New Exhibition Celebrates the World’s Most Legendary Nightclubs

© Timothy Hursley; Garvey|Simon Gallery New York

At Germany’s Vitra Design Museum, half-a-century of nightlife culture, from New York to Beirut, finally gets a proper fete.

In the aftermath of America and Europe’s youthquake explosion of the 1960s—a wild rebellion against the culturally conservative 1950s—a new, unparalleled nightlife scene emerged. Cosmopolitan clubs across the globe served as centers for glamour and debauchery, offering spots for restless youth to sway and gyrate to the newest rock n’ roll music. Later disco, both live and recorded on new technologies, took the nightlife scene by storm, culminating in Bianca Jagger’s legendary horseback ride through New York’s Studio 54. In Florence, Space Electronic transformed its upstairs into a vegetable garden. At London’s traveling Kinky Gerlinky club night, high fashion (and drag) were de rigueur. In the new Millennium these louche, progressive venues quickly began to disappear, along with the many colorful characters that once populated and performed in them. Now, a new exhibition at Germany’s Vitra Design Museum aims to celebrate the party people of the past as well as these iconic hotspots, which often served as inclusive, radical experiments in design and community-building.

"There's a particular urgency to showing how important that culture is. It seems to either be a threat or changing or at least shifting," explains Dr. Catharine Rossi, co-curator of Night Fever. Designing Club Culture 1960—Today. Some major culprits for the decrease, she believes, are gentrification and rising costs, a cultural shift from hedonism to health. She also points to an increase in liquor licenses for pubs and bars where people can go instead (in the UK in 2005, a new law permitted locations to sell after 11 PM, catering to the late-night crowd).


© Volker Hinz

Rossi and her team organized the exhibition into four rooms, divided both chronologically and thematically, to display ephemera, clothing, architectural plans, film footage, and furniture culled from various clubs. These items combine to tell a comprehensive, immersive story and make for a fascinating viewing experience. The first room focuses on the development of nightclub architecture and technology in the 1960s and 70s. At the time, Italy’s Radical Design Movement conceived of the nightclub as venue-cum-utopia. New York’s Electric Circus, meanwhile, offered a psychedelic ambiance that crystalized the era’s zeitgeist.


© Foc Kan

The third room, honing in on the 1980s and early to mid-1990s, showcases the energy that swirled with the club space. “We argue for it as a place of performance, a place of theater,” says Rossi, who highlights celebrity collaborations in particular. At New York’s Paradise Garage, for example, artist Keith Haring painted the body of musician Grace Jones in front of a live audience. Further downtown, the elaborately decorated Area nightclub changed its interior roughly every six weeks, with help from the day’s most influential artists such as Haring, Warhol, Kenny Scharf, and Barbara Kruger.

The fourth room focuses on the 1990s-today, exploring how nightclub subculture dispersed to cities from Berlin to Beirut, while black and white and color photography showcase the emergent youth culture from China, South Africa, Brazil and beyond. (The exhibition also includes Vincent Rosenblatt’s exuberant shots of tecnobrega sound machines).


© Rod Lewis

The curators believed it wasn’t enough to merely display objects. “Much of club culture design is also about creating environments and experiences and atmospheres,” said Rossi. A specially commissioned exhibition in the second room features rows of headphones. Visitors can listen to different genres of club-related music, from disco to techno to house, in a mirrored, intricately lit installation.


© Bill Bernstein / David Hill Gallery, London

Rossi has studied nightclub culture for years, organizing related exhibitions at the Venice Architecture Biennale and London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2014 and 2015-16, respectively. Her work, she says, is far from over. “The incredibly rich design culture of clubs has been overlooked, marginalized or sort of at best a footnote or exception in histories of architecture and design,” she says. In the future, she’d like to expand her focus, uncovering even more stories from around the globe. Whether nightlife culture revives–or yoga studios and green juice prevail–remains to be seen. March 3–September 9; design-museum.de.