Peter Shire's Post-Modern Playfulness

Formerly of the avant-garde Memphis School, Shire explores color and geometry in unique ways.

Peter Shire was raised in Los Angeles by parents who were Communist activists. This made him a nonconformist from the get-go.

AJC: What were you rebelling against?

Peter Shire: Like Marlon Brando said, "What do you got?"

And so he took on many of the symbols of 1960s rebellion. He was a biker and an artist. But Shire's main focus was to escape the dull formalism of the oppressed 1950s. Bright colors and bold geometry quickly became the backbone of his signature style.

Shire: A lot of what's going on in the drawings is solving how things actually go together. It's like having a dream. You wake up, and the dream makes perfect sense, and then, I'll come in and make scale drawings. Sometimes, it's a real disappointment. There's one of those kind of sayings, which is, "Every finished artwork's a failure of imagination." Which is to say, all of a sudden, it has moved from that fantasy zone into gravity-bound reality. Then again, I look at things that I felt that way about, and I go, "God, how did I do that? That's amazing."

Shire's career took off in the 1980s when he was invited by Ettore Sottsass to join an elite cohort of artists based in Milan. For seven years, he was part of The Memphis Group, so named for a Bob Dylan song. They designed a diverse line of postmodern furniture, fabrics, ceramics, and more. This was a long way from his humble beginnings in the Echo Park neighborhood of L.A.

Shire: I'm basically a classic middle-class American. And so here I am. And I didn't realize it until probably a year or two later. I'm basically involved with a very upper-class Italian milieu in downtown Milan, and a couple of the people were actual lesser aristocrats. And I was right in there. But I think, as an American, all of that was waived. I didn't react like, "Oh, you guys are..." I didn't even think about it. I'm not strategic in career moves, or I have to be at this place or that place. If I like it, I'll do it.

Throughout his career, Peter Shire has tried to work against his naturally sunny disposition, and failed repeatedly.

Shire: I tried to do other things. I really tried. "I'm gonna show them I can suffer." I'd go, "I'm gonna use all gray and black, maybe a little white, maybe some blue-gray. And it'll be really full of angst and hard suffering." And I'd go, "Maybe it needs a little red accent right here." And that's downhill from there. And then I'll put a little green, and a little yellow, because it's gotta go against the red. And I'll start to feel better and better.

AJC: And it turns into a Peter Shire?

Shire: Yeah. It can't be helped. I've tried.