I might describe Peter Shire as an artist and designer, and he would, in all probability, balk at this characterization. In the everyday, labels are convenient, quick and comprehensible. But they are also restrictive, short-sighted and familiar. In part, Shire may sniff at labels because his position in the art world is fluid and shows no limits. His work embraces many forms, including ceramics, furniture and toys; indeed, it spurns and transgresses the more rigid, accepted concept of fine art. While Shire’s work acknowledges the heritage of varied 20th century art movements—with references to Bauhaus, Futurism, Art Deco and others—his art ‘dismisses a facile linear trajectory and replaces nostalgic connotations with eclectic playfulness and subtle irony’ (Costache, 2017).
Peter Shire was born in Echo Park, Los Angeles, where he still lives today. A graduate of the celebrated Chouinard Art Institute (now absorbed into CalArts), Shire was an original member of the Milan-based Memphis group—a postmodern collective of inventive young furniture and product designers, founded by Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass. Shire’s work is colourful and bold, clever and imaginative. In his unconventional teapots, furniture, sculpture and paintings, Shire’s approach is experimental and novel, his expression the antithesis of modernist sentiment. While his work challenges the sensibilities and proclivities of many, it also fascinates, titillates and shines.
Gessato gets behind the design with Peter Shire.
In a sentence, how would you describe yourself?
A ray of light having a human creative experience.
I sometimes wonder if one person’s art is another person’s design. When I look at your furniture pieces for example, I think of them as design. Is this a fair assertion?
Well, it’s a leading question in many ways. And the simple answer is that because of my approach, there is no definition in those terms. The complex answer would have to be: ‘what is art, what is design, what do you think it is, what do other people think it is, and perhaps what they [art and design] are actually.’ And we’re really not writing a book yet, but if you want to . . .
HuffPost described Echo Park as ‘the epicenter of the genuine L.A. experience’. As a lifelong resident, I’m curious about your perspective on this and particularly, how Echo Park has influenced your creativity.
First of all, as far as the HuffPost goes, they are just Huffing. That is the worst kind of journalistic hyperbole, sex talk, and arguably one of the things that turned my neighborhood into the same kind of developers’ ‘bullshit’ as the rest of LA. As far as Echo Park influencing or informing my approach and attitude, the simple fact is that my Mother and Father chose to live in Echo Park, because it was a working class neighborhood, with people that have made alternative life choices—based on integrity and commitment, aesthetic and political ideals, over monetary gain. And those kind of career choices come first. This isn’t what Echo Park is now.
The Memphis movement was radical and disruptive, novel and colorful. For a period, it was larger-than-life. In an increasingly volatile world—creatively, culturally, politically—what lessons do you think today’s artists and designers could learn from Memphis as a movement?
The wonderful, dynamic, expansive people who came together at that moment, didn’t have goals of proselytizing, teaching, giving directives to other people or telling other people what to do—as far as I know. Excuse me if I sound irritable—forgive me. It just seems that the question suggests that there are answers to these kinds of questions, formulas to be delivered that might be a bridge to success, or something. And although I have attempted at times to be a mentor, teaching has never been a talent nor a desire that I possess. Actually, as we’re going through this, a talk given by the foremost lettering person in America, Doyald Young, really applies. Paraphrased, perhaps depending on my memory, what he said was: ‘I’ve taught at Art Center [Art Center College of Design, California] for over twenty five years and over 4,000 students, and I’ve learned that I can only teach one thing—keep your pencil sharp! Because talent and ambition and drive were something that happened a long long time before they got to me.’
Good taste vs bad taste . . . it’s entirely subjective. In many ways, your work is a multicolored, artistic assault on the senses. What’s your view on the concept of taste?
Let’s reverse the question: Is taste a concept? These things really have to do with being young and feeling young as you get older. Having nerve, having fun.
We now know that David Bowie was a big Memphis collector—your highly original ‘Bel Air’ armchair and ‘Big Sur’ couch were a part of his fabled Memphis collection. Similar to Memphis, Bowie was very much a nonconformist. Does it take one nonconformist to understand and appreciate the workings of another?
Yeah, it’s just me and Dave. Although when we were feeling particularly bonhomme, it was Davie.
My Grandmother loves a cup of tea and I can only imagine what she would think of your expressive teapot sculptures. What is the symbolism behind your various teapots?
Really? One of the things that’s a huge power propelling my making of teapots is people like your Grandmother: who love tea, who love the custom and ritual (and caffeine?) of tea, and give these objects immense meaning and history.
Why is naked the best disguise? (in reference to your recent exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art: ’Naked Is the Best Disguise’).
Certainly, the curator of the exhibition, Anna Katz, had her reasons. One of the most flattering reasons was that she felt my work—that looks exuberant, nonsensical and sometimes even witty, when it’s not being funny—really puts complex and intellectual meanings directly in front of people. For me, it’s confusing and enigmatic. You know what it means, yet you don’t know what it means.
How do you sustain the passion for what you do?
Passion is a media word (worthy of the HuffPost). When a person is hungry, he only thinks of eating.
Costache, I. (2017). Biography | Peter Shire. [online] Available at: http://petershirestudio.com/biography [Accessed 14 Aug. 2017].
The portrait of Peter Shire shows Peter at his studio, with a blown-up photograph of his parents (it captures the moment they met in 1946). Photo by Dola Baroni.