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David Bowie’s Memphis furniture collection: Designs as colorful as the artist

The musical chameleon’s expansive set of postmodern design objects provides a clue about his take on creativity

From Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane to the Thin White Duke, music icon David Bowie was known for his voracious appetite for art and design, and his rare ability to quickly incorporate new influences and add his own personal spin. A forthcoming auction at Sotheby’s, Bowie/Collector, going on sale November 11 in London, will showcasing and sell the shape-shifting’ rocker’s incredible collection of artwork, including a museum-worthy set of Memphis furniture.

“When Bowie wanted to collect something, he really went for it,” says Simon Hucker, Sotheby's specialist in modern and postwar British art, who’s heading up the Bowie sale. “He found a Sottsass typewriter, researched him, and then jumped in. He’s a very tenacious collector.”

The postmodern Memphis school, an ‘80s sensation led by designers such as Ettore Sottsass, Michele de Lucchi, Andrea Branzi, and Nathalie du Pasquier—all of whom figure into Bowie’s collection—challenges International Style modernism with bright, blocky shapes and technicolor hues. For a musician adept at following trends, bucking convention, and embracing visual design as an equally important part of his work, Memphis makes sense as an object of Bowie’s affections.

“Does this song or that furniture piece influence a particular song? It’s not really clear,” says Hucker. “But this does shine a light on how Bowie approached creativity, art, and the creative process. For instance, he loved Duchamp, and the idea that anything could be art. It’s no surprise he’s be attracted to work that’s groundbreaking and breaks the rules.”

Bowie’s collection, which includes the work of outsider artists, those who stood outside the typical art world, as well as modern Africa art picked up at some of the earliest fairs in South Africa, shows a curious, devoted collector who went well beyond the surface. His obsession with Memphis is the same way; instead of just picking up a few of the more popular pieces, he picked up more than 100 items from tables to tableware, and even met with Sottsass. All of the pieces will be placed on the auction block, with starting bids ranging from $100 to $7,000.

Adam Trunoske, a Sotheby’s furniture expert, says Bowie’s collection is one of the most extensive in the world, joining that of fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld (which was previously sold) and Dennis Zanone.

“The Memphis designers flipped things on their head, and Bowie was always changing things up,” says Trunoske. “What I love is that Bowie kept this collection private and really wants to keep this to himself and have fun. I think that really says a lot about Bowie.”