Peter Shire’s Echo Park Pottery

by Martine Syms

Echo Park Pottery was started by artist Peter Shire in 1972. He designates the work “post-pottery,” referring to the distinctive handmade construction and small-batch manufacture of his objects in the larger context of poorly designed, mass-produced goods. My favorite pieces are the Echo Park mugs. They are built from simple shapes, a single slab for the cup and a handle, in a method that Shire inherited from Adrian Saxe as a student at the Chouinard Art Institute, which later became the California Institute of the Arts. The glaze is applied like an Abstract Expressionist painting, the surface covered in colored drips, blotches, and splatters.

Shire’s studio is on Echo Park Avenue in Echo Park, Los Angeles, minutes from his childhood home. Every December there is a studio sale where I stock up on painted tiles and Echo Park mugs. I’m building a collection. I own four. Two for me and two for my boyfriend. I tend to fill them with teas, but my boyfriend prefers coffee. One is chipped and it still looks incredible. The stains blend with the splats. I first discovered the sale by text message—MEMPHIS DUDE / COOL CERAMICS—followed by an address. Shire gained notoriety as the only American member of Memphis, the Italian design group. Memphis was founded in 1981 by Milanese designer Ettore Sottsass, and its members’ work combined industrial, prefabricated materials, with patterns, Pop colors, and exaggerated proportions. After years of disdain, Memphis and postmodern design has taken on a legendary status among young designers. Shire is in exhibitions alongside thirty-year-olds, and fellow Memphiser Nathalie Du Pasquier just released a collaboration with a fashion brand. 

Though he’s traveled extensively, Shire is a true Angeleno. There’s a cliché that you never run into anyone in Los Angeles, but I run into him all the time. Despite our forty-year age difference, we share a native bond as well as a fondness for the farmers’ market, trendy restaurants, and Downtown L.A. The last time I visited the studio I asked him what he thought of the ceramic craze sweeping the design nation. In response he picked up a sculpture with a squashed piece of unglazed clay lying atop a flat, glossy, geometric base. “There’s no craft to it,” he explained. He remains unfazed by his sudden hipness.

Later we were talking about work and I confessed that I didn’t think it was possible to be a “professional” artist anymore. He told me, “When I was your age and I said I was an artist, people said, ‘That’s great. What do you do for money?’ There was no notion of being a full-time artist.” We agreed that it was okay. It was possible to be something else entirely. I think about this every morning, as I sip mint tea from an Echo Park mug.  

Martine Syms is a conceptual entrepreneur based in Los Angeles, California.