David Bowie was the talk of Chicago last fall, and not because of a concert or new album. Instead, it was the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art that had the city donning spikey mullets and humming Ziggy Stardust. Featuring a range of objects spanning his teenage years in the 1950’s through the early 2000s, the exhibition focused on David Bowie’s creative process and his influences– and influence on– wider musical and art movements.
There’s a long history of homemade and official David Bowie buttons beginning in the 1970s, so the Busy Beaver crew was thrilled to be part of that tradition by manufacturing the 1″ design that MCA used in connection with David Bowie Is. The first of the MCA’s buttons were created in late 2013 as a teaser before the show was officially announced to the public. Christopher Roeleveld, MCA Director of Design during David Bowie Is, explained that “The ‘David’ design was a simple teaser intended to get Chicago excited about the Bowie exhibit months prior to it being officially announced. Since at that point we were contractually not allowed to advertise the show by its name, we created some giveaway materials that could confirm the rumors without really blowing our reveal.”
Abraham Ritchie, MCA Social Media Manager, said that in the run-up to the exhibit’s opening, the buttons were originally given out at to smaller crowds at events the museum hosted like Bowie Ball, held in honor of Bowie’s birthday in January 2014. Abraham also shared his own guerrilla marketing tactic for distributing the buttons to Bowie fans he met out in the world. “I started carrying about 10 [buttons] with me at all times in case I ran into a stranger with some Bowie gear on somewhere. Gifting a total stranger a Bowie button for no reason at all was pretty fun. They were first confused, then delighted when I explained about the button and the exhibition that was months away at the time.”
As the fall opening grew nearer, the buttons helped build buzz and anticipation throughout the city. “We were able to give [buttons] out to larger and larger crowds,”Abraham explained. “We have volunteer teams distributing them out to the huge crowd at Daley Plaza for the kickoff concert. I distributed them to people waiting in line on the first day and at the Members’ Opening. Everyone was thrilled to get them, and many people added them to Bowie button collections they already had.”
When the exhibit finally opened last September, it was a hit with Chicagoans, tourists and even attracted a fair number of celebrities to the museum. Abraham said, “As celebrities like Jason Schwartzman, St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark), and Chance the Rapper have come through I’ver personally handed [buttons] out to them and they’ve all loved them.”
And the story behind the “David” design– why not go with the more recognizable “Bowie”? Christopher Roeleveld explained, “We liked the idea of people wearing buttons that simply said ‘David’– like an ad campaign for people that have that name. We found it interesting that items had value to both those who recognized the slight Bowie reference, and to people who just happened to be named ‘David.’ I hope that years from now when the show is forgotten, some Davids out there will still be wearing [them].”
In addition to the lightening bolt that gave a slight nod to Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album cover, the buttons also paid tribute to Bowie’s flamboyant stage persona with the addition of a glow in the dark finish. Abraham shared the story of “a staff member who texted a few co-workers around 1am because she was startled to see the buttons glowing from her nightstand– she didn’t know that they were glow in the dark.”
Iconic yet ambiguous, simple but surprising, we like to think that the David Bowie Is buttons are the perfect complement to the artist himself.