Social Style aA A Look at Nightlife Design

Ask designers for design trends, and they bristle. True design doesn’t follow a trend, they’ll say. Design is dictated by each location and project. And they’re right. But society has trends, and a great design caters to and reflects these trends.

Today’s stand-out nightclub designs — from the blueprints to the bar stools — embody the constructs of today’s iPhone society: autonomous customization, portability and the subtle feel of exclusivity. Basically, people want apps. People want a customized experience, they want to create it from limitless options and they want it everywhere they go.

Customization is King

In nightclub design, customization means flexibility. A great space today has the ability to morph in order to fit the needs of the customer. A rowdy group of eight looking to socialize? There’s a space for that. An intimate moment for two? There’s a space for that. And often both can exist within the same venue.

Flexibility starts with the interior architecture. The design needs to attend to the variety of needs of a customer. For example, Mike Suomi, principal of Manhattan-based interior design firm Stonehill & Taylor Architects, says today’s nightclubs “must provide a set of fundamental social needs, including areas to be seen in — dancefloors, raised platforms, open areas — and more private areas to watch the action from, like tucked-away nooks and crannies for both a real and imagined sense of the illicit.”

The club’s nooks, when they incorporate the right lighting, fixtures and furniture, give guests a sense of ownership and of perceived value. For instance, Michelle Bushey, principal and creative director with Dallas-based design firm Vision 360, says the big, expansive club doesn’t work as well in secondary markets during today’s harsh economic times. Instead, she likes to break up the space into smaller sections, with the largest seating arrangement comprising eight to 10 seats for a more personal — and more full — