Vitra Design Museum Puts Nightclubs in the Spotlight

A new exhibition, “Night Fever,” features an elaborate look at discotheque design.

Flash Back Discotheque in Borgo San Dalmazzo, near the French border (circa 1972). [Photo: Paolo Mussat Sartor]

Though the “immersive experience” may be a design cliché these days, it can be traced back to much less corporate and much more rambunctious origins. During the 1960s, a young generation of Italian designers began thinking about radical new modes of inhabiting space through combinations of furniture, light, material, and sound. They found fertile ground for experimentation at the discotheque, transforming nightclubs into hedonistic gesamtkunstwerks. In the ’70s, with disco, an entire movement grew out of the dance music, leading the way to New York clubs like Paradise Garage and Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager’s glitzy Studio 54. In the 1980s, these gave way to spaces like the graphics-heavy Haçienda in Manchester, England. Following this, in the 1990s, were the raw techno clubs of Detroit and Berlin, and the electronic dance music festivals of today. Despite this rich history, which includes architectural feats by the likes of François Dallegret and Arata Isozaki, there had never been a comprehensive large-scale exhibition detailing nightclub design—until now. Designed by Konstantin Grcic and curated by Catharine Rossi, Katarina Serulus, and Jochen Eisenbrand, “Night Fever: Designing Club Culture 1960–Today” will be on view from March 17 through Sept. 9 at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany.

Here, Eisenbrand offers a deep look into the show, which contextualizes the nightlife of the past 50-plus years in a whole new way, through artifacts, photographs, and installations.

In this 1985 photo, a Keith Haring mural overlooks the Palladium in New York City, designed by Arata Isozaki (Photo: Timothy Hursley, courtesy Garvey Simon Gallery New York.

There were several reasons we felt that this was a good moment to focus on nightclub design. One is that we observed that nightlife doesn’t quite seem to be what it once was. Nightclubs used to be the places you listened to music first, because DJs would play the songs there first. Now music has become ubiquitous—you can listen to songs anywhere, anytime. You don’t have to go to a certain club to hear a certain DJ first anymore. Today’s younger generation is meeting and exchanging digitally, and doesn’t necessarily need the physical place to meet. Another reason is that festivals, especially electronic dance music festivals, seem to have become a new competition for clubs. Lastly, of course, is the fact that vivid nightlife always needs open urban spaces to evolve. London is a case in point. The rents and real estate prices there have become so high that clubs have been driven out.

Another practical reason for doing this exhibition was that my cocurator Catharine Rossi has been looking into Italian clubs from the ’60s for some time. She curated “Space Electronic: Then and Now” at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, and she’s done a couple of books on Italian design history [Crafting Design in Italy: From Post-War to Postmodernism (Manchester University Press, 2015) and The Italian Avant-Garde: 1968–1976 (Sternberg Press, 2013)].

With this exhibition, we haven’t really tried to be international. Our focus is Europe and North America. It really would have been too much to go beyond that.

Eimer in Berlin in 1996, from photographer Martin Eberle’s “Temporary Spaces” series.

There’s an enormous amount of literature on the history of DJs, books on certain clubs or nightlife scenes in particular cities—New York, London, Berlin. Throughout our research, certain clubs emerged again and again. There are those that have a mythical reputation, like Studio 54, where the celebrities all met in the late ’70s, or the Haçienda, which opened in 1982 with this standout post-industrial interior, and was a birthplace for acid house music in the U.K. There was also the Paradise Garage, which in the late ’70s was known for Larry Levan, one of the great early DJ figures, and its sound system by Richard Long. Then, of course, there was the Palladium, which was founded in 1985 by Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, who had previously done Studio 54, and designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki.

Poster for the nightclub Electric Circus in New York, designed by Chermayeff & Geismar in 1967 (Photo: Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar).

The exhibition also looks at these interesting Italian clubs—in Rome, Florence, Rimini, and Borgo San Dalmazzo—designed by Italian Radical design firms like Gruppo 9999 and Studio 65. They were modular spaces that would serve not only for dancing but also for other gatherings. In Florence, for example, architecture professors were even hosting workshops at one of the nightclubs. These early clubs were places for the counterculture, or the emerging subculture, to meet and try out new things.

Another club we’re featuring in the exhibition is the Electric Circus, which was located in New York City on St. Mark’s Place from 1967 to 1971. The club’s architect, Charles Forberg—who also did the Pan Am logo—in this space created textile walls onto which all these psychedelic images and films were projected. Sometimes, the club had circus performances. The graphic design firm Chermayeff & Geismar did the font for the club.

