It might just be a quirk of historical symmetry combined with a dash of wishful thinking but there is a school of thought which says the 2020s are going to roar as loudly as the 1920s did. The comparisons between then and now are certainly appealing: a century ago the world emerged from an economic downturn and a pandemic to an era of modernisation and progress shaped by technology and a sense of optimism. It gave us Futurism, fridges, television and the Jazz Age.

If the forecasters are right, it may be about to happen all over again and if it does the Bright Young Things of the New Roaring Twenties are going to need nightclubs to party in just as much as their sharply-dressed forebears did. How appropriate, then, that the first exhibition to be held at the V&A Dundee when it re-opens on May 1 is a survey of nightclubs and nightclub design which, though it makes a gesture to nostalgia, also peers into the future. And how ironic that the first cultural sector to emerge from lockdown should choose to celebrate the one which looks like being last to re-open, the nightclub.

The show is called Night Fever, which readers of a certain vintage will recognise as a Bee Gees song from the iconic 1977 disco film Saturday Night Fever. And if there’s a single nightclub most associated with disco, it’s Studio 54, the famous New York venue to which Manhattan’s elite flocked in the late 1970s. Turn to the index of Andy Warhol’s diaries and you can measure the Studio 54 mentions in inches: there are dozens of them. Unsurprisingly, that club features in Night Fever as does another Warhol hangout, Xenon, which also catered to Manhattan’s starry fashion crowd.

But New York and disco are far from the whole story. Night Fever looks at clubs in Berlin, Beirut, Detroit, Johannesburg, London – and, yes, Scotland – and does it through the prism of their architecture and interior design, and the way they were branded and promoted through posters and flyers to spin-off enterprises such as record labels and fashion lines.

“It’s the first exhibition ever to look at this incredibly important connection between nightclubs and design and it does that through a chronological approach,” explains curator Kirsty Hassard. “So we go from the 1960s in Italy, with the experimental architects working on pushing the boundaries, to the 1970s with the rise of disco in New York, and then to Acid House and Rave with The Haçienda in Manchester in the 1980s. Then from the 1990s up until the present day we move to Berlin and London looking at Techno and House.”

And so visitors can learn about clubs such as Area in New York, which was founded in 1983 and drew stars like Grace Jones to its hallowed dance floor. Part of the founding ethos was that every six weeks the 1200 square metre venue would be entirely refurbished, with a budget of up to £25,000 for each costume change. Unsurprisingly Area only lasted four years but among its 25 or so iterations were ones devoted to science fiction, natural history, sport and even suburbia. Meanwhile a team of in-house designers worked on outlandish invitations for each new ‘look’. One was printed on a cheese slice.

Still in 1980s New York there was also the Palladium, opened by Studio 54 founders Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki and decorated with a massive wall mural by art superstar Keith Haring. Or how about Beirut’s B018, which opened in 1998 in an area which had housed a refugee camp during the long Lebanese Civil War? Essentially a bunker set in a concrete disc, its architect Bernard Khoury designed it with a hydraulic roof which, as well as letting in much-needed air, reflected the cityscape thanks to a mirrored underside. If punters wanted to dance – highly likely under the circumstances – the seat backs folded to make mini-platforms.

When it came to that sort of wow factor, the trailblazers were Italian designers such as Studio 65, a collection of avant-garde architects based in the northern city of Turin, and Gruppo UFO, a radical collective from Florence. Among the creations they worked on in the late 1960s and early 1970s were the subterranean Flash Back (in Piedmont), Barbarella (aimed at ‘local Flash Gordons’, according to its designers, and located just outside Turin) and the outright bonkers Bamba Issa. Inspired initially by Donald Duck, it was entirely re-designed every year for the duration of its life in the beach resort of Forte dei Marmi.

“It seems like an oxymoron as an architect, but a lot of them weren’t actually interested in doing permanent structures,” says Hassard of these architects and designers. “So nightclubs were the perfect places for them to showcase their ethos and what their design was about but also to create an ephemeral space.”

Not everything about nightclubs is ephemeral, however, and not everything ended up in a skip every six weeks. Included in the Night Fever exhibition is furniture from an Italian nightclub of the 1960s, examples of club wear, and a series of architectural models of clubs such as one created for Ministry Of Sound by superstar architect Rem Koolhaas. That project was eventually scrapped in 2015, creating one of the great What Ifs of clubland. The exhibition also features “pieces” of The Haçienda, the legendary Manchester club which opened in 1982 and became an integral part of the city’s vibrant clubbing and music scene. Pieces?

“When it closed down they sold off every part of the interior,” Hassard explains. “Because it had such status and was held in such affection by people who had been there, people clamoured for pieces of it. So really ordinary items like the floorboards as well those really iconic striped bollards were sold off and they’re in show. We also have the mirror ball as well.”

It may even be the one which once sent fractured images of Madonna over the watching crowd: the singer performed at The Haçienda on January 27, 1984, just one of the many iconic acts to have graced the stage. (For the record, your correspondent visited the sacred site one drizzly weekday night in the late 1980s and found not Madonna but a bevy of Morrissey lookalikes fresh from a nearby Smiths convention. He can’t vouch for the glitter ball but the striped bollards around the dancefloor were certainly all present and correct).

Scotland has its place in the story, of course. Night Fever has a section devoted to home grown clubs so visitors can learn about (or revisit in their minds for a few moments of wistful nostalgia) venues such as Paisley’s Club 69 or the peripatetic Rhumba Club, which began in Perth in 1991 and which has set down at the Citrus Club in Edinburgh, Fat Sam's in Dundee, Bally’s in Arbroath and the Ice Factory in Perth over the course of its 30 year existence. To those names you can add any number of other club nights – Pure, Sativa, Optimo, Big Beat, Fever, UFO or Atlantis – and any number of venues, from the upmarket and flashy to the sticky-carpeted and tacky.

On the Scottish scene there’s one venue which stands out, however, and that’s Glasgow’s Sub Club. Unsurprisingly, it features prominently in Night Fever’s Scottish section.

“I think design is enormously important,” says Sub Club managing director Mike Grieve, who has collaborated with the museum’s curatorial team to provide photographs and flyers from the club’s archives. “The creative industries generally have always been very close with the cutting edge of club culture, so the people who populate the type of club that the Sub Club is tend to be from the creative community. DJs very often happen to be designers as well, so there’s a real crossover.”

As for the interior design, it’s like a good haircut, he thinks: you don’t always realise it’s there and that’s the skill of it.

“Good design often is subliminal. You see the same with architecture. Sure, you can get very spectacular architecture but you also get very simple architecture that people don’t appreciate until they’re actually living in a space, or until history puts it in context. I think that’s very much the case with a club setting. It’s definitely the case in the Sub Club, where the layout of the venue is so important to the energy that’s generated within it. That’s all done with careful consideration and a very high level of expertise.”

To underline that, an imaging technique known as Lidar has been used to make a scan of the interior of the Sub Club – but empty of people.

“We recognise the fact that nightclubs are a hugely important cultural institutions and out of all of them will be the last to re-open,” says Kirsty Hassard. “The scan shows the interior of the club how most people never see it. I think it’s really important to portray that but also to show an interior people don’t normally see so they can appreciate the structure.”

Of course not all clubbing experiences bring punters into contact with exquisitely designed furniture, murals by world-famous painters or retracting rooves which reflect the night sky of the Levant. Sometimes the experience is, in the words of Pulp’s 1995 hit Sorted For E’s & Whizz “just twenty thousand people standing in a field”. Or an illegal rave, as it’s known. Either that or it’s a bare white space, a pub basement or a disused warehouse where the people and the music matter, not the décor. These experiences are as much a part of the club culture story as snazzy furniture and architect-designed spaces, but they’re harder for curators and museums to latch on to, collect and ultimately display.

Wise to that difficulty, Night Fever also includes the artworks A Life Of Subversive Joy by Vinca Peterson and Everybody In The Place by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller. The first is a 23 metre long installation made up of photographs and extracts from diaries reflecting a decade of “raving and roaming”, as Petersen puts it. The second is a documentary about Acid House fitted out as a lecture by Deller to a group of (fairly nonplussed) London school-children. It’s a warm, erudite and very entertaining contextualisation of what has become known as the Second Summer of Love.

Tellingly, few of the dozens of entries relating to Studio 54 in Andy Warhol’s diaries make any mention of what the place looked like. What occupies his artist’s mind is the gossip he picks up, the people he sees and the things they’re wearing. On Tuesday February 14, 1978, for example, he writes: “We went over to Studio 54 and just everyone was there.” It underlines the point that really it’s people who make a club – people who come together in close proximity and give no thought to such alien concepts as social distancing. Quite the opposite.

