This edition of the Masterpieces & Curiosities series focuses on designer and artist Peter Shire’s Menorah #7 (1986), and presents an opportunity to visually sketch the connection between the Los Angeles native’s history to the history and resonance of Memphis design. Elaborating these two stories opens up a larger and multilayered conversation about the relationships and dissonances between art and design, tradition and innovation, ceremony and interpretation, and the importance of iconoclasm.
Peter Shire was born, raised, lives, and works in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. His pottery, sculpture, paintings, drawings, and furniture deliberately confuse and intertwine art and design. His aesthetic is informed by art historical movements such as Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism, as well as the irreverent and often humorous rebuke of modernist doctrines that came to define the history of West coast art and artists, its social, and cultural politics. Intrinsic to this spirit is a disregard for the status quo, and a full embrace of the pluralist and idiosyncratic impulses that motivated Memphis, a visionary moment in design history, one that continues to resonate today.
In the late 1970’s Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass and Shire became acquainted through a series of magazine articles, which highlighted their shared love of dubiously functional objects. The Italian invited the American to join the Memphis group, a Milan-based coterie of international designers like Michele de Lucchi, Barbara Radice, George Sowden, and Natalie du Pasquier. Sottsass hoped Memphis would instigate a radical philosophical and aesthetic shift. Its pieces were statements, that when inserted into a landscape of neutral-hued interiors loudly demonstrated their uniqueness. Its seating, tables, lighting, carpets, textiles, laminates, and objet d’art are composed of pastel, primary, and neon colors, wacky graphics, and illogical geometries. Inspired by Art Deco, Pop art, African and Far Eastern cultures, punk, cartoons, toys, and 1950s kitsch, the Memphis designers responded to and rejected the orthodoxies of modernism and the notion of good taste; and privileged ideas over functionality, posing far more questions than solving design problems. The combination of questionable utility, cartoonish shapes and hues, and cheap materials was playful and radical, bringing a little bit of low culture and humble materials to high class design. Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld entirely outfitted his Monaco penthouse in Memphis, garnering press for his intrepid interiors sense. Shire contributed pieces every year until the collective disbanded in 1988.
For this exhibition, the typically subdued, dark grey gallery will come alive with pattern, color, and imagery. Photographic blow ups of Memphis interiors and cultural phenomena will be set against objects by the designers. Shelving and pedestals holding other objects and ephemera will be covered in Memphis laminates. Jewish Museum Judaica objects, textiles, and artworks that resonate with Shire’s expansive approach to form and materials, will be exhibited alongside an array of objects and ephemera relating to both Shire and the Memphis movement.