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Truly Radical: The Electrifying Graphics of 60s and 70s Club Culture

These are some of the graphics that started it all, translating energetic electric sounds and innovative architectural experiments into bold compositions.

Disco balls, pink neon, and fantastic green strobe lights currently adorn the walls of the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein. These unlikely fragments form part of the exhibition, Night Fever: Designing Club Culture 1960-today, which explores the design history of nightclubs around the world. Lucky for those outside Germany, the catalog presents with the show’s collection, with countless photographs of exciting interiors and mind-bending architecture, leaving hardly any club scene undocumented. It also features maps leading you to the historical clubs of London, Johannesburg, New York, and more.

The essays inside examine the cultural contexts nightclubs have emerged from, and the ideologies and sensibilities informing their interior design, architecture, and graphics. You’ll read the design stories of all the classics—from Studio 54 to Manchester’s Hacienda to Berlin’s Berghain—but also of the underground clubs that were innovative but short-lived, or less mythologized.

We’ve selected four posters from the catalog’s radical club ephemera produced during the 1960s and 1970s: an era when new technological advances in light and sound were being connected with progressive architectural ideas to form fantastical hybrid spaces. Graphic design—in the form of posters—spilled out from tucked-away clubs and into the city for the first time. These little fragments captured the mood and energy of the nightclubs they emerged from, enticing the young to head underground and join the party. Nowadays, club posters blanket brick and concrete walls across most cities: we’re all too familiar with their language. These are some of the graphics that started it all, and which translated energetic electric sounds and innovative architectural experiments into distinctive, bold compositions.

Chermayeff & Geismar, poster for the Electric Circus, 1967

When New York’s Electric Circus was ready to open in 1967, club owner Jerry Brandt understood the important role that striking, subversive visuals would play in getting the word out. Day-glo colors splashed across the entrance of the club in the form of a psychedelic mural by artist Louis Delsarte, and electronic composer Morton Subotnick was given the role of the club’s art director.

Chermayeff & Geismar designed the club’s energetic logo, font, and a poster promoting the opening. The splintering typeface visualizes the idea of electricity, and was achieved by overlapping positive and negative type in the spirit of the décor of the club. In its magenta on cyan iteration especially, the words seem to shudder and shake like the buzz of an electric shock. As Steven Heller noted recently, the “vibrating typeface was an East Coast alternative to San Francisco psychedelia.”

Hapshash and the Coloured Coat (Michael English and Nigel Waymouth), poster for UFO nightclub, 1967

London’s UFO Club (pronounced ‘You-foe’) was notorious but extremely short-lived, appearing like a puff of smoke during the 1960s. The space, sometimes referred to as a “psychedelic dungeon”, featured light shows, art by Yoko Ono, and acts such as Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and Soft Machine in its tiny basement on Tottenham Court Road.

Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, the British graphic design and musical partnership composed of Michael English and Nigel Waymouth, designed reams of vibrant posters advertising the club (the owners had actually introduced the pair to one another). At the time, the prevailing fashion for posters was clashing colors, so the duo strived for balance and harmony as well as colliding combinations. They introduced several innovative ideas to the form, using expensive gold and silver inks for example, the likes of which were extremely rare sights on street posters. Hapshash and the Coloured Coat also used a technique of gradating from one color to another on a single separation—making each print a powerful visual shock. The duo’s screen-prints were often given away to the audience (or those still left of it) at the end of the night.

Group 9999, poster for the opening of Space Electronic, 1969

In 1969 in an old engine repair shop in Florence, Italy, as well as electronic light shows and audio-visual performances, you’d discover several washing machine drums and refrigerator castings strewn around at random. These, alongside a vegetable garden planted on the dance floor, were the Space Electronic club’s primary furnishings.

The space was designed and owned by the Radical Design collective Group 9999. Two of its members had been on a trip to New York in 1967 and were inspired by the Electric Circus’ use of electronic media, which they coupled with their own utopian belief in the power of technology to form an alternative club. This poster was designed by Group 9999 to advertise the opening: white type against black straightforwardly alludes to light in darkness, as do the white dots composing the shape of an arrow; they seem to shimmer like tiny light bulbs.

Studio65, poster for Flash Back, 1973

During the early 1970s, Italy’s Radical Design groups famously rejected the conventions of modernism with playfully referential designs inspired by pop culture and history. One of the studios to shape and capture the world’s design imagination was Studio65, an architecture and design group that formed in 1965 in a bold response to functionalism.

In 1972, the studio was commissioned by an entrepreneur to create a showroom and club near to the Piedmont town of Cuneo, called Flash Back. It contained a disco beneath three entirely white architectural elements that referred to ancient archetypes. This building consisted of a pyramid, a dome, and a truncated Ionic column; its interior’s staircase, leading to the basement’s disco, was bright red, and the tiled floor below lit up as revellers danced.

Gianni Arnaudo of Studio65 designed this poster to announce the disco’s opening. The composition draws from the building’s architectural forms: the cog-like shape of a column as seen from above crowns the central image. Stars and clouds are peppered whimsically throughout, and a drop shadow type seems to pull backwards, chiming with the club’s own name. The red, tiled pathway leading to the club’s door alludes to the space’s interior, while also playing with the same spatial perspective as the typeface. 

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