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The Night Fever exhibition traces the intertwined history of club culture and the avant-garde

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Housed in the cultural institution of Germany’s Vitra Design Museum, Night Fever is an extensive exhibition probing the seismic impact that club culture has had on all aspects of design, fashion and architecture.

Featuring an extensive collection of rave ephemera including furniture, flyers, posters as well as specially commissioned installations, Night Fever is an ambitious attempt to unfold the relationship between design and club culture, from clubbing’s beginnings in the 60s right up to the present day. Looking at the club as an institution through the lens of design, the exhibition reveals how avant-garde style, architecture and fashion vernaculars have been lifted directly from the dancefloor to become recognised the world over.

We caught up with Catharine Rossi, one of the exhibition’s curators and an editor of the accompanying book, to talk avant-garde design, globalisation and how contemporary clubs are kicking back against a new set of historically unprecedented challenges facing nightlife.

Is club culture something that you’ve been immersed in yourself?

I wouldn’t pretend to be a clubber too much myself. While I’ve done smaller shows, Night Fever is the first large-scale exhibition looking at the relationship between design and club culture on an international scale and from the 60s to the present, so it’s a much bigger project and it’s the first of its kind. For that, I was looking into 60s club culture in Italy rather than the UK. So the distinctive thing around the 60s and 70s clubs in Italy is that they were all designed by avant-garde architects and they were more about the experiments in architecture than they were, let’s say, a pioneering space for music. They were quite particular as spaces. They had interesting music, like punk rock bands from the UK and Italy for example, and jazz and different kinds of music. But in terms of my own background, I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert clubber.

I’ve certainly had my time in the past and one of the interesting things about the research for this was to going to find out about what was going on in London in the last 10-15 years, but also going to clubs in the daytime and meeting the people there to talk about these kinds of spaces. And understanding the difference between the club in the daytime, to when it’s really functioning; massive heaving bodies at night with all the lights on, that sort of thing.

How did you approach the process of translating the exhibition to paper for the accompanying book?

There’s no history of architectural design in club culture, and most of the clubs here are footnotes, small mentions in a broader history of architecture and design. Really, it’s just a marginal subject and you don’t really get institutional collections of club culture. While there’s been a history of club culture from a music perspective and from a sociology perspective, there’s not been so much done from an architecture perspective, so a lot of our research was about primary research: going to meet architects, designers, DJs, club promoters, people who went to the club, who had their own private collections – for example, of objects – and who were often very generous in sharing their experiences and insights with us.

There’s three curators: Jochen Eisenbrand, and then Nina Steinmüller – who’s based in Belgium – and I; between us we looked at club culture in different countries. So I looked at the UK and travelled to meet people there, and Jochen looked at Germany and the US. We couldn’t cover everywhere but we did try to talk to different people from different club cultures geographically, as extensively as we could. The amazing thing was that there’s incredible material out there: photographs, clothing and flyers, design, drawings, music material, posters. There’s a lot out there that hasn’t really come to light, which is one of the reasons why, from the catalogue, we decided to include these portfolios, some of the materials that we’ve come across but in particular felt that we couldn’t fit in the exhibition. The catalogue should be a resource or a platform for people to do their own research because we really just scratched the surface. We aim not to be comprehensive in club culture, but we wanted to bring some of this incredible material together.

The catalogue consists of essays that we commissioned from different parts of the world, and different disciplines, to shed light on different aspects of club culture. So we got Tim Lawrence writing about New York in the early 70s, we’ve got a couple of people – Sonnet Stanfill and Janis Miller – writing about the connection between club culture, fashion and makeup in London in the 1980s. We’ve got a couple of architects, historians and theorists writing about the nature of club architecture, about how sound, light and drugs form part of the club experience. So we’ve got all this research, and we’ve included portfolios and also the key resources from interviews with the club designers, the club owners, the people – Norman Jay, for example – who represents different aspects of club culture. There’s also this map that our designer came up with to bring together these different aspects of club culture. The research that that represents fed into the exhibition and there is a close relationship between them, but they’re not an exact mirroring.

For our readers that haven’t seen the exhibition, or may not be able to, can you walk me through the space?

There’s four room chronologically and thematically organised. The first room starts in the 1960s, 1970s, and focuses in particularly on Italy and on New York. We use song titles for every room, so the first room’s called Beginning to See the Light after the Velvet Underground track. And that looks at the idea of the invention of the nightclub as a new kind of space in the 1960s and the 1970s, and looks at some of the radical experiments in that. We look at some of the clubs in New York, like Electric Circus, being one of the seminal, early examples of club culture. So that room is also looking at architecture and interior design in particular. I’ll come back to the second room at the end.

