Vice Media’s newest original online video series, “Discotecture,” follows five young designers as they create their visions of the nightclub of the future. Made possible by Heineken, the series puts me together with nightlife icons Andre Balaz, David Byrne, Peter Gatien, Eric Goode, Michael Musto, Amy Sacco and Serge Becker to help emerging artists examine the transformative nature of nightlife and devise a cutting-edge nightclub through imagination, experimentation and design.
I sat down with Vice’s Account Executive Ben Dietz and Creative Director Joseph Patel to discuss the show and the future of nightlife:
Nightclub Confidential (NCC): I have designed a hundred places, and I am a design professional. Thousands of designers can pick out materials and make a space look good, but hospitality designers lean heavily on operators for insight into function. Each space is unique. How can a designer without practical, hands-on experience hope to formulate a nightclub with proper flow and outstanding service? What kinds of backgrounds do these designers have?
Patel: It's a fair question: How could the young designers we documented in this series possibly understand how to design for the real world? I'd like to say that they are young, they go out, they are the people who inhabit nightlife and so, of course, they have considered how something will work off the page and in real life. The truth is, they do not have the experience to understand variables like service and staff and stock and all of the other unglamorous realities of a space. But I don't think that's necessarily prohibitive in the field of design. Brilliance can be found in naiveté. At the very least, a great theoretical idea can inspire or inform something more practical. And I think that's why Heineken's design team created this initiative specifically with young designers in mind: to see ideas that are raw and uninhibited — ideas that could open up different perspectives.
Dietz: All of the designers went through a fairly rigorous selection process, so it's not like they're total novices. (One of the designers) Lee Gibson, for instance, designed and built restaurant interiors prior to getting involved here. But their being outsiders was part of the reason we liked this project, not knowing what they would come up with — good or bad — or how well it would work.
NCC: Tell me about the club — the finished product. Will it be a permanent installation? Will it be duplicated in other cities? Is it possible to have a "program" or cookie-cutter approach to club building?
Patel: From what I understand, the club that was built from this program (is located) in Milan and is an amalgamation of several of the young designers' individual ideas — sort of a "concept club" that exhibits the actualization of the best designs. It's a mish-mash of installations, meant to measure precisely the practicality of these ideas. To my knowledge, it won't be a permanent installation or an entity to be duplicated anywhere else. But other concept clubs, built from other design ideas, is something I'm sure they'll do again somewhere.
You sometimes see restaurants that are popular in one city duplicated in places like Las Vegas or Miami, often featuring duplications of signature design elements. In the late '90s, some corporate entity took the unique, provincial experience of the House of Blues and turned it into a chain all over the world, creating faux design and aesthetic elements, such as "new" rustic interiors and fake antique signs. If the aim is purely to make money by selling yourself to cheeseballs who don't know any better, then yes, the "cookie-cutter" approach can be successful. But it's fraudulent and corny and not at all an authentic experience.
Dietz: The final product is a temporary installation that opened in Milan in April during the International Design Fair, but there are discussions about having the concept travel internationally. As far as cookie-cutter clubs — it's definitely possible, although the Heineken club isn't intended as a template for that kind of thing.
NCC: Nightclubs are the product of the personalities of their owners/operators. Whose personality will this place reflect?
Patel: Like I said previously, the Heineken design project is very much meant to be a concept club. It likely won't reflect any one cohesive idea at all, since it's very much a bunch of individual ideas stitched together. That was the intent all along. However, I will say that in our [“Discotecture”] documentary series, one of the most exciting revelations for me personally was just how much clubs and spaces and rooms are a reflection of the designers. Really, the big theme of the whole series is how "design" is more than just the architecture of a space, more than just big concepts. And seeing how much thought people like Serge Becker put into conceiving everything down to the last detail was absolutely thrilling. Anthony Mathile, the wonderful and brilliant producer and director of the series, did an amazing job of capturing that.
Dietz: I think in a lot of ways this project is testing how those archetypes of clubs driven by a single vision can be stretched to reflect a collaborative process between a lot of different points of view.
NCC: How were the designers chosen, and how do they collaborate?
Patel: A couple of the designers already knew each other, either from art school or just from going out at night and having mutual friends. Once the specific group of designers were chosen, there was a kind of initiation night where [Heineken representatives, the designers and the experts went] out on the town; I think they hit up like eight or nine different spots that night. The intent was to survey the state of things, I think, but also to introduce the designers, and I think some natural bonds formed that night that led to some collaborations among them. There have been a few times since then where we've brought everyone together, too, and I think there's been a built-in camaraderie with this specific group of folks.
Dietz: The designers applied through a Facebook app that Heineken created. After a round of pre-selection, designers from four cities — Tokyo, London, Sao Paolo and New York — were invited to present their work in a Pecha Kucha format. The best designers from each city in each of five disciplines — interiors, fashion, experience, motion and graphic design — were selected for the final project.
NCC: In the show, the history of clubs in the ‘80s and ‘90s was suggested. Why not the 2000s? Too recent, or too dull?
Patel: Perhaps the main reason we focused on the clubs of the '70s, '80s and '90s is self-evident: Those were legendary days in New York nightlife. The chance to hear some of the key figures from that time talk about the era through the lens of design — as opposed to the salaciousness of celebrity, drugs or whatever else — is too good to pass up. Personally, for me, I got a thrill from seeing the old flyers from Danceteria, like the one promoting Sade's first New York club performance. But I don't think there was a conscious decision to avoid the clubs of the early '00s. Maybe not enough time has passed to fully appreciate what they've contributed yet.
Dietz: No, and in fact we talk later in the series to some promoters and club owners for whom the 2000s were their starting point and inspiration, but in trying to introduce our audience to a world of nightlife they hadn't lived through, we had to go a little further back. It's kind of shocking that a lot of this kind of oral history of New York nightlife hasn't ever been documented in moving media. There are books, but not documentaries.
NCC: How did the relationship between corporate sponsor Heineken and Vice come about?
Dietz: Because we make all our content available for free, Vice is and has always been advertising supported, which makes brand conversations second nature for us. That being said, we always want to take a position on any story that gives our audience something more than they'd get elsewhere; it's why they come to Vice. So basically we'll sit down with our friends at brands, listen to what their goals and ideas are and then ask ourselves, “What do we want to know about this topic?” Once we answer that, the content comes pretty easily. “Discotecture” and our collaboration with Heineken is a really good example of it.