Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan Go Trippy Contemporary on Shelter Island

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By Dan Rubinstein / Published by Dwell
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For design mavericks Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan, a challenging site that slopes toward the sea yields a unique opportunity to create an intimate and relaxing hideaway.

If personality transforms a house into a home, then the recently constructed beachside residence of interior-design maven and ceramics luminary Jonathan Adler and his husband, window-dressing legend, creative ambassador-at-large of Barneys New York, and all-around bon vivant Simon Doonan, is one of the greatest residences on New York’s Shelter Island. After spending years in a 1970s A-frame in the area, the creative couple decided to build their first-ever ground-up project. "We wanted to crank it up a notch," says Adler. They knocked down a small cottage on 1.25 acres of beachside land and started anew with the help of Connecticut-based firm Gray Organschi Architecture. "We wanted warm, rustic modernism," Adler continues. "It’s a little California, a little bit Japanese, and a little bit Swedish." 

Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan collaborated with New Haven, Connecticut firm Gray Organschi on their midcentury-inspired New York vacation home.

Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan collaborated with New Haven, Connecticut firm Gray Organschi on their midcentury-inspired New York vacation home.

The result is a one-story, 2,800-square-foot structure, with four modestly sized bedrooms, a pool, and a variety of private indoor-outdoor spaces, whose exuberance is only surpassed by Adler and Doonan’s own outsize charisma. "It’s located on Gardiners Bay," says Adler, "facing due east, so the sun rises right outside of our house. It blasts us awake every morning." It’s all perfectly suited to Adler and Doonan’s lifestyle. "Every day is like a tampon commercial," says Adler, "whether it’s running on the beach, going for a bike ride, or paddleboarding." 

The site-sensitive exterior belies an interior festooned with a kaleidoscopic mix of colors and an array of tactile materials. The Peter rug, Malibu sofa, and ceramics are Adler's own designs. The tables, pendant lights, and rocker are vintage. Adler and Doonan used scaffolding from the house's construction to build the bookshelf.

The site-sensitive exterior belies an interior festooned with a kaleidoscopic mix of colors and an array of tactile materials. The Peter rug, Malibu sofa, and ceramics are Adler's own designs. The tables, pendant lights, and rocker are vintage. Adler and Doonan used scaffolding from the house's construction to build the bookshelf.

In the home’s interiors, Adler’s design aesthetic took flight—with a variety of theatrical touches from Doonan. Nearly all the pieces are Adler’s, and the house is a testing ground for objects that might make their way into one of his 26 stores, like the Ravello cocktail table, in the living room, with a turquoise-blue glaze that emulates the ocean. Adler started experimenting with the table’s prototype at the same time that house planning began. "I think that everything I do informs everything else I do," Adler says. "It all goes into production." Shots of color from the ’60s and ’70s are everywhere, and certain custom tactile elements add depth and warmth. For example, a seating area in the living room is adjacent to a custom tile wall of Adler’s own design. Exercises in scale—another Adler trait—are evident in an oversize macramé creation by artist and set designer Andy Harman. "I wanted to bring a sense of California craft in but tweak it a little bit," says Adler. "It’s a super macramé house but done through a trippy contemporary lens."

"There's no right answer except to play and experiment," Adler says about furnishing the interior. He reupholstered vintage Warren Platner chairs with velvet from Kravet. Drawings by Eva Hesse inspired the custom ceramic wall tile. Adler also created the coffee table, rug, planters, and gold stool. The pendant lamp is from Rewire in Los Angeles and the artwork is by Jean-Pierre Clement.

"There's no right answer except to play and experiment," Adler says about furnishing the interior. He reupholstered vintage Warren Platner chairs with velvet from Kravet. Drawings by Eva Hesse inspired the custom ceramic wall tile. Adler also created the coffee table, rug, planters, and gold stool. The pendant lamp is from Rewire in Los Angeles and the artwork is by Jean-Pierre Clement.

Upholstering the walls in neutral grass cloths made the house’s four small bedrooms—one of which is used as a gym—extra cozy. Objects and furniture constantly rotate through: "My poor, long-suffering husband never knows what he’s going to come home to," says Adler. "Even if it works, I always think there’s a better way." Not to be outdone, Doonan contributed with elements such as a shelving unit for books and ceramics, made from humble recycled-wood planks, and, in the master bedroom, a fiendishly defaced portrait of George Washington, featuring an eye-patched first president. "We didn’t want it to feel modernist-precious," he says. "It had to feel modernist-boho-chic, like Big Sur." 

In the gravel-lined entry court shaded by a Japanese maple tree, furniture from Beall and Bell—an antique shop in Greenport, New York—mixes with Pendant Globes by Primelite Manufacturing. Bobo pillows by Adler outfit the banquette, and cedar clads the interior of the seating area.

In the gravel-lined entry court shaded by a Japanese maple tree, furniture from Beall and Bell—an antique shop in Greenport, New York—mixes with Pendant Globes by Primelite Manufacturing. Bobo pillows by Adler outfit the banquette, and cedar clads the interior of the seating area.

The relatively small size of the house and the black-painted exterior are two key facets of the project that make it stand out amongst its neighbors. And why the ominous color? "Painting things black is not an insane, punk rock gesture. It’s actually a very landscape-friendly thing to do. It’s the white houses that are quite jarring on the landscape," Doonan says.

Andy Harman's macrame Owl punctuates the living room with a California-craft sensibility while the midnight-blue brick imbues the space with a "German-Brutalist-1960s kind of feel," says Adler. "It gives the room a nice architectural gravitas."

Andy Harman's macrame Owl punctuates the living room with a California-craft sensibility while the midnight-blue brick imbues the space with a "German-Brutalist-1960s kind of feel," says Adler. "It gives the room a nice architectural gravitas."

In keeping with Adler’s kitsch-heavy and ultra-friendly aesthetic, the couple felt it was important for the house’s materials to balance out the austere-looking structure. "People build beautiful, modern houses today, but sometimes they look too precious," says Doonan. "I like surfaces that use recognizable materials, like Masonite, and mixing them in with Jonathan’s custom tile works and stuff like that. That’s what makes it feel like a beach house and not a bank floating in the middle of a lawn." Warm but readily available—and therefore economical—red cedar wood is used for the ceiling throughout the house, extending to the cantilevered awnings around the main building and the side of the pool pavilion outdoor seating area. The interior walls are painted, rough-cut pine. "It feels like Fire Island in that sense and cranks up the rustic feel of the house," Adler says. 

Doonan stands next to the front door. "We have flamboyance, and we're not inhibited about anything. Gray Organschi gave [the house] that intellectual rigor needed to make it beautiful. We were well matched."—Resident Simon Doonan

Doonan stands next to the front door. "We have flamboyance, and we're not inhibited about anything. Gray Organschi gave [the house] that intellectual rigor needed to make it beautiful. We were well matched."—Resident Simon Doonan

The site’s drastic grade change—almost a full story from the front to the back—challenged architect Lisa Gray, but she used this potentially negative trait to her advantage in choreographing the flow through the interior. "They wanted a really big, open space for the living room, but they liked the idea of keeping the level changes, when possible, inside the house," she says. When visitors arrive, they step down into a courtyard, and when they enter the house, they step down further into the living room. "These gentle level changes make these sequences of indoor and outdoor space feel really, really private," Gray says. 

"The vibe feels cozy even though the living room is quite grand," Adler says. He made the room divider out of concrete and integrated the sofa with the step. Lee Jofa fabric covers the dining chairs and the pendants are vintage.

"The vibe feels cozy even though the living room is quite grand," Adler says. He made the room divider out of concrete and integrated the sofa with the step. Lee Jofa fabric covers the dining chairs and the pendants are vintage.

The rejection of a beachside-cottage look helps the couple feel at home all year long, even in winterFor his latest project, Adler has ventured into the world of candy—and it’s just as colorful and fun as everything else he’s surrounded himself with. He’s teamed up with Sugarfina to create a collection of treats with packaging that matches his bold sensibility. Now available through Jonathan Adler, Sugarfina, and Neiman Marcus, the Sugarfina Loves Jonathan Adler Candy Bento Box collection consists of three limited edition boxes designed by Adler that hold a mixture of signature candies. It marks the beginning of a year-long collaboration, so make sure to keep an eye out for the next round of bento boxes coming out around the holidays.. "The sensory deprivation is great," says Doonan. "It is a bit like The Shining but only in a good way. Hopefully, we won’t turn into Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson."

Adler's Slate grass cloth, a material he likes because it feels natural, sheathes a guest room's walls. Ravello and Nixon side tables flank the bed, which is covered with Adler's Alexander duvet. A reissued mirror by renowned metal artist C. Jere rounds out the eclectic room.

Adler's Slate grass cloth, a material he likes because it feels natural, sheathes a guest room's walls. Ravello and Nixon side tables flank the bed, which is covered with Adler's Alexander duvet. A reissued mirror by renowned metal artist C. Jere rounds out the eclectic room.

"I want everything to have a sense of place," says Adler. "To me Shelter Island is a rustic, relaxed place." Oatmeal grass cloth wallpaper, a Talitha rug, and Whitaker chair and ottoman, all by Adler, and vintage artwork instill the interior with a comfortable retro quality.

"I want everything to have a sense of place," says Adler. "To me Shelter Island is a rustic, relaxed place." Oatmeal grass cloth wallpaper, a Talitha rug, and Whitaker chair and ottoman, all by Adler, and vintage artwork instill the interior with a comfortable retro quality.

For his latest project, Adler has ventured into the world of candy—and it’s just as colorful and fun as everything else he’s surrounded himself with. He’s teamed up with Sugarfina to create a collection of treats with packaging that matches his bold sensibility. Now available through Jonathan Adler, Sugarfina, and Neiman Marcus, the Sugarfina Loves Jonathan Adler Candy Bento Box collection consists of three limited edition boxes designed by Adler that hold a mixture of signature candies. It marks the beginning of a year-long collaboration, so make sure to keep an eye out for the next round of bento boxes coming out around the holidays.

The Cocktail Hour box gets the party started with Champagne Bears, Martini Olive Almonds, and spiced rum and cola Cuba Libre gummies.

The Cocktail Hour box gets the party started with Champagne Bears, Martini Olive Almonds, and spiced rum and cola Cuba Libre gummies.

In the Chic & Sour box, you'll find sugary gummies, SugarLips, citrusy Heavenly Sours, and Peach Bellini gummies.

In the Chic & Sour box, you'll find sugary gummies, SugarLips, citrusy Heavenly Sours, and Peach Bellini gummies.

Finally, the Cocoa A-Go-Go box follows the chocolate route with dark chocolate sea salt caramels, Sugarfina Pearls, and pastel Fruity Loops.

Finally, the Cocoa A-Go-Go box follows the chocolate route with dark chocolate sea salt caramels, Sugarfina Pearls, and pastel Fruity Loops.