The third room is the next decade, so it looks at the 1980s, and it thinks about what happens inside the club, and we think of the club as being a theatre in which everyone is on stage and everyone is performing. We look at things like Studio 54, celebrity culture, going there to see and be seen, and this very celebrity-driven commercial idea of the club, all the way through to the importance of the club as spaces forming experimentations for different kinds of communities, so like Paradise Garage, for example, as a key club of the gay scene in New York then and elsewhere. In that room, we look a lot at fashion but also different kinds of flyers, some of the incredible experiments that have gone on. Once you’re in the club, there’s a certain sense of freedom involved, so we look at things like Area, a club in New York where they change the entire interior every six weeks, to The Hacienda for being a cube space for experimentations in architecture and identities as well.

For the fourth room we bring it to the 90s to the present, and it’s called Around the World after the Daft Punk track. We think about the globalisation of club culture and how it’s important to see different parts of the world like Berlin, for example, but also how it’s been challenged today; like London where you see a huge drop in the number of clubs in the last decade, and how architects have responded to this with new ideas for club culture. There’s OMA, which is a Dutch architecture practice; they’ve encouraged the new designs for the Ministry of Sound II, that hasn’t been built, which looks at combining a 24-hour multifunctional idea of what a club building could be. And we look at other cultures.

In the second room that I left out, we look at the fact that club design isn’t just about clothing, sound systems and architecture, but it’s also about the design of experience, of being in this place, of experiencing and feeling music. We’ve got a series of music, and also a light installation so you can not just look at examples of club culture but be in a space where you can feel and hear subcultural groups.

It’s such an extensive look at club culture with the exhibition covering several decades. Are there any common threads that run throughout the exhibition?

Subcultures are hugely diverse; it covers everything from the glitz and the snazziness of two different floors to just needing two speakers at a warehouse party. But I think in that, in terms of the specificity of subculture, what we’re interested in is that it is a different kind of architecture that isn’t about using doors and walls, but more about how sound and light in technology are really key to making the architecture of the clubs a space. And that’s whether the club is in a purpose-built building, or whether it’s someone who’s just taken over the space for a night, or even if you’re going to make a rave in the countryside; you need technology as the way to make that space.

From your point of view, are there any perceivable shifts in club culture happening right now?

Well, we bring it up to the present but the interesting thing is that club culture is always shifting, and what I like to think is that there are things going on that I don’t know about because by the time I find out about them, they’re already mainstream in some way. What is noticeable is that on the one hand, you’ve got all these club closures that have been happening – I’m quite London-centric in my examples – but if you look at the advent of new clubs in London in the last few years – like Printworks, or the Bussey Building in Peckham, or even Oval Space, Pickle Factory in Bethnal Green – they do all share this idea of having multiple functions going on inside them. So it could be that they have co-working spaces, or exhibition spaces, as well as club space, but also therefore they operate not just at night, they’re also operating in the daytime.

And so it seems at the moment for a club that operates, or new clubs that open in London, it’s not enough to be just in that club that operates only at night; you have to have all these other functions as well.

With the closures in London, some people say that club culture is dying. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s an interesting question because you’ve got all these stats about clubs closing and chasing demographic behaviours: so, the reduction of alcohol and drug consumption amongst young people. You don’t have to take drugs or drink to go to clubs, but there’s always been a connection. And how things like dating apps have really undermined one of the reasons why people would go to a club, in a sense.

On the one hand, there’s loads of evidence in the past few years that suggests that club culture is dying, but also there’s some news that’s come out in the last two years where the number of illegal raves has doubled in London, and I find that really heartening because it suggests we have this centuries-old impulse to go out at night to make spaces, to find spaces, where you can go and dance to music, dance together. I think while lots of the ways of what club culture looks like or where it’s changing – as they should because youth culture changes so of course, the places where young people go to hang out also change – but I wouldn’t say it’s dead.

And I would make the point again that I’m not meant to know about it. I’m too old to know what’s going on today and that’s how it should always be.

Do you have any projects coming up?

I’m actually eight months pregnant! My interests in subculture isn’t going to go away. There’s a few things that have come up through the research that I’m interested in, and one of them is thinking about the contemporary, or the current, situations for subculture across the UK but also elsewhere. In the context of lots of closures, thinking about the value of club culture to the creative sector. Places that have been really important for experimentation, even networking, for creative opportunities, for designers and fashion designers, product designers, interior designers and also musicians, photographers; there’s so much that happens at night in the nightclub, I’d like to look more into that.

But also the importance of spaces for escape and experimentation at a time of highly corporate culture, of economic pressures, at a time of seemingly working and not working, the saturation of social media. We need spaces that you can go and escape and be somebody else and go let your hair down – so anything to do with the importance of that. And there are organisations that are doing that in different ways. Youth Club Archive are one of the few archives that look into club culture, but they help show the social, cultural and political significance of the club. So thinking more about what’s going on in club culture today, I guess, is what I’m interested in.

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