The summer-only discotheque Bamba Issa in the Italian seaside town Forte dei Marmi saw a redesign by Gruppo UFO yearly; pictured here is 1970’s archaelogical dig–themed interior (Photo: Carlo Bachi).

During this time, night clubs were becoming places for a young generation to meet and spend their leisure time. There were certainly previous moments in which this happened, of course. If you think about the ’20s in Berlin, for instance, or the 1910s in Zurich, where the Dada movement was founded. But it was really becoming more of a mass phenomenon in the 1960s and ’70s.

It’s also interesting to note, on the level of music, that in those clubs in the ’60s, the music that was played was diversified—rock, jazz, soul, whatever was danceable. Only in the ’70s, with disco, did we really have dance music evolving as its own genre. It really created a style of its own, with fashion designers like Halston and Stephen Burrows designing clothes for dancing.

Interior of E-Werk, a techno music club in an old electrical substation in Berlin, from Eberle’s “Temporary Spaces” series (1997).

We’re featuring Tresor in Berlin as one of the first important techno clubs—it served as a spearhead for Detroit techno in Europe. It was founded in the former vaults of the Wertheim department store on Leipziger Straße. These vaults survived World War II, and when the wall came down in 1989, these young guys got in there. They got permits, and actually ran it for a couple of years. They saved the deposit boxes, and we’re showing them and some other items from the club. In East Berlin, after the fall of the wall, there were many buildings that were not claimed and were empty. We’re presenting a collection of photographs by Martin Eberle, who captured this scene in the 1990s.

Bamba Issa in Forte dei Marmi, in 1970 (Photo: Carlos Bachi).

Another Berlin club we’re featuring is Bar 25, which was on the banks of the River Spree until 2010. It had a temporary permit, but then the club owners bought back the grounds and built a village at the site.

OMA’s plans for the still-unbuilt Ministry of Sound II in London will also be in the exhibition. They were commissioned in 2015 to do research on club history and design Ministry of Sound for the 21st century. The idea they came up with is to make use of the building 24/7. Because the rent is so high, it needs to always be functioning. There was to be be a radio station, a spa, and a gym, so it could be used around the clock, and then at night just as a club.

Guests at Studio 54 in New York in 1979 (Photo: Bill Bernstein, courtesy David HIll Gallery).

We’re also looking at the idea of festivals, and how the club has become mobile. We’re including this project called Mothership, a mobile DJ booth by the architecture firm Akoaki. They’ve built it to focus on Detroit history and support cultural production in the city’s North End neighborhood. Twenty or thirty years ago, it was lively black neighborhood, where artists like George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic would perform. They’re trying to raise awareness among the community to build up the neighborhood, and using music, or club history, as a means to create action.

Les Bains Douches in Paris in 1990, with interior design by Philippe Starck (Photo: Fockan).

We’re showing a huge stack of speakers by Bureau A, which created a club that encompasses a DJ booth, speakers, and a bar. When you put it together, it looks like a house—you can spread it apart and have a large dance floor surrounded by these speakers. We’re also showing disco lighting pieces from Clay Paky in Italy, which was one of the early providers of club lighting. And we’re showing some 1960s furniture from clubs, as well as fashion pieces from Walter Van Beirendonck, who was inspired by the techno movement. Coming from films, we’ll be showing an excerpt of Saturday Night Fever, as well as Mark Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore.

Architect Gianni Amaudo outside the under-construction Flash Back club in Cuneo, Italy, in 1973 (Photo: courrtesy Gianni Amaudo).

The exhibition design is by Konstantin Grcic. There’s a walk-in light installation—an infinity room with light and mirrors—for which Konstantin collaborated with Matthias Singer, who designed the Blitz club in Munich that opened a year ago. And there’s a gold dance floor referencing the ’70s.

The Mothership, a mobile DJ booth designed by Michigan-based architecture firm Akoaki in 2014 (Photo: Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges).

We had a long discussion with Konstantin about what the scenography should be. He re-created some of the rigging structures for speakers and lighting, and we’re also showing invitations, posters, and the like in vitrines that were designed to look like the utilitarian boxes carried in clubs. But we decided early on we didn’t want to recreate the original spaces, because there’s no way you could recreate those environments. Instead, we wanted something more abstract.

An evening at the Space Electronic in Florence, in 1971 (Photo: Carlo Caldini, courtesy Gruppo 9999).
The Newcastle Stage at last year’s Horst Arts and Music Festival in Belgium, designed by Assemble (Photo: Jerroen Verrecht).
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