Jonathan Adler & Simon Doonan's Shelter Island Home Plays Up Their Fun Style
In many ways, Simon Doonan and Jonathan Adler are much like any well-to-do couple who comes to the Hamptons on the weekend to relax. They keep to a close circle of friends, a favorite Shelter Island restaurant (Vine Street Café), and a reasonably uneventful schedule (paddleboarding by day, Dateline reruns by night). They even henpeck with good humor like any other couple who has been together for nearly two decades.
“As someone who—like everyone on earth—finds writing something to procrastinate about, I find it very annoying that you make writing seem so effortless,” says Adler. “I know how much effort goes into it, and I’m glad you write so well. But as your spouse, I find it annoying you don’t complain.” “Well,” echoes Doonan, “I find it annoying that you are so prolific. You make handbags; you make pots; you make couches; you make coffee tables; you make baby gifts; you make scarves. I find that very annoying.”
But this is precisely the opposing reasons they come to Shelter Island. Adler spun his passion for pottery into a colorful eponymous lifestyle brand that includes handbags, scarves, furniture, and home accents as well as 25 freestanding boutiques. To him the East End community is a respite from his “bohemian bourgeois” empire. Doonan, ambassador-at-large for Barneys New York and a columnist for Slate creative, is also a prolific writer whose seventh book, The Asylum: A Collage of Couture Reminiscences, comes out this September. The Hamptons is his writing mecca.
However, unlike most other Hamptons regulars, there is nary a sea grass rug in sight. There’s no sandy neutrals or cool sea glass blues to be found in their “movin’ on up” Hamptons home. Instead, it’s a kaleidoscope of colors, textures, and patterns that are as fun and lively as they are. Here, with the other love of their lives—Norwich terrier and constant companion, Liberace—the “wee Brit” and “pure blood” talk about their latest projects, their ideal Hamptons afternoons, and why they are just like the Jeffersons.
JONATHAN ADLER: Simon, you have a new book coming out that is going to be a smash-hit sensation called The Asylum: A Collage of Couture Reminiscences. Like all of your books, it’s hilarious and genius. You turn out the most incredible prose, and you never complain. You just sit down at your computer and write. Why are you able to do that?
SIMON DOONAN: It’s because I’m sort of surprised and delighted to find myself in the position of having a writing career because I started writing when I was like 46 years old. It’s not something I would ever want to take for granted because it was something that was so unanticipated. I thought I would be doing windows for the rest of my life. Bingo, I’ve got this great writing career, so I’ve got nothing to complain about. And Jonathan, what’s new with you?
JONATHAN: I’m glad you asked, Simon. My West Village store is turning into just a handbag and accessory boutique, which opens in mid-August.
SIMON: Are you going to have man bags?
JONATHAN: The type of man who shops in my store would be comfortable with some of the women’s handbags.
SIMON: Yes, but I still want a man bag. Just not with the long straps, it’ll dangle on the ground.
JONATHAN: All right, I’m on it. Let’s also talk about your new role at Barneys.
SIMON: It’s an incredible time to be at Barneys—I’ve been there 27 years. The store on Madison Avenue is almost completely renovated, and it’s very, very glamorous. It’s a whole rebirth for a store that’s been around since 1923. I love my new role as an ambassador. I want to get one of these designers to make me a special little sash. I was creative director for nearly 25 years, [but now my role is] more about special events, talking to the press. I’m no longer doing the windows—but I did windows for 40 years. I was ready to put down the glue gun.
JONATHAN: The best thing for me is that you get to write more—and I hate to give you a compliment lest you get a swelled head—but I live for your writing. Everything you write makes me shriek with delight and laughter. I’m an addict. I feel so lucky that I always get to be the first reader of your weekly Slate columns.
SIMON: People think that I give you a lot of feedback with the business; I used to help with the displays when you first started, but now that you’ve got a big company with a big staff, I’m just an encourager of the brand. For my writing, you give me very specific advice, so it’s really the opposite of what people think. I don’t think I’d have written all I did if I hadn’t been encouraged and pushed by you, so thanks, love.
JONATHAN: Finally some gratitude! Thanks for that.
SIMON: When I met you 20 years ago, you were sharing a ceramic studio with three other potters. Cut to now, and you have an accessories line, which is in major stores; you have 26 stores. Was this a surprise to you or was this the big vision?
JONATHAN: I’ve always had two authentic identities. I’ve always been authentically a potter, authentically bohemian. But I’ve also been authentically bourgeois. My challenge was how to reconcile my two authentic identities, and miraculously I’ve managed to do it. It’s just completely in my nature to be obsessed with design, but I also am kind of tszujy. You’re actually more bohemian than I am.
SIMON: I am much more groovy and bohemian than you.
JONATHAN: I didn’t say “groovy”; I said “bohemian.” I am more groovy.
SIMON: Jonathan—you contend that you are taller than me, and that is obviously not the case.
JONATHAN: Helen Keller could see that I am three inches taller than you. Whatever gets you through the day, little fella. You are obviously delusional, and you are shorter than I am.
SIMON: You’re making disrespectful, flippant references to Helen Keller, who was a wonderful, valued woman.
JONATHAN: Helen Keller’s heirs—I am sorry if I offended you. But you, Simon, are freakishly undersized.
SIMON: That makes me special, just as the fact that your grandparents are first cousins makes you special.
JONATHAN: You’re just jealous that I’m a purebred.
SIMON: How many globally acknowledged design brands are the product of “pure breeding”?
JONATHAN: Well at least one… On a more wholesome note, Simon, I think Hamptons readers would be surprised to learn how outdoorsy and athletic you are.
SIMON: I love to go paddleboarding, hiking, and running. I’m never happier than when I’m in the outdoors—I don’t even care if it’s raining—and people do find that very surprising. I think people would be surprised, Jonathan, about how sporty you are.
JONATHAN: When people think of design folks, they think of us being really effete. Not to toot our own horns, but we are a little bit crunchier than people might expect. That’s the magic of Shelter Island for us. When I think about Shelter Island, I think about hiking in the Mashomack Preserve—which is paradise—and paddleboarding.
SIMON: I agree, Jonathan. Shelter Island is a little more folksy and there are no expectations. You can be on Shelter Island without any sort of preconceived notions.
JONATHAN: There seem to be a ton of British people on Shelter Island. What is it about Shelter Island that makes your chakras tingle as a Brit?
SIMON: Well, I think we Brits are a bit alarmed by the grandeur of the Hamptons.
JONATHAN: Do you mean “wee” Brits? Or “us” Brits? Because you’re....
SIMON: We Brits with one ‘e.’ We Brits are a bit alarmed by the excess of the Hamptons [and are] taken aback by that commitment to 20,000-square-foot houses, which is really not cozy. We Brits like to have no draft and a cup of tea in our hands. Jonathan, do you remember when we first went to Shelter Island?
JONATHAN: I remember it clear as day! It was right after we met, 18 years ago, and one of your colleagues, the fabulous Bonnie Solomon said, “Let’s go out and share a house on Shelter Island.” We did, and we fell in love with it.
SIMON: We went to look at it in the spring, and everywhere you drove there were incredible smells of lilac. After the house rental, we bought bicycles, and we found this great A-frame and just bought it. We hadn’t known each other very long at this time—do you think that was a little aggressive?
JONATHAN: That was one of the great things about us: We just got on with it and didn’t dither. I see people in my office who are 10 years into their relationship, wondering if the guy is going to pop the question. We just knew each other for a few months and bought a house together. There was no procrastination.
SIMON: We had our little A-frame on Crab Creek, which was fun, and we used it every weekend throughout the entire year.
JONATHAN: It was totally rustic modern, and I loved it. I had my little studio there; it was heaven. And then we recently Jeffersons-ed it.
SIMON: Do you think we’re like the Jeffersons, Jonny?
JONATHAN: Yes, definitely. Well George Jefferson was very undersized. And Weezy had a really great sense of fashion, so I think you’re George and I’m Weezy.
SIMON: So we’re the Jeffersons, and we moved on up to the other side of the island.
JONATHAN: Yes, but we’ve managed to maintain the rustic-modern esprit that our old house had and Shelter Island obviously has.
SIMON: I know what my favorite part of the house is—I love the living room. I love to sit in the hanging chairs with you, staring at the view and thinking: Wow, when I was born in a gritty little town after the war in England, I never thought I would be in this swinging glamour pad in America. What are your favorite parts?
JONATHAN: For me, the house represents an incredible creative project. I made a lot of custom stuff for the house, whether it’s the custom tiles or this gigantic screen, lots of custom furniture. So, for me, it was the chance to put my vision to work. It’s very gratifying to wake up and see all my work in the context in which I always imagined it. In our old house I had a pottery studio, but it always felt like a busman’s holiday. Now, for me, Shelter Island is an opportunity to turn my mind off. Shelter Island is lemon sorbet for my brain.
SIMON: I’ve always done a ton of writing in Shelter Island. It’s a great place to concentrate, and there are no distractions. Of the six books I’ve written, I would say three quarters of them are written in Shelter Island.
JONATHAN: There’s nothing more boring than hearing people talk about work. A lot of dudes think their work is fascinating—it just isn’t. It’s just one of those things that you’re not supposed to talk about like politics and religion and reality TV.
SIMON: We watch a lot of movies, and we watch a lot of crime shows like Dateline, 48 Hours, and Lock Up. I used to think I wanted to be like Andy Rooney, and now I think Lester Holt.
JONATHAN: His job does seem pretty easy. And probably all his beauty treatments are tax-deductible.
SIMON: We also love to hang out at Reddings. Marie Eiffel is the proprietor, and she’s a hilarious French woman with a lot of style. You can hang out there and drink coffee. We buy our groceries there. She’s very amusing.
JONATHAN: And Vine Street Café is the best thing to ever happen to Shelter Island. We are blessed to have the best restaurant in the Hamptons on our little island. Simon, what three words that define Shelter Island for you?
SIMON: Shelter Island for me is cas [short for casual], leafy, and funky. And for you, Jonathan?
JONATHAN: Well for me... Shelter Island is rustique, nautical, utopia. It’s the site of our happiest times with our geriatric Norwich terrier, Liberace. He’s gotten to the point that nothing really excites him anymore, but when we get to Shelter Island, it’s like 10 years are shaved off his little life.
SIMON: He literally has a smile on his little mug when we get to Shelter Island. His legs are a little shaky, but once he’s in the sand, he’s fine.
JONATHAN: I think Liberace prefers me to Simon because he sees the pure breeding in me. We’ve always had a bond that Simon has been excluded from because he looks at it longingly, knowing he’s somewhat excluded from our club.
SIMON: I think he prefers me because I spend a lot of time writing with him and cuddling with him, so we actually have more face time.
JONATHAN: It’s cute that you think that, but that’s not actually what he said to me. But we’re fine with you thinking he prefers you because we have that purebred bond.
SIMON: You have to see that you’re like Liberace’s hardworking daddy who’s off and away.
JONATHAN: Whatever gets you through the day, little fella.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY melanie acevedo; Prop styling by Brice Gaillard; Grooming by Losi for Martial Vivot Salon at The Wall Group