A chair, Peter Shire says, is "more than just where we put our butts."
For the 59-year-old artist, born and still living and working in Echo Park near downtown Los Angeles, a chair is also a dialogue between human anatomy and industrial architecture.
"It is as individual as a table is communal," he says. "A chair is a symbol of economic stature that goes back to when kings sat on thrones and common folk sat on the ground."
Shire is perched on a polished concrete floor in the newly refurbished lower level of his 1937 home, which he describes as "California bungalow gone wrong." Surrounding him, like a swarm of Mondrian-colored Tinkertoy constructions, are the sculptural seats he designed for "Chairs," an exhibition at the Frank Lloyd Gallery in Santa Monica.
Upstairs, the 1,400-square-foot space where Shire and his wife, Donna, have lived for more than two decades is a similar riot of color and texture. This is what the home of a working - some would say obsessively prodigious - artist looks like.
The original stone fireplace with weeping mortar is painted lavender, complemented with a mint mantel set against a crimson wall. Bookcases hold volumes on art and the ceramic teapots that Shire has made since his days at Chouinard, the famed Los Angeles art school.
Cats sprawl on the kitchen floor, a crazy quilt of 1950s-flavored green, gray and pink linoleum. Shire's hand-built furniture - Douglas fir cabinets with vibrant teal-painted details from the 1980s, and more recent steel and glass tables - are layered with paintings and drawings.
"Organized chaos is the artist's inevitability," Shire says.
His spouse puts it another way. "The house is overrun with art," she says with an indulgent smile. "There are even sketchbooks in the bathroom."
"It's a comfortable, lived-in space," says Adrian Saxe, Shire's former classmate, now a professor of art at UCLA. "There are some artists' houses that are so tricked out, God knows where they sit down and enjoy themselves."
Shire's younger brother, art gallery owner Billy Shire, says the house is something of a design laboratory.
"Peter has mastered so many materials and industrial processes and used them in his home in a way that feels warm and organic," Billy Shire says. "It strikes a balance between looking crazy and being functional."
Much of Shire's decor is a bit of both. He splattered paint on old medical lamps and dressed a "funked-up sofa that we bought at a garage sale" with a slipcover that resembles Joseph's amazing Technicolor dreamcoat.
He devised a bookshelf with steel wheels that rolls away from the wall so he can access his furnace room. He even cut and welded his own curtain rods, which are powder-coated in fire-engine red.
These creative touches are not immediately evident; it takes time to pick them out in the presence of so many shapes, patterns and colors. Although he is a designer, the artist in residence is clearly more interested in exploring his visual curiosity than creating tasteful interior tableaux.
"My wife is Japanese, and I share her cultural belief that there is no separation between art and craft. They are all one, and a daily living experience is worthy of aesthetic consideration," Shire says. "But the reason that certain aspects of my life, such as my house, are not caressed is that I am totally focused on my work."
In a career that has spanned five decades, Shire has become known as a potter, furniture designer and sculptor whose work includes civic installations.
Shire spent much of the 1970s following in the tradition of Gertrud Natzler, making elegant, footed compotes with rich, organic glazes. Even then, he was obsessed with bright, solid colors. He found that expression in furniture, constructing a group of deck chairs out of canvas and wooden frames that looked like giant Popsicle sticks.
In the late 1970s, New Wave music also sparked a visual language that was a collage of design-driven art movements including Bauhaus, deco, Dada and constructivism jazzed up with the retro-cool of Jet Age advertising and the emerging industrial style known as high-tech.
Architects and interior designers led by Milan-based Ettore Sottsass deployed this vocabulary of shapes, materials and colors into an international movement known as the Memphis Group.
"They were the people that defined postmodernism as it applies to decorative arts," says Peter Loughrey, owner of Los Angeles Modern Auctions. "And Peter Shire was one of the only American members of the group."
Memphis took its greatest inspiration from early Modernist design, overlaid with unlikely, absurd combinations of color and materials once considered tacky, such as Formica. "The Bauhaus notion was that design that is honest to the materials and the process will cause people to have honest and better lives," Shire says.
Like most kids of the '50s, he was obsessed with comics, Mad magazine, motorcycles, and hot rods with tuck-and-roll upholstery, all of which would later surface in his streamlined shapes and candy-colored palette.
"Peter is a California boy," Saxe says. "There is no way in hell he would do the work he does if he grew up in Pittsburgh or Paris."
That's apparent in the way Shire has furnished his house - "a mix between ranch and New England, if it had gables," he says. The living-room window, which should have a killer view, overlooks the street, while the kitchen has an enviable panorama of hills and downtown.
Over the years, the house has been furnished with Shire's prototypes and other people's castoffs.
"There was such great stuff in the trash that is now collectible," he says. "And when you didn't have anything, how cool were they? We'd bring them home and because of the sparseness of the house, they took on a meaning, they started to glow and throb in the room."