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Famous clubs have offered artists the perfect platform to design fantasy environments, says Chris Hall

Caligula throwing a party,” was how the funk musician Rick James described the legendary Studio 54 in New York, which opened in 1977. There was a cocaine snorting “Man and the Spoon” feature that would descend from the ceiling when required, there were piles of cash in the back room, unisex bathrooms and stunts like Bianca Jagger riding a horse on the dancefloor led by a naked man covered in gold glitter.

The key thing about Studio 54, which features in a new exhibition about global club culture at Vitra Design Museum, was its adaptability. It could become a different fantasy environment to act as backdrop for the outrageous costumes and theatre of the party goers – such as when four tonnes of glitter were dropped from the club’s ceiling on New Year’s Eve or when the fashion designer Valentino had a circus-themed birthday party with sand and mermaids on trapezes.

“The 60s and 70s saw the rise of the idea that you don’t design a nightclub, you bring the minimal design elements to make a nightclub,” says Catharine Rossi, a design historian at Kingston University, who has co-curated the exhibition. “What’s important is not the physical space – really the nightclub is just a container. Clubs are made through lighting and sound, psychotropic drugs and people.”

A place to crash: Manchester’s post-industrial Haçienda with hazard-marking stripes on the columns. Photograph: Courtesy of Ben Kelly

A new stage set would inspire a new persona. “Historically, nightclubs have served as spaces for freedom of expression and safe spaces because they’re concealed,” says Rossi. “They’re hidden from daytime norms and assumptions about behaviour and identity. At night we can try out different identities.”

Playing with personas was something Andy Warhol was drawn to at Studio 54, where he would document this emerging culture with its transformative possibilities. The club had a door policy where only celebrities and the beautiful or unconventional were allowed in – those seeking their 15 minutes of fame. This was a surreal, decadent, twilight world and whether it was Truman Capote, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones or Andy Warhol, it was mutually beneficial, the club burnishing their image and vice versa.

The exhibition will be crammed with a fascinating wealth of design detail to go with the photographs and models – interior furnishings, lighting, album design, fashion, and the graphics of flyers and posters. One of the exhibition rooms will be devoted to a sound and lighting installation, without quite being a mock-up of a nightclub. “If you’re going to do an exhibition about nightclubs,” explains Rossi, “then elements like atmosphere and experience are key parts of the design of the spaces and how that design is consumed or experienced.”

Staying cool: the Philippe Starck-designed Les Bains Douches in Paris. Photograph: Foc Kan

In the 70s and 80s, New York clubs, such as Area, Club 57, the Mudd Club, Paradise Garage and the Palladium, offered a creative platform to artists. Nightclubs became galleries. Keith Haring designed flyers and invitations, arranged exhibitions and installations, and painted a huge mural inside the Palladium. His canvas was also the human body, painting Grace Jones with his signature kinetic drawings for a live performance at Paradise Garage in New York in 1985.

Another legendary club that features heavily in the exhibition is the Haçienda in Manchester, with its innovative post-industrial design. “Nightclubs have evolved in line with the changing nature of our cities,” says Rossi. “In the 1980s for example, the post-industrial city led to the opening up of spaces from warehouses to factories.” Whereas Studio 54 was about exclusivity and decadence, the Haçienda was about inclusivity and a different kind of escapism. In short, it was the difference between cocaine and ecstasy.

Ben Kelly, who designed the Haçienda, says that it seemed logical to him to use the visual language of factory interiors given that it was a former yacht showroom and had an industrial feel. “There was a line of columns running through the space, which inevitably would be hazardous where people were drinking and dancing. I put stripes normally used as hazard markings in the workplace on the columns in the nightclub, and yellow-and-black stripes on to the riser of the stage. There was another safety issue getting on and off the raised dance floor, so I used roadside bollards and set cat’s eyes into the concrete floor. The industrial language evolved through practical reasons.”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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