David Bowie collection: Memphis fever

 London  |  22 November 2016  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

The sale of the David Bowie collection at Sotheby’s, London, raises an opportunity for us to retrace a major design movment. The musician’s set of furniture items and objects by the Memphis group fetched strikingly high prices at the recent auction.

Industrialisation drove Europe into the mechanical era in the 19th century. The call to modernity launched by Italian futurism offered a poetic vision of metropolises, which went against the conventions of Italian art and society at the time. As a result, the notion of ruption and denial of the past in favour of a rush towards modernism would underline 20th century art. Subsequently, 1968 would usher in postmodernity, characterised by intellectual attitudes questioning the boundaries separating the aesthetic from the useful. This was also the way to reach a totalising idea of art. Furniture created over this period conveyed a genuine reform of ways of living. In this respect, we can bear in mind the power of objects over humans: while the post-war years introduced the idea of “beauty serving practicality”, the postmodern age tended towards a complete aestheticisation of the world thanks to polished manufactured objects. Postmodernism initiated reflection on the very status of objects. The questioning of the practical features of design stemmed from the cult of the object, and led to the production of furniture items whose functionality was secondary to its form. Anti-design and radical Italian design adopted this tendency. The 1970s-1980s were marked by the Memphis and Alchymia groups, whose melamine creations were aimed at an elitist clientele.

The petrol crisis in 1973 triggered new political, economic and ecological questioning. As a result, production methods were challenged. The economic instability at the time catalysed criticism of consumerist society. In 1966, in Florence, two groups introduced a new way of thinking that sealed the adoption of new guidelines, Superstudio and Archizoom. The latter, founded by Andrea Branzi, Gilberto Corretti, Paolo Deganello and Massimo Morozzi, adhered to the idea of innovative urbanisation, with their Non Stop City. Their artistic influences oscillated between pop art and land art (later, Andrea Branzi’s Animali Domestici series would draw broader inspiration from this movement). Meanwhile, the Alchymia group, created by Alessandro Guerrerio and his sister Adriana, paid interest in creation in all forms. The creators experimented with the frontiers of art and design. Alessandro Mendini’s Proust chair is a perfect example.

However, the common aim of rejecting rationalism did not stop division from developing in the group. In the meantime, the “New Domestic Landscape” exhibition at the MoMA in 1972 sowed the revolutionary ideas of this new Italian creative wave.

In 1981, Ettore Sottsass and Michele de Lucchi created Memphis, a group which benefited from an efficient sales organisation. Poltronova and Artemide supported production of the furniture and objects. The Milan furniture fair in the same year spread these new ideas. Lively colours, primary forms, the use of laminated plastic, became the signatures of this joyful, playful creation. This anti-design was based on unrestricted figurative freedom, with decoration and ornamentation intervening at the genesis of creation.

The post-Memphis era would be characterised by a clear-cut distancing from industry. Now was the time for experimentation, and Italian folly would be overtaken by a certain sobriety, sometimes tending towards the austere.

Design icons

The Bowie sale in London was a perfect expression of the diversity of the Memphis group’s production: furniture, art objects, ceramics, textiles, table arts… Prior to the sale, Florent Jeanniard, design specialist at Sotheby’s, Paris, reminded us of the importance of the event: “This is indeed a collection, and what a collection – one owned by David Bowie! We’re delighted that thanks to this sale, works by the Memphis group, with a focus on Ettore Sottsass, are being discovered by a wider public, and not only by design lovers. The last great event to highlight this design movement was the sale of Karl Lagerfeld’s collection in 1991, also at Sotheby’s, in Monaco. There’s no doubt that the prestigious provenance of the David Bowie collection will largely contribute to obtaining significant results and produce a very fine auction sale.” And given the remarkable results reaped, Florent Jeanniard was not mistaken. Both David Bowie fans and collectors joined the battle to bring home the hundred or so design objects presented that day. Some purists must have liked the idea of listening to Heroes, Tonight or Blackstar on the Castiglioni brothers’ Brionvega RR126 record player, pushed up to £257,000. Another notable sale was that of Marco Zanuso’s Radio cube TS522D with an estimated value of £150, finally going for £30,000!

David Bowie, a multi-faceted artist, turned his life into a complete work of art. From Peter Shire’s Big Sur couch (sold for £77,500) to Ettore Sottsas’ Carlton (£52,500), via Nathalie du Pasquier’s Désir lamp (£21,250), buyers were found for the whole collection. While it’s still too early to talk about a real revival, Florent Jeanniard believes that “this is above all the sale of a taste, David Bowie’s taste, but for several months we’ve seen creations by great designers from the 1980s coming back increasingly on the market and prices gradually going up from year to year! The sale of this collection will contribute to boosting prices, but we can only hope that they’ll stay up afterwards”. The sale no doubt marks a historic stage for the design market. David Bowie’s aura survives through the collection’s objects, now raised to the rank of sacred relics.



Auctioned in London on 10 and 11 November at Sotheby’s, the David Bowie collection, comprising three parts, achieved global sales proceeds of £32.9 million. The third part, titled “Design: Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Group”, raised £1.4 million from 100 lots, in other words over ten times the high estimate… and set thirteen new records.

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