Designing for hedonists: The evolution of nightclub interiors

Updated 9th April 2018
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Designing for hedonists: The evolution of nightclub interiors
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
Bringing together sound, light, interiors and dance, nightclubs lie at the intersection of creativity and hedonism -- and not just for the people partying in them. Late-night venues have long served as playgrounds for designers, whose creations say more about post-war youth and celebrity than perhaps any other institution.
Now, a new exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany is examining the history of contemporary culture through the lens of club design. According to chief curator, Jochen Eisenbrand, nightclubs don't only reflect the times, they help shape them.
"Clubs are important hubs that give subculture a place to exist," he said in a phone interview. "Subculture always, then, has influence on what is happening in other fields: music, fashion and the arts."

An evolving role

The exhibition "Night Fever: Designing Club Culture 1960-Today" features an assortment of archive material and club paraphernalia, including flyers, clothing and architectural drawings. Curators have also acquired original furnishings -- such as loudspeakers, club lighting and chairs -- from classic venues like Le Garage in Paris.
The show focuses on Europe and North America, the traditional vanguards of club culture. But chronological comparisons prove more insightful than geographic ones, said Eisenbrand. While the modern nightclub arguably goes back to the late 1800s (and can be traced through to America's early honky-tonks and Prohibition-era venues), the exhibition begins its story in the 1960s, as a "new typology emerged," according to Eisenbrand.
"It really went along with the emergence of an international youth culture, as young people needed a space to congregate," he said.
"There were new possibilities -- in terms of lights and film projections -- to create immersive environments. How this new typology should look, or be furnished, was not predetermined, so they tried to create these very flexible spaces."
The diversity of clubs from this era is testament to the experimentation taking place. Among the exhibition's more avant-garde examples is Montreal's drugstore-cum-nightclub, Le Drug, in which architect François Dallegret sculpted stalactite-style protrusions that hung from the ceiling.
Meanwhile at Bamba Issa, on the Italian coast north of Pisa, partygoers could be found sitting on camel-shaped seats beside an oversized hourglass.
Progressing to the 1970s and '80s, the exhibition's focus turns inward. As clubs assumed a more prominent role in society, the design of physical spaces was often less important than what happened inside them.
"Clubs offered a stage for people to perform," Eisenbrand said. "It (became) more about performance, fashion and exhibitions, as clubs merged art and nightlife."
To illustrate his point, Eisenbrand points to artist Keith Haring, who frequently collaborated with nightclubs to create flyers and artwork (one of the exhibition's stand-out photographs shows dancers beneath an enormous Haring mural at New York's Palladium in the mid-1980s). The exhibition's images and film footage depict this as a showy era, when people went clubbing to see and be seen.
"By this time, clubs were more than just spaces for dancing and escapism," Eisenbrand said. "They were a space to try out things."
Upon reaching the 1990s, the exhibition begins considering nightclubs in relation to cities. Berlin offers a particularly fascinating case study, as the fall of the wall in 1989 left numerous abandoned spaces across the city's east. New venues -- like the notorious Tresor, which occupied the vaults beneath a forgotten department store -- began filling them.
"They just moved in below ground," Eisenbrand said of Tresor. "There was really terrible air and no air conditioning, but it was this magical ruin ... that was in tune with the whole post-industrial techno aesthetic."

Designers go 'back to basics'

This historical focus is likely to resonate with those who spent time in the eras' defining nightclubs. When interviewing designers and former revelers (or persuading private collectors to lend memorabilia to the museum), Eisenbrand and his team found an ongoing nostalgia surrounding classic venues.
"The club that you went to was your tribe, and that determined who you were or if you belonged," he said. "That's why I think that, for many people, the memories of these times and clubs are so dear."
The role that clubs now play in subculture may be difficult to ascertain without the power of hindsight. The relative absence of present-day venues from the exhibition was, however, a matter of design.
"When we looked at coffee table books of today's clubs, there was a multitude of different designs that we didn't find so interesting," Eisenbrand admitted. "Maybe -- in light of that fact that nowadays you can listen to any DJ you want on the web or on platforms like Boiler Room -- clubs have lost the exclusiveness of (being places) where you see it first and hear it first."
With advancing audio technology, club designers appear to be returning to what Eisenbrand described as being "central about a club" -- the music itself.
"There's a club in Munich called Blitz that was really built around the sound system," he said. "It's saying, 'you can listen to music anywhere, but in our club you can have a sound experience that you can't have anywhere else -- because you can't reproduce it at home.' So it's going back to basics, in a way."
"Night Fever: Designing Club Culture 1960-Today" is on at the Vitra Design Museum until Sep 9, 2018.