Peter Shire | From Memphis, Milan to Echo Park, L.A


Peter Shire was – alongside Ettore Sottsass – an integral part of the Milan-based Postmodern Memphis design group. He continues to make his distinctive artwork and furniture at his Echo Park Pottery studio in L.A. Pippa Brooks met him to talk about colour, pattern and the perfect coffee cup

Peter Shire Memphis

My favourite cup is from Peter Shire’s Echo Park Pottery. It’s the cup from which I drink that crucial first coffee of the day. It is paint-spattered, tall, thin. It’s beautifully uneven: the surface has the texture of hessian, as though the clay was rolled over rough fabric. I love it.

To use a piece crafted by an artist like Shire every day is a thrill. His work blurs the boundaries between fine art and industrial design, and ranges from public sculpture to teapots. He is perhaps best known for his work with the Milan-based radical design group, Memphis; founder Ettore Sottsass saw one of Shire’s teapots and asked him to join the group which came to epitomise the Postmodern look, whose primary colours, laminates and witty designs inspired the V & A’s 2012 exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990.

I visited his studio in Echo Park last month when I was in LA. Shire’s signature colour palette and irreverent, eccentric aesthetic bombards you from all angles; every surface, be it a glazed bowl or a machine-part, is lovingly coloured, textured, and sprayed. It’s a joyous, eclectic space. And the creative process is alive wherever you look.

Pippa Brooks: Your mark is all over your studio, even the working machines are decorated by you. It’s like entering your “world”. It’s decorative but it also elevates the object, whether it’s an ornament or a piece of machinery. Are your surroundings a reflection of you or is it more a compulsive urge to add colour?

Peter Shire

Peter Shire: Or is a compulsive urge to add colour a reflection of me?  Or do I simply love colour?  Or do I firmly believe what our surroundings are make our life better?  Or do I make a world where at least things are as good as they can be and a refuge against the vagaries and cruelties of  the outside world.

What else do you collect? I noticed an impressive display of hundreds of knives in your studio.

Hammers and steel bicycles. I collect books – Kinky Friedman, Walter Moseley, Mark Twain, John Mortimer and Raymond Chandler –  but I can’t afford more than paperbacks. But my largest collection – and in the sense of a curated collection which represents critical transitional pieces in order – is my own work.

The collectible, cute teapot becomes something else entirely in your hands. Quite precarious, almost intimidating. Why do you constantly return to the object?

A quick answer might be, one needs to remember where one came from.

You were one of the original members of the Milan-based Memphis group – did that meeting of minds make you feel part of a movement?

Peter Shire

This was a true high point, a life experience.  Partly because it was never planned: organically, something came as a result of the work I was doing, and the work they were doing.  And because it was a group of treasured friends and people that I truly respect, people who when I work I feel may be speaking to me. And my goal would be to do something that is exciting to them; especially, even though he can’t answer, Ettore.  And I hope they would be proud of me.

There’s a wonderful playfulness in your work and a refusal to be pinned to any specific genre, to work within fine art as well as with domestic objects. Is it important to blur the boundaries?

The so-called cross disciplines have been a cross to bear, but this was not my care. At one point Bob Dylan and Barry Goldwater were compared as products of the 60s, and of being more or less the same, that similarity being neither one of them wanted to be told what to do. Well that makes three of us.  Being a true baby boomer and a participant in the 60s, I didn’t want anyone to tell me what to do. I wanted to do it all, and continue. It is a question of searching for new images: things I haven’t seen before and engaging the experience of seeing beyond [the everyday].

Is it important to be endorsed by an establishment like the V&A? And to have your work bought by someone like me who simply wanted a beautiful cup to use?

Peter Shire Memphis

There is a degree of intensity and intent to the mugs, and really, we under price them so that they can be part of peoples lives. They assume an importance in both the museum world and the real world because they have entered into so many peoples’ lives.  And of course that’s really the reason I do them. The bigger more elaborate intense objects are compressions of our era: of ideas; of importance and advance; of excitement; and really, of love.

On your website the date 2nd October 1972 is a very specific start to Echo Park Pottery. Was that the date you moved to the premises or is there a more momentous reason for quoting that date?

It was the day I resigned from Franciscan Pottery (my official title was “design lab technician” which really read “gopher”) and walked into my studio. October 2nd was the milestone. A do or die attempt to be a studio potter and an artist.

Artists like Grayson Perry are attracted to the approachable nature of pottery. Which other artists working in the medium do you admire?

Peter Shire

Let’s start with Patty Warashina, Fred Bower, Ron Nagle, John Mason, Ken Price, Akio Takamori, Henry Takamoto, Harrison McIntosh, Adrian Saxe, Connie Saxe, John DiFazio, Ralph Bacerra (my art school instructor) and then I can keep going.  This is sort of the big list, and I’m sure I have forgotten half a dozen.  You can include almost everybody because I know they are doing their best and they have an ability to express and present their vision.  And I know how difficult working, and mastering the medium and finding time to work is.

Let’s not get too dewy-eyed though. There are some people who are real phonies and I could kill them. And if you want a list of them, call me.
All photography by Pippa Brooks. Pippa Brooks is co-owner of M. Goldstein Art, Antiques and Attire in London (