Which brings us to the present day and to the future of clubbing when the doors are finally thrown open and punters welcomed back on to the dancefloor. Mike Grieve doesn’t believe clubbers will demand a different experience in the post-pandemic world but he’s aware that public health requirements may re-shape that experience for them

“Unfortunately I think most of those things will be an impediment to unfettered enjoyment of the experience of going to a club,” he says. “There’s now going to be an impact in terms of how people access spaces and how they behave once they’re in them. I suspect that clubs won’t fully come back to the fore until most of these restrictions are gone completely because social distancing or physical distancing is a non-starter in a club environment. It’s the complete antithesis of what the clubbing experience has to be about, which is social intimacy, close-up physical contact and people sharing moments of euphoria.”

Good design may have a part in helping remove those restrictions. But even if it can’t, Grieve remains optimistic for the future of clubbing as a cultural activity and for nightclubs as vital centres of youth culture.

“I think people genuinely will value clubs and club experiences more as a result of this because it has been denied them,” he says. “I think at the root of the whole clubbing experience is the desire people have to listen to loud music and to dance. That’s never gone away, and whether it’s the Roaring Twenties or the New Roaring Twenties, I think the same basic human emotions are at play. I actually think once we do get properly open I’m looking forward to a really exciting period for clubs.”

Everybody in the house say ‘Yeah’ to that.

Night Fever opens at V&A Dundee on May 1

Decades Of Dance

Five of the world’s most iconic nightclubs ...

Sub Club


Legendary Detroit Techno DJ Juan Atkins at the Sub Club in the 1990s

One of the most respected and longest-running clubs in Europe, Glasgow’s Sub Club opened in 1987 in a basement space in Jamaica Street formerly occupied by a club called Lucifer’s. It still operates there, with much of the club design undertaken by Glasgow-based design agencies Graven Images and ISO Design. Across the decades it has launched the careers of local DJs such as Orde Meikle and Stuart McMillan – known collectively as Slam – and hosted live sets by acts such as Franz Ferdinand and Basement Jaxx as well as pioneering DJs such as Lil Louis Vega, Larry Heard, Juan Atkins and the late Andrew Weatherall. Known locally as ‘the Subbie’, it’s famous for its atmosphere.

Flash Back


Italian disco Flash Back, photographed in 1973

Originally commissioned as a ceramic tile showroom with a disco inside, Italian nightclub Flash Back opened in 1973 was designed by the Turin-based Studio 65 group. From the outside it looked like a pyramid plonked next to a dome and an Ionic column – a playful mash-up of three classical styles – but the magic happened two floors underground in a space age nightclub with an illuminated dancefloor and brick red staircases. The posters were equally garish. Further additions were made in the 1980s by which time Italy had a musical genre of its own to promote – Italo Disco, heavy on vocoder and heavily indebted to the work of Italian producer Giorgio Moroder.

Studio 54


Clubbers in 'conversation' at Studio 54 in New York in 1979

One of the most famous clubs ever thanks to a glittering roll call of guests – Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger were regulars in the late 1970s – New York’s Studio 54 is also synonymous with disco. Based in a building on West 54th Street in Manhattan, it ran there from 1977 until 1986. The design was by architects Ron Doud and Scott Bromley (they even employed a florist) but one thing it never had was a lit-up dance floor. Blame Saturday Night Fever. “We didn’t have an illuminated dancefloor at Studio 54 because of that movie,” says co-founder Ian Schrager. “Everybody had one so we couldn’t. We wanted something difference and more sophisticated.”

The Haçienda


Interior of the Haçienda. Note the bollards ...

Opened in 1982, Manchester’s Haçienda once hosted a live performance by Madonna but it’s most fondly remembered as the epicentre of the city’s ‘Madchester’ scene of the late 1980s, when indie music and rave culture collided in the form of bands such as The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. Operated by music label Factory Records, home to New Order, its modern, industrial feel was the brainchild of designer Ben Kelly who employed his trademark black and yellow stripes throughout. Kelly, who had also designed the shopfront for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Seditionaries shop on London’s King’s Road, was recommended for the job by Factory’s in-house designer, the equally celebrated Peter Saville.



An interior view of Tresor in 1996

Opened in 1991 in the underground bank vault of an old department store near Potsdamer Platz in the old East Berlin, Tresor specialised in Techno and throughout the 1990s the German capital’s growing reputation as a clubbing destination was due in large part to the success of the venue. Helping in no small measure was the stream of top American DJs who played there – Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills and Robert Hood to name just three – and also the success of the club’s spin-off label, also called Tresor. With concrete walls several feet thick and bars everywhere, the club’s design aesthetic was rugged and austere, a perfect match for the music. In 2007 it was forced to move and set up in a converted power plant, another appropriate setting. Tresor West opened in Dortmund in 2019 and founder Dmitri Hegemann has plans to launch one in … Detroit, the spiritual home of Techno.