Peter Shire is an LA-based artist whose work eludes all attempts at categorization. He has created ceramics, furniture, toys, interior designs, and public sculptures, that seem to at once reference and parody influences such as Bauhaus, Futurism, Art Nouveau and Art Deco. This subversive humor and playfulness extends throughout his work and made him a natural fit for the controversial and iconic Milan-based Memphis design group, of which he was a founding member. His complete body of work was recently surveyed at MOCA in a personal exhibition, characteristically titled “Naked is the Best Disguise.” FOLD recently caught up with Peter Shire in his vast Echo Park studio to discuss the importance of making things, bridging the gap between art and crafts, and what he learned from his time with Memphis group.
You’ve worked with your hands your whole life, making ceramics, sculptures, furniture. What motivates you to get up every day and make all these weird and beautiful objects?
In our world, people make so few things. We surround ourselves with industrially produced stuff. You can go to walmart or to Barney’s and in the end, though the quality varies, you’re going to get the same things. There are no hands involved in it and no spirit. And that’s a problem. Because, whether we like it or not, there’s an energy imparted in all these objects. And it means something that everything we use is so similar in look and intent. Are you going to get the Kia or the Honda? Are you going to go for silver or a black one? People used to make things, and this gave them value in their community. Louie down the street made the best shoes, you know. What is left that computers and industrial production can’t pump out? Art.
It’s interesting that you say that because contemporary art as its taught in our art schools today kind of frowns upon purely aesthetic work, and has also separated itself from the trades that you’re mentioning. How does that disconnect manifest in your work?
I very much come from a bridge generation. My work is both. Ceramics is a trade. Being a potter is a trade. But being an artist is being a conduit, a conductor of spirit and information. And that’s the romance in my endeavor. And also being a bohemian. And being a middle class kid that’s having more fun than he should. [Laughs.]
Memphis Group, the iconic collective you joined in the 1980s, was also a bridge between different worlds — architecture, furniture design, art, and fashion. How did you get involved with them?
I was here in Echo Park doing my thing, looking for a way to be effective and make important work, following my snobberies. Ettore [Sottsass] came to visit me in my studio. In retrospect, his goal was to meet people that might be part of this situation. He picked all of us, young kids — to boost him, to push him, to goose him, but also so that we would be something. I booked a ticket to Italy. At that point, they were still working for Alchimia. Barbara Radice called a little later, and said, “We’re leaving Alchimia, will you join us?” Sign me up, I’m ready. Whatever you’re doing, I wanna be with you. No questions asked. Alchimia was so clandestine and esoteric that there was no way that it could fail, because it didn’t look for that territory to begin with. And Memphis was definitely stepping out. Big showroom on the boulevard, high visibility, and a big opening during salon week.
What was Memphis rebelling against?
It was a politically motivated endeavor and its target was the hot bourgeoisie. Ettore felt that they had taken design from the Bauhaus and the Italian maestros like Gio Ponti and had turned it into denuded version of chrome furniture.
How did you fit in as an American designer?
People think of American philosophy as puritanical, but really it was also much more optimistic than that of the Italian landscape. Ettore was very aware of that. And if New York was somewhat optimistic, California is on the verge of being polyanna. Ettore drew on that aesthetically. Memphis taught me that work and life aren’t two separate things, and you don’t stop living when you start working. Everyone thinks of Italians as sort of Dimani, kind of flaky, but boy, they really worked hard, and they really got a lot done.
You were present at the legendary first big opening in 1981 at Salon de Mobile. What was the scene like?
It was a big deal. It was too crowded. No one realized it would get that much play. Lagerfeld came in and was wearing some kind of a cape, and swung his cape around the showroom and said, “I’m taking everything!” Of course we were all full of adrenaline. Everyone was buzzing from the experience. You know, Memphis was a stupid name, but it was catchy, engaging the jargon of fashion, and the attitudes of the fashion world. Also, if you name yourself, no one else can name you.
Memphis was an international operation, and you were its Californian outpost, contributing a piece every year. How did you collaborate long-distance?
I would commute there once or twice a year, and otherwise I was in Echo Park, and we communicated by letter or fax. Barbara would write me and say, hey, we we’d like to have a lamp from you. And then I would send them maybe 60 or 70 different designs for review. I remember visiting them and seeing various post-its on the wall in various categories. They were assembling the possible relationships of the whole collection.
So your legendary Bel Air chair was just one of many proposals? Do you remember designing it?
Yeah, of course. I was walking on the beach in Malibu and I saw that house (the Stevens house), and I actually thought it was kind of corny. I also thought: that could be a chair. It resonated with my essential approach of making every corner of a piece different. If it was a table, all the legs were going to be different. I was trying to make the ball as ridiculous as possible. It was supposed to look like it would feel intrusive in the upholstery.
And somehow it turned out to be your best-known work. How does that make you feel about it?
Thank god for that piece! You’ve got to take what you can get.