Liberace Cooks. It's not easy trying to give him something he hasn't seen before. He's wearing his trademark vintage Lacoste shirt and vintage Levi's cords, his Rod Laver's and a simple Rolex. Here's what he had to say about life, and his new book, from his table at the restaurant near his office where he eats lunch every day.
CH: When we first met in 1992 in New York City (Jonathan lived with a friend of mine from college at the time), you were working as a talent agent. How did you transition from a job you didn't really care for into building a style empire?
JA: I experimented with pottery while I was in college, but it didn't seem like it was something I could earn a living at. It was only after, thankfully, a few years working in the talent industry that I realized the only talent I cared about was my own. I was also young and naÃ¯ve and very motivated to do my own thing. I wake up every day and couldn't be happier with what I'm doing.
CH: But how did you go from potter to retailer to licensor to author in such a short time?
JA: In the early days I used to throw all of the pottery by hand. I realized that if I wanted to make my work accessible to more people I would have to find a way to reduce the price of it, and a way to make more than I could personally churn out sitting at the wheel. Growing up we often visited the Ocean Club and Atlantis in the Bahamas. The Ocean Club was very chic and minimalist, but not very fun. Atlantis was a lot of fun but not very chic. During these early years I realized that I wanted to make stuff that was chic and fun. And that’s what I call my design philosophy, “Happy Chic.” Once I had this worked out I realized that Happy Chic was more than just ceramics. It was the whole house, a whole lifestyle. The very talented people I work with help translate that philosophy into all kinds of products—paper goods, linens, rugs, furniture and now a book.
CH: Looking back on the early years, what was the smartest thing you did?
JA: (Laughs). Well, the smartest, and hardest was opening my first retail store back in 1998. I spent a lot of time talking to people about what they liked, what they wanted to see. A lot of great products came from speaking with customers. It’s something I think changed the course of my business. Now we have seven stores, and I still spend a lot of time at them talking to the staff and customers.
CH: You come from a pretty conservative family and grew up in a comfortable suburb in New Jersey. Why aren’t you an accountant or an orthodontist? Something your parents would be proud of? (Laughs)
JA: (Laughs). I think, seriously, that the more risk-averse your parents are, the more there is to rebel against. This is, above all, perhaps my greatest blessing.
CH: What inspires you as a designer?
JA: I’m most inspired, I think, by the three places where I have homes: New York City, Palm Beach, and Shelter Island (part of the Hamptons area of Long Island). New York has everything, a constant source of ideas of all kinds and flavors. Palm Beach is WASPy chic and over-the-top glamour. And Shelter Island is rustic modern, very down to earth. I’m also inspired by Peru, where most of my pottery is made, and by scuba diving. I love the ocean. And San Francisco for its psychedelic Victoriana. I just live, try to absorb cultural trends, follow my heart. If I get it right I might set a trend or two along the way.
CH: Who inspires you?
JA: I met Paul Smith last week. He’s a huge inspiration to me. I really think that he leads a creative life. It’s diverse. Established. He does what he wants to do. That’s hugely inspiring, not having to listen to people tell you what to do.
CH: How do you do everything that you do? How do you fit it all into one day?
JA: It’s funny. I think the more stuff that is going on, the fewer headaches there are.
CH: Now that you’ve made a bunch of stuff, opened shops to sell it in, decorated apartments and even a resort, what’s next for you? What would you find challenging?
JA: I’d love to design a house. And I’d love to consult for the right brand. Like Lacoste. I think I could really help them. Maybe I should send them a copy of my book…
Jonathan has offered to give away a personally autographed copy of My Prescription for Anti-Depressive Living to the first person who answers this question: “My dog’s name is Liberace. I’m thinking of getting him a younger brother and want to name him after the real Liberace’s valet.” What’s his name? First correct answer to CH Feedback gets the book.
Congrats to CH reader Donna in Denver, who knows her Liberace trivia. She was the first to write in with the correct answer, Scott Thorson.
My Prescription for Anti-Depressive Living is available for $23 from Amazon.