Credit: Chen Wei

How nightclub design evolved

From radical happenings and dry-ice and glitter, to the rise of the industrial aesthetic, Dominic Lutyens explores the story of clubs, and asks – are we in the last days of disco?

Nightclubs are traditionally seen as unprepossessing spaces –  dank basements or ramshackle former theatres, lacking any architectural merit. As a result, their design has been hardly documented. But challenging this preconception is a new exhibition, Night Fever: Designing Club Culture, 1960-Today, at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein in Germany, that takes a detailed look at the evolution of nightclub design worldwide.

During the economic boom of the 1960s, club design entered a highly creative phase. An explosion of new, anything-goes venues with fantastical interiors offered the bohemian, fun-seeking – and often marginalised ­– a stimulating, tolerant environment where they could freely express themselves. For architects, the clubs’ raw interiors were a boon, providing them with a blank canvas.

“Night Fever is the first large-scale show about the relationship between club culture and design, and encompasses interiors, sound and lighting technology, fashion and graphics,” co-curator Catharine Rossi tells BBC Designed. “The show is partly based on an exhibition I curated on Italian nightclubs created by architects of the Radical Design movement, which rebelled against modernism.”

The show starts with the invention of the modern club in the context of the 1960s counterculture, then on to club-related fashion and furniture. “We wanted the show, designed by industrial designer Konstantin Grcic, to be multisensory and affective, and this section allows visitors to listen to different genres of music, and features light-and-sound installations,” says Rossi.

The first European disco is said to have been Paris boîte Whisky à Gogo, where, from the 1950s, owner Régine operated two turntables to avoid breaks between tracks. A key reference point for nightclub designers in the 1960s was the (unbuilt) Fun Palace –  a self-proclaimed ‘laboratory of fun’. Designed by Cedric Price in 1961 for theatre producer Joan Littlewood, it was a multipurpose, kinetic space featuring moving catwalks and inflatable structures.

There was a cross-pollination between club design in Italy and New York

Many of Italy’s 1960s discos were also radically experimental, for example the Piper in Rome designed by Manilo Cavalli and Francesco and Giancarlo Capolei. “In 1950s Rome, an emerging Pop art movement was celebrating the ephemeral, with happenings and improvisation. We wanted to connect this to architecture,” says Francesco Capolei. “At the Piper in Rome we broke away from the classic nightclub layout with its stage, orchestra and dancefloor.” Instead it had moveable platforms to suit different events. One wall displayed art by the likes of Piero Manzoni and Andy Warhol.

In 1969, Radical Design collective Gruppo 9999 transformed an engine-repair shop into eccentric club Space Electronic that staged plays, housed an architecture school and grew vegetables on the dancefloor. Barbarella, designed by Studio65 and opened in 1972, featured a spaceship-themed DJ booth and bar and fragments of Ionic columns – an ironic nod perhaps to Italy’s over-venerated classical past. Another club, Flash Back, opened in 1973, and boasted scarlet staircases evoking the drawings of Giovanni Piranesi.

There was a cross-pollination between club design in Italy and New York. Two of Space Electronic’s architects, Carlo Caldini and Mario Preti, visited avant-garde New York club Electric Circus, which, like many 1960s Manhattan nightspots, placed more emphasis on intangible, ambient elements – lighting, sound and drugs – than furniture. At Electric Circus, Warhol orchestrated his Exploding Plastic Inevitable events, featuring performances by The Velvet Underground, overlaid with psychedelic light projections. At John Storyk’s club Cerebrum, punters changed into white gowns and lounged on white carpets munching marshmallows.

Clubs like Studio 54 were theatrical spaces where everyone was on stage, everyone was a performer – Catharine Rossi

Studio 54 – with its door policy filtering out all but hip celebrities, the beautiful or the super-stylish – ushered in a slicker approach to interior design. Co-founders Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell hired architect Scott Bromley, interior designer Ron Doud and Broadway lighting specialists Jules Fisher and Paul Marantz.

Disco fever

In this former theatre, lighting was king. Illuminating the all-important dance floor was a ceiling incorporating mirrored panels and pink neon. Advancing across the floor was a bridge with flashing lights that supported 250 revellers; the structure also scattered glitter and spewed dry ice.

“Clubs such as Studio 54, which opened in 1978, were theatrical spaces where everyone was on stage, everyone was a performer,” says curator Rossi. In the mid-to-late 1970s, disco became a musical genre, but the exhibition also looks at the 1979 Disco Demolition Night rally in Chicago, where more than 60,000 – mainly male, white – disco-phobes smashed the dance records that had caused Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath to disappear from radio playlists.

That movement had racist, homophobic undertones: disco music had its roots in New York’s egalitarian, underground clubs, which circumvented such rules as men only being allowed to dance with women. In the 1970s, at clubs such as David Mancuso’s The Loft and Paradise Garage – housed in a disused garage, with Larry Levan as its resident DJ – white, black and Latino people mingled.

By the late 1970s and early ’80s, many considered discos such as Studio 54 to be overly commercial and passé, and the Big Apple witnessed the rise of edgier venues like the Mudd Club, among others, which espoused a punk-inspired, DIY sensibility. It invited artist Keith Haring to curate its fourth-floor art gallery, and Haring also created a mural for the Palladium. 

Northern England had its post-punk big-club counterpart in Manchester’s Haçienda, designed by Ben Kelly. “Its industrial aesthetic was inspired by the spirit of independent record label Factory Records,” Kelly tells BBC Designed. “Its aesthetic also sprang from safety considerations: I wrapped hazard tape around columns to make them easier to see, and set cat’s eyes into the dance floor. I was interested in taking fittings that normally belong in one environment and putting them into another. You entered the club through clear plastic curtains like those you’d see in an abattoir.”

Of course, there’s the danger of romanticising nightclubs as avant-garde and socially progressive. Take London’s Ministry of Sound, which opened in 1991 and is now a corporate phenomenon with its own merchandising and music-publishing business.

And the exhibition addresses the fact that the future of clubbing is uncertain, thanks to factors such as gentrification – which prioritises office buildings and homes over noisy nightclubs – young people drinking less alcohol and digital dating apps. One way clubs are surviving is by inhabiting multi-use spaces, partly as a way around skyrocketing rents. “Printworks in London, which includes a club, is doing very well,” points out Catharine Rossi. “I don’t think clubbing is over just yet.”

Night Fever runs until 9 September. For more information, visit design-museum.de

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