Several artists from the Postmodern era have made the trip from the American West to Italy and back, as referenced in Learning from Las Vegas and A view from the Campidoglio by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Los Angeles and the West Coast city actually provided the reference for the Las Vegas study – the small town of Las Vegas being more archetypal in the 1960s, the period immediately preceding the post-industrial society and the Information Age. And just like Vegas and the Spaghetti Western, Memphis somehow also made it to Milano, thanks to Ettore Sottsass and his group of designers.

With its freeways and billboards, the American West Coast embraced the spirit of the new Information Age, and its artists did the same. Artist, designer, ceramist, and craftsman Peter Shire, who had always lived in Los Angeles, became part of Memphis, which was closely associated with Postmodernism. Nothing of its meaning, however, is superficial. Despite the critique Memphis received, mostly due to its subversive idiosyncrasies and its challenge to the all-powerful Modernism, it was much more than a style. As Shire says: “Ettore Sottsass was always concerned with spirit. And in that sense, Memphis was an aggressive attack on the bourgeoisie’s complacency and lack of understanding.” Sottsass discovered Shire’s work in WET magazine during the late 1970s, and the Italians readily abducted him.

Model of the MOCA exhibition, Photo © Cristina Guadalupe Galván
DAMN°: What was the hype like in the early days?

Peter Shire: There was a great moment when we are all doing Memphis and there was this guy in ID magazine – he was one of the straight-laced Italian designers, very rigor- ous kind of guy – who stated “Memphis is interesting but it’s too soon to tell.” And everyone started to laugh, and then I said: “What’s so funny?” And they said: “Well, here it says it’s too soon to tell, but his hang- ers-on are saying, ‘What is this shit?’”

Big Sur sofa, 1986. MEMPHIS
DAMN°: When did you go to Italy for the first time?

PS: I think it was in late 1979. After that, I would go for two or three weeks at a time, sometimes twice a year.

Peter Shire sitting on Ettore Sottsass’s lap, with Barbara Radice alongside. At the opening of Shire’s show at Design Dallery Milano in 1989. Photo: Donna Shire
Peter Shire, 2017, With his original thumbnail drawings for MEMPHIS. Photo © Cristina Guadalupe Galván
DAMN°: Ah! Well before Memphis.

PS: Oh yes. On the first visit I was supposed to work with Alchimia. They sent me to Salerno, to friends who had factories. It was quite fantastic. I loved it. But nothing could happen because they were basically disorganised and basically Italian! (laughs) It was just wild! We tried. But you have to virtually do it yourself with them in order to make it happen. And I think Sottsass at some point said: “Even if I have to do it myself, let’s do it.” He had all the connections to make Memphis happen and he brought everything together. So, during that initial visit, I had an idea that went on to become the Brazil table. But otherwise I just kept thinking of stuff. Every year I would send them maybe 80 to a 100 sketches. They would say: “Let’s try to number this, this, and this.” We went to dinner at Barbara Radice and Ettore Sottsass’s apartment one evening and they had post-its on the wall. They had made sketches of all the pieces they were thinking of and were moving the notes around to achieve the right combination. They did a very careful job of creating an overview and a cohesive grouping.

DAMN°: But weren’t you already developing that style before you met them?

PS: Absolutely. But not without knowledge of them. It wasn’t cognitive knowledge, mind you. I didn’t think: oh, I am going to do that. Sottsass had this storage room that had an accordion door. Once I started looking in there, I realised I had seen all these things before. I was besotted by Domus magazine because it was so confusing. (laughs) I couldn’t read a word of it, but it contained all these photographs that weren’t just about showing you that ‘this is this’, but rather that ‘this is a composition within this frame’.

DAMN°: Was that the Alessandro Mendini edition?

PS: No! Gio Ponti. I saw it in the late 1960s at the school library.

DAMN°: You are highly influenced by Gio Ponti, are you not?

PS: Oh! Fuck, yes...

DAMN°: Many Postmodern artists rejected being called Postmodernists. What about you guys?

PS: You have to call things something. You can’t always yell in the middle of the super- market hey,you! Charles Jencks thought of the name Postmodernism – or at least he takes credit for it – and Sotssass and company came up with Memphis. Which is sort of wonderfully stupid. You know, it’s not an art term.

DAMN°: And it’s very pop as well. It has many influences.

PS: Yes, there is a lot to it. It’s so wonderfully obtuse to call it Memphis. So wonderfully absurd. But then it sticks, because that’s its name. It’s like a cup; if it has a handle, you know where to pick it up. The division for me lies in the nature of technology. Technology drives economies. When we look at Modernism, it’s driven by industrialisation – not only facilitating production but also promoting a degree of honesty in production, which was the goal of the Bauhaus; and as we moved into the 1980s, industrialisation was changing, becoming automated; there were hints of computerisation, etc. We were, and continue to be, driven by the next stage of industrialisation, which is information and computers. Computers are confusing because they are machines but there are no visible gears and motors. You don’t see them moving, you don’t know how to fix them – you just thrown them away. But they can do collating, which is one of the motivating forces of something called Postmodernism, whose meaning is not so much post-Modernism, but information-ism.

DAMN°: The Information Age?

PS: Yeah, that’s what it was about. My fantasy is to show how random play can influence machine manufacturing, so that you can have a production line producing objects where no two are the same – sort of like with your record player when you push ‘random’.

DAMN°: What about the exhibition you are doing in Japan with Shin Okuda, the young artist and designer from WAKA WAKA?

PS: I am not quite clear as to what it is either. His work is very Japanese – a little bit understated. So I feel that my mandate is to lead him astray. When I was in high school I always got into trouble, and then they would phone my mother and say, “He’s not a bad boy, he’s just incorrigible.” And I am! It’s my turn to work on Shin Okuda and bust him out of his Japanese good sense a little bit, slowly but surely. Again returning to Memphis and what we did. I was always incorrigible and I actually got them to be a little incorrigible. Like with my furniture. I don’t think my furniture really functions too well as furniture alone.

DAMN°: You don’t think so?

PS: No, I don’t think so. (laughs) Each piece is really a sort of love object. What the hell is that?! you know. Barbara Radice would ask me: Where does the tea go? Where do you put your butt? How do you work at that? So we always pushed the rhetoric, the idea of how we think about furniture and how we think about life in the home... You are always trying to approach it and are always coming up to it and questioning it and moving back, until you say: I can’t answer that!

Peter Shire: Naked Is the Best Disguise is at MOCA Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, until 02 July 2017.

Peter Shire and Shinichiro Okuda is at Curator’s Cube in Tokyo and Kumamoto in May 2017 and afterwards in Osaka and Nagoya.

Less is a Bore. Reflections on Memphis was at KAI 10 | Arthena Foundation in Düsseldorf earlier this year / The hardcover exhibition catalogue contextualises the creative universe of the designers around Sottsass.

This article appeared in DAM62. Order your personal copy.
Olympic Athletes Disco, 1984 USC, Los Angeles
Ettore Sottsass’s Bacilli pattern for Abet Laminati. Tagged for delivery to the studio, 2017. Photo © Cristina Guadalupe Galván
Bete Blanc chair, 2006
Laurel table lamp, 1985
Bubbles Rising Scorpion teapot, 1983