Anyone who grew up in the 1980s will remember postmodernism: bright colors, cartoony shapes, a sense of fun, in furniture and buildings and art and TV shows. It got its start with Ettore Sottsass’ Memphis group in Milan and was a rebuke to super-serious modernism. Some loved it, some hated it.
One of its most energetic exemplars in LA was the designer, sculptor and ceramicist Peter Shire. The prolific artist co-founded Memphis and since then has never stopped making works that embody what he describes as “serious play.”
Now a new generation has fallen in love with his work and he has a retrospective at MOCA Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood through July 2, “Peter Shire: Naked Is the Best Disguise.” The survey spans four decades of Shire’s whimsical teapots, tables, chairs, cabinets and other creations.
“What we regard as serious, really, most of the time, is solemn and decorum and not real feeling,” Shire said. “There’s no harder work than play and, you know, being in the moment… Making a joke is a great way to get at the truth, maybe without getting people too upset.”
Dig underneath Shire’s silliness, and he’s trying to make a serious point: that everyday objects meant for daily use are just as worthy of artistic attention.
His works include everything from silverware, plates and cups to T-shirts, sculptures and paintings. The MOCA show also includes sketches and engineering plans that illuminate his design process.
The teapots stray the furthest from their classic shape and encapsulate Shire’s interest in transforming functional objects into sculptural forms defined more by aesthetics than utility. More than 20 teapots are included in the MOCA show.
“Naked Is the Best Disguise” is a swirling mashup of color and geometry, with smoothly finished shapes jammed together into works that walk a tightrope between craft and fine art.
“It is a kind of all-encompassing aesthetic possibility for Peter,” said Anna Katz, curator of the MOCA show.
Even the metal cabinets and machines in his studio are slathered in vivid paint.
“There’s a practical reason” for painting his equipment, Shire said. “One is that a lot of them are used, and so they come in pretty beat up and grimy and gross looking. And the other reason is, that’s what I do. I paint objects. I mean, why should they be different than the work itself?”
Born in Echo Park in 1947, Shire even dresses like his sculptures, with striped black-and-white T-shirts and bright mismatched socks. He has a gray beard and a wide, impish grin.
Shire was a founding member of Memphis, a design collective based in Milan. Memphis challenged “good taste” and the principles of modern design, such as “form follows function.”
One example of such a defiant sculpture is “Bel Air Chair,” produced in 1981 with Memphis. More a jumble of shapes than a chair, it has a red back, an orange sphere as a foot for the chair and a green cylinder as an armrest.
He made a second, deconstructed version in 2010 called “Belle Aire Chair,” and for the MOCA show he made a 2017 iteration called “Brentwood Chair.” In the lastest version, the orange sphere is placed in front of the seat, challenging the definition of a functional chair.
Though he began as a potter, Shire has experimented with metal, glass, painting and large-scale outdoor art. One of his best-known public sculptures in Los Angeles is a 28-foot-tall steel and copper construction that resembles a city skyline. It rests atop Angels Point, the highest spot in Elysian Park, which offers commanding views of downtown and Dodger Stadium.
His studio in the heart of Echo Park was once an auto repair shop, and Shire cites a lifelong love of hot rod culture as an inspiration in his work. He also was inspired by California surfing culture, the designs of Charles and Ray Eames, and the midcentury Googie architecture of car washes and gas stations, including Googies, a coffee shop designed by architect John Lautner and formerly located at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards near West Hollywood.
“My parents made fun of it. We’d go past it on the way to the beach. It was kitsch, done by arguably the greatest Southern California architect,” Shire said.
He describes his parents as the type of “effete modernists who had developed, through their heritage, the ideals of art and modernism.” But to Shire, L.A.’s car washes and coffee shops “were fantastic, because they were kitsch. And I will define kitsch my way, which is the substitution of real values for spurious values, i.e., plastic flowers.
“I subscribe to the idea that kitsch is an idea of substituting fake for real. And I think we’re making an attempt to bring that back the other way and bringing the fake back into the real, because we’re not getting rid of the fake, you know. Plastic flowers are here to stay.”
His love of color also comes from his childhood home in Echo Park.
“My father was very color oriented, and he colored our house very carefully with groups of contrasting and complementary colors,” he said. “Colors can make you feel good and they can make you feel depressed.”
The MOCA show takes its name from a 1974 book of literary criticism by Samuel Rosenberg called “Naked is the Best Disguise: The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes.” The book speculates on the alleged hidden meanings in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle. Rosenberg borrowed the title from lines in William Congreve’s 1694 poem “The Double Dealer.”
No mask like open truth to cover lies,
As to go naked is the best disguise.
One could also connect that idea to Shire’s work, because its surface appearance and playfulness hides deeper ideas.
“It’s all right there. and it’s presented as furniture but it becomes sculpture. By using a format that’s easily accessible it can bring people to other ideas. People say ‘I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like,'” Shire said.
Shire is best known for his mugs and handcrafted earthenware, splattered with brightly colored paint and produced since 1972 under the name Echo Park Pottery. Strangers regularly walk into Shire’s studio to gawk at the sculptures and ceramics.
“There’s been this tremendous resurgence of attention to Peter, particularly among young artists in L.A. in the past, say, 10 years,” Katz said. “There are constantly young artists visiting his studio.”
Jo Lauria, an art historian, curated Shire’s show at the A+D Museum in 2014 called “Public Work, Lines of Desire,” and mentors senior classes in product design at Otis College of Art and Design, and says she’s seen a tremendous revival of interest in Memphis and in Peter Shire.
“Every generation relearns the past, and the students are beginning to see – especially product design students – that there are many different platforms, ways to go, channels to take for them to arrive at a solution. And Peter Shire and Memphis were great examples of how something that was maybe a straightfoward problem in design was accomplished with just a really clever and a useful kind of execution,” Lauria said. “So I think that’s what fascinates them. They’ve never seen anything like the color palette and the exuberance and the combination of materials that Memphis and especially Peter uses.”
Ben Medansky, a young ceramicist in Los Angeles, was Shire’s studio assistant during one summer several years ago. While rebelling against the strict rules of modernism, Medansky said, the Memphis design movement valued quality work.
“His idea was to always make things fun and cool and pretty. He wasn’t really interested in this new direction of art that really encourages bad aesthetics or bad art or ugly, grungy stuff,” Medansky said of Shire. “I really appreciated the high craftsmanship in all the work.”
Medanksy, 29, says the Memphis postmodern design aesthetic underwent a resurgence a few years ago, and while “he might not realize it because he wasn’t on Tumblr or Pinterest,” Shire’s work found a new audience among young artists.
“He understands the camp and the kitschiness of the work that he’s creating,” Medanksy said. “It’s very self-aware, and I think the entire Memphis group was self-aware of bad taste and knowing that bad taste can be taken seriously. He’s a big proponent of serious fun.”
Shire welcomes the renewed interest in his work, though he points out that for younger artists, it’s not a resurgence, since this is their first time discovering it. Like the title of his show, it’s been in plain sight the whole time.
As for the revival of interest in Memphis, Shire said, “It was good work and it was important work and that carries. And it offended people and there’s a bit of rebellion and that’s what people are attracted to. There’s a ‘be yourself’ kind of attitude.”
“Peter Shire: Naked Is the Best Disguise” is on display at the MOCA Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood through July 2. For more information, click here.