A Vitra Design Museum exhibition shows the hedonistic history of nightclub design

12 March 2018

As many middle-aged men will tell you at length, clubbing ain’t what it used to be. Looking through the exhibits from new show Night Fever: Designing Club Culture, which is due to open at the Vitra Design Museum near Basel later this month, it seems (much as it pains us to say it) that they might have a point. Are you, for example, dancing in clubs under storeys-high Keith Haring murals or dipping in a Philippe Starck-designed pool or receiving party invites in mousetraps complete with a slice of cheese? No, us neither. And if you are, sort us a slot on the guest list alright?

The story begins, so Vitra Design Museum curator Jochen Eisenbrand tells It’s Nice That, in the 1960s where nocturnal spaces became the epicentre of pop culture and the avant garde. From Florence’s Space Electronic designed by collective Gruppo 9999 to Charles Forberg’s The Electric Circus in New York, these multi-functional clubs became hotbeds of countercultural activity with architects and designers lining up to put experimental, imaginative ideas into practice. In New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s, artists like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat or Kenny Scharf started their careers in the club scene. Haring painted murals for the Paradise Garage and the Palladium, organised exhibitions at the Mudd Club and at Club 57 and designed flyers and invitations for these clubs.

In the 1970s, things got more narcissistic, further fuelling outlandish designs. “With the advent of disco, the idea of seeing and being seen became more important,” says Jochen. “The dance floor of the disco turned into a stage for individual performance, most famously symbolised by the programmable and illuminated dance floor featured in Saturday Night Fever.” Interiors were shaped with the amphitheater in mind so that people on the dance floor could be seen from many different positions.

One of the clubs that fascinated Jochen the most when researching the exhibition was the Area in New York, which existed from 1983 to 1987. Merging art and nightlife, the founders created a completely new themed interior for the club every six weeks. “It was a walk-in installation and performance space merged into one, with actors commissioned to take on roles to fit the theme and guests dressing up for the occasion.” The creative team developed original invitations for each party, similarly on theme. For the very first opening they sent out a box with a blue pill inside that when dissolved in water released a transparent foil invitation. Other invitations included decorated eggs, and yes, the aforementioned mouse trap and slice of cheese.

Of course not all clubs went for Area’s heady aesthetic. Ben Kelly’s designs for the Hacienda in Manchester took design cues from the interiors of factories and emphasised a clean, technical look. And when Berlin became a hub of international techno around the fall of the wall, clubs were often established in unused spaces with temporary permits, a prime example being the Tresor, housed in the underground bank vaults of a former department store.

Contemporary exhibits in the show include OMA’s genius proposals for Ministry of Sound and Detroit-based studio Akoaki’s mobile DJ booth, called The Mothership, a travelling showcase of the city’s unparalleled club culture. “I hope that looking at concepts of the past may offer solutions on how clubs can survive and be of interest today, in times where real estate prices in inner cities have become insanely expensive so that many clubs are forced to close,” says Jochen. “And that the exhibition shows that clubs have far more to offer than just being places of nocturnal escapism.”


Interior design: Studio65
Discotheque Flash Back, Borgo San Dalmazzo, ca. 1972. © Paolo Mussat Sartor


Interior Design: Philippe Starck.
Nightclub Les Bains Douches, Paris, 1990. © Foc Kan


Interior view of Tresor, Berlin, 1996/97 © Gustav Volker Heuss


Chen Wei: In the Waves #1, 2013 © Chen Wei / Courtesy of LEO XU PROJECTS, Shanghai


Ben Kelly: Interior view of Haçienda, Manchester


Despacio Sound System
New Century Hall, Manchester International Festival, July 2013. © Rod Lewis


Design: Akoaki
Mobile DJ Booth, The Mothership, Detroit, 2014. © Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges, in collaboration with Bryce Detroit


Design: Bureau A
DJ booth inside The Club, Lisbon Architecture Triennale 2016. © Mariana Lopes

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About the Author

Laura Snoad

Laura is a London-based arts journalist who has been working for It’s Nice That on a freelance basis since 2016.

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