Some may question the wisdom of the Generation X habit of looking at life through yellow-rose-colored glasses, that hybrid of enchantment and disenchantment that is the lifeblood of the irony lifestyle.
But any cultural historian compiling a representative roundup of Gen Xtras — Marc Jacobs, Tina Fey, John Currin, Spike Jonze — could do worse than include that jaded naif of the housewares department, Jonathan Adler.
An early adopter of midcentury mania, Adler has made a niche for himself by cobbling together enduring elements of high modernist design with more disposable (and even, some might say, regrettable) relics of the era.
His pottery, needlepoint pillows and other accessories can be found at Adler’s new store in Miami’s Design District. The 6,000-square-foot shop at 4040 NE Second Ave. is his largest of 23 worldwide. Customers can bring in fabrics to create custom pieces such as pillows, rugs and throws.
One might guess that Adler, 46, who studied semiotics at Brown University and ceramics at the Rhode Island School of Design, had developed his careful balancing act of cynicism and sincerity as an adult. But, it turns out, he had a lucky star guiding him right from the day he was born.
A wholly artificial star, of course: the chandelier that hung above his family’s dining table in their house in Bridgeton, N.J. A 24-inch-wide, sporelike sphere, the fixture looked like something out of an Italian high-design showroom, circa 1962. It was in fact made by his mother, Cynthia Adler, from dozens of white polystyrene-foam coffee cups and Elmer’s glue (also c. 1962).
When Adler was young, the fixture was just something that was always there, and he didn’t give it much thought. It wasn’t until later, when he was becoming obsessed with giving midcentury design his own spin, that the light bulb went on.
“It became this kind of totemic thing to me,” he said. “It encapsulates a lot of what I’m about. There’s a nod to rigorous modernism, there’s a nod to craft. But there’s a poppiness to it, too, the way it’s so low-tech. It has a lot of resonances, from Rhoda’s DIY thing on Mary Tyler Moore to Edward Durell Stone’s eccentric patterns.”
It also manages to embody his own complicated feelings about the design world and how high-minded it can sometimes get, a loftiness Adler is at pains to avoid.
“I’m a student of high design, but I don’t like it when design becomes unnecessarily oblique or when it doesn’t communicate,” he said. “I hate dour obscurantism. I like it when things are chic and optimistic and communicative. It’s not dour at all. It’s not about ‘process’ and ‘exploration.’ It’s about ‘I’m going to make my apartment even cuter.’ ”
One might think her son would have coveted the lamp, but no. Instead, he said, “I just paid it forward: got a glue gun and cups and made my own.”
Adler regrets that he left the directions for it out of his latest shelf-help book of design tips, 100 Ways to Happy Chic Your Home. “This really should have been the 101st,” he said.
Crafting fans can find directions for the lamp in the 1973 DIY classic Nomadic Furniture. Design snobs can also take heart: Paul Cocksedge, a British industrial designer, generated buzz this year when he reissued his own take on the polyestyrene-cup lamp, which he first created 10 years ago as a design student. The new version sells for about $800 through his website.
Adler is content with the glue-it-yourself version, more in keeping with the Gen-X credo: When life hands you Kools, make Kool-Aid.