Peter Shire and the Ethics of Design

“Objects are a personification of where people want to go and how they want to live,” said Peter Shire in an interview at his Echo Park studio. If that’s the case, Shire’s chairs and ceramics are the structural supports of a civilization that is self-aware and self-deprecating in its thirst for excite- ment. The Reagan-propagated financial deregulation of the 1980s gave rise to an America unbridled in its opulence. In many ways, the post-war America that birthed Peter Shire was ripe with innovation. However, it was also “a suppressive time which engendered a very formal aesthetic. The fashion was all about clean, narrow lines; think skinny ties. Even the Eames chair was severe in its design,” said Shire, a self-acknowledged baby boomer.

He is an artist/designer/craftsman who has made a point of circum- venting the boundaries of each of those labels. His work nods to the rever- ence for formality held by Modern aesthetics but at the same time blatantly subverts the rules of order, turning the once-rigid line into a paint-splattered corkscrew. From the previous eras’ deference to order, Shire lands us in a world that revels in and laughs at the thrill and unabashed lavishness that cat- egorized the Reagan-era boom. “I am always making fun of things that tend to offend me,” he joked.

Shire’s Bel Air Chair (1981) exemplifies his tendency to mimic and mock 1980s frivolity. It also displays his postmodern sense of humor in its appropriation of mid-century forms into a theatrical arrangement that is both self-aware and maniacal. The chair’s back, a metal shark-fin shape, is a refer- ence to the 1968 John Lautner house in Malibu. From Lautner’s asymmetrical façade, Shire creates a chair so outlandishly asymmetric that the viewer finds herself questioning its function, and thus purpose, as a chair. The chair is grand in both its bold use of color and its size. It is most suitable for someone larger than life, or aiming to be. “The Bel Air Chair is actually quite comfort- able,” said Shire, referencing its large metal seat where one would typically find a cushion. He describes his work as aiming for a sense of thrill, using often the most absurd means necessary to achieve it. “In the ‘80s, everything was about being excited,” he said.

Shire’s most recent show, Naked is the Best Disguise at MOCA Pacific Design Center (April 22nd through July 2, 2017), offers a comprehensive sur- vey of the artist’s work from the 1970s to present, including a piece specifically commissioned for the exhibit (Brentwood Chair, 2017). Naked is light-hearted in its curatorial choices: the walls are painted various shades of melon pink and lime green, evocative of the California color palette present in Shire’s pieces as well as of the fantastical nature and thrill-seeking attitude that runs rampant throughout his work. Naked provides a glimpse into both the design and socio-political culture that allowed Shire the foundation on which to build his vision.

Much of Shire’s work walks the line between refined and crass. He finds pleasure in elevating the base, playing with our idea of taste and kitsch. Through his good humor and design sensibility he creates objects that are a part of one’s everyday existence, but in a way that almost laughs at their veryfunction. His piece Right Weld Chair (2007)—a reference to Rietveld’s Zig Zag Chair (1934) in its sharp, Z-like form—alludes to the chair as a symbol of social and political stature, harkening back to a king’s throne. Shire’s Right Weld Chair is painted in a gradient rainbow and spattered with multi-colored paint, a nod to California’s hot rod culture. A pair of swimming pool stepladder handrails are tacked onto the chair’s back, and off them hang gold and purple tassels, the same kind that might hang from heavily-starched burgundy drapes. The Right Weld Chair, like the Bel Air Chair before it, presents an unabashed conflation of lowbrow and highbrow aesthetics that forces us to question our concept of good taste as well as the supposed function, and purpose, of the object itself.

Modern design aims to bring art into the consumer’s everyday life. “The ideal of good design is that it makes people’s lives better,” said Shire. But Shire is not only a designer, he is an artist, and his work continues to oscillate between the priorities of form and function. In speaking about the relationship between the work he did with the Italian collective, Memphis, in the ‘80s and his contemporary pieces, Shire said, “my essential approach and goals are the same.” His sense of humor and proclivity for the fantastic is ever-present in his work. He thinks critically about the everyday object, entertaining, for instance, the notion of substituting a round rubber ball for a chair leg or a shark fin- shaped wood plank for a table leg. Through a lens of excitement and sarcasm, Shire gives us a view of the world around us, a perspective on where people want to go and how they want to live that is at once chaotic and functional, outlandish and self-aware.

About Post Author