How Nightclub Design Cured Modernism’s Hangover

Nightclubs are improvised zones of creative excess, inseparable from the styles and technologies that define them. Since emerging as an offshoot of the multifunctional leisure complexes of the 1960s, when the French words for “disc” and “library” combined to give us discothèque, signaling a shift away from live toward recorded music, clubs have been laboratories for design practices of every kind: clothing, visual marketing, make-up, furniture, and light. Nightclubs encourage experimentation precisely because they are experiments themselves. As a totality, they form a cultural counter-history, an architecture that reveals nothing to those who are not invited. Their story belongs exclusively to the night.

A 1978 vision from the Paradise Garage, a catalyst for the nocturnal imagination. Photo: Bill Bernstein.

“Time stops here and space takes over,” Andy Warhol said about Studio 54, a phrase that could serve as the mantra for Night Fever: Designing Club Culture 1960–Today. The exhibition at Vitra Design Museum takes an encyclopedic look at the disco-as-design engine, and its accompanying catalogue reads like a list of 032c pet fascinations, sprawling across Italy’s Radical Design Nightclubs (Issue 30), Ettore Sottsass (Issue 27), Cedric Price (Issue 2 and 32), Area (Issue 26), Bunker (Issue 24), and beyond.

The spaces featured here are architectural fever dreams whose constituent parts are indexed for the purposes of both study and historical FOMO: dancefloor blueprints, furniture brochures, magazine spreads, membership cards, and long-demolished wall art. New York’s Area produced invitations to fit its repertory of themed parties: a “natural history” invite on the inside of an egg shell, or a “suburbia” invite stamped on a slice of Velveeta cheese. The combination of art deco ziggurats, exposed TV studio equipment, and a nose-candy-proffering Man in the Moon at Studio 54 “was the lynchpin of the club’s success,” says cofounder Ian Schrager. “Design played a big role, because the club wasn’t just painted black and wasn’t so dark you didn’t notice anything; there was some style and sophistication to it.”

The Palladium dance floor with a mural by Keith Haring and programmable video arrays. Photo: Timothy Hursley courtesy of Garvey|Simon Gallery.

There are multiple instances of overlap between club culture and the catwalk, a symbiotic relationship that is singularly difficult to trace through time, dealing as it does with the bratty and forgetful spheres of underground music and fashion. At Belgian hotspots like Boccaccio and Mirano Continental, a young Raf Simons and the Antwerp Six spent frenzied nights jamming to a slowed EBM groove known as New Beat. After a long period of dormition, the profusion of new clubs inspired revelers to don blouses, Doc Martens, and blazers patched with religious prints and safety pins. The record label Antler-Subway produced a number of New Beat-themed apparel collections, advertised on its record sleeves, while the Continental’s artistic director, Etienne Russo, would later create runway shows for Dries van Noten.

In the earliest days of the discotheque, clubs were a tabula rasa for the PVC expressionists of Italy’s radical design movement. Committed to ephemerality, they unraveled the stern maxims of late Modernism. First was The Piper, opened in Rome in 1965 after a modest commission from a globe-trotting lawyer who dreamed of owning “a giant pinball machine for youngsters.” Architect Francesco Capolei used “wood and bricks all painted white, rubber cladding, and Perspex with lights inside” in an attempt to build cheaply. Throughout their history, club owners have striven to build alternate realities with limited means. The visual language that enveloped Manchester’s Haçienda – a collection of roadside bollards, red-and-black-striped warning tape, and cat’s eyes set in concrete – initially emerged for practical reasons. The dance floor in the former yacht salesroom was littered with physical hazards. The concept, imagined by interior designer Ben Kelly, would later become another sort of warning. In 2004, it was transferred to the British fitness chain Gymbox, whose corporate identity Kelly also designed. As healthy living, sobriety, and digitally-induced idleness lure the young away, nightclubs struggle to define their role. Then there is the ubiquitous problem of escalating rent. As an advert for the luxury apartments that eventually replaced the Haçienda put it: “Now the party’s over … you can go home.”

The original interior of Manchester's Haçienda nightclub. Image courtesy of Ben Kelly

Night Fever: Designing Club Culture 1960–Today is published by Vitra Design Museum (Weil am Rhein, 2018).

Related Content

  • 032c Issue 34 – Summer 2018 “THE BIG FLAT NOW”

    We regret to inform you that there is no future. Nor is there a past. Music, art, technology, pop culture, and fashion have evaporated as well. There is only one thing left: THE BIG FLAT NOW. 032c Issue 34 - Summer 2018 "The Big Flat Now" is out now! Learn more about the issue here. More
  • ANGST: ANNE IMHOF

    Anne Imhof’s three-act opera Angst is a grand and opaque artwork that drifted across the world like a low-pressure system. Act one saw its performers communing around a fountain filled with water and whisky at Kunsthalle Basel this summer. For act two, Imhof set up anarchic camps in the fog that filled Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof during the city’s art week. Read our feature with the artist from 032c Issue 31. More
  • Deeper

  • Life Exists in Images: Theaster Gates at the Fondazione Prada

    Theaster Gates' “The Black Image Corporation” presents photographs from the holdings of Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Company, a sprawling archive that shaped “the aesthetic and cultural languages of contemporary African American identity.” Gates approached the project as a celebration and activation of the black image in Milan through photographs of women photographed by Moneta Sleet Jr. and Isaac Sutton – of black entrepreneurship and legacy-making. “Life exists” in the Johnson archive, he says, just as it exists and should be honored in other places of black creativity.More
  • ALL A DAT ALL A DAT: Rap Crew 67 Can Make Anything

    Members ASAP, Monkey, LD, Dimzy, Liquez, and SJ are branching out. “67 can release rizla,” says LD ahead of the UK drill collective’s appearance this weekend in Berlin. “Not everybody can do that. A lot of people are just rappers.”More
  • 032c Resist Collection

    032c Resist Pin

    €10
  • David Ostrowski Brings Bauhaus to Warsaw’s Galeria Wschód

    The painter David Ostrowski has been off the radar for the last few years. A former student of Albert Oehlen and graduate of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Ostrowski is best known for his large abstract paintings, which often include the use of spray cans and a formalistic approach to shape. Now he's back, with a new body of work and two shows – the first of which opens in Warsaw at the progressive gallery space Wschód this weekend.More
  • 032c WWB Collection

    032c WWB Rugby Shirt Black

    €115
    Buy Now