David Bowie Loved The Memphis Group

The rock icon, who quietly collected over 400 pieces of art before his death, even met with Ettore Sottsass.

“Art was, seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own,” David Bowie told the New York Times in a 1988 interview. Although the musician was a passionate patron of the art world, and even a painter himself, the interview was one of only a handful of times he had alluded to his private art collection.


It wasn’t until after his death in January, when his estate reached out to Sotheby’s in London about the artwork, that people even within the art world realized the breadth and diversity of the collection he had quietly acquired for decades.

Bowie’s interests skew toward 20th century British artists like Damien Hirst, Frank Auerbach, Peter Lanyon, and Graham Sutherland. But he also had a keen eye for furniture design, and especially loved the colorful, non-conformist designs of Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Group.

“Design-wise, the collection is very interesting to us,” says Laetitia Contat Desfontaine, the head of design of Sotheby’s London, which is exhibiting part of the collection ahead of an auction in November. “The Memphis Group has been seen as a bit dated, and it’s only come back in the last few years. But Bowie believed in them from the beginning.”

The Memphis Group, founded by Italian designer Ettore Sottsass, came onto the design scene at the Milan Design Fair in 1981 with a collection of brightly colored, playful pieces that challenged the Modernist conventions of clean lines and clear functionality. Bowie discovered them then along with the rest of the world, and reached out to Sottsass in the early ’80s and met with him. From then on, Bowie collected several of the group’s designs over time.

Many of the pieces in Bowie’s personal collection are now some of the most iconic and lasting designs of the movement. He bought Sottsass’ Ashoka Lamp from 1981, as well as his 1985 Ivory table, now a part of the permanent collection in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But he also sought out lesser-known Memphis members, such as Los Angeles-based artist Peter Shire, whose delightfully asymmetrical Big Sur couch figured among the pieces in the collection.

In retrospect, it’s fitting that these bold, iconic pieces should be owned by a man who was such a non-conformist icon himself, though few people knew of Bowie’s penchant for Memphis-era furniture while he was alive. Unlike the paintings that would have hung untouched and pristine on his walls, Bowie actually used this furniture, when it wasn’t being loaned to museums. “The beauty of furniture design is that you’re not only surrounded by them, you’re living with these pieces,” says Contat Desfontaine. “You can imagine him sitting on a sofa, turning on the lamp. This show is emotional for many people who are Bowie fans.”


Highlights from the 400-item collection are currently being exhibited in London and will travel to Los Angeles, New York, and Hong Kong before the three-day auction at Sotheby’s London in November. Click through the slideshow above for the items that have been released to the public so far.

[All Images: courtesy Sotheby’s]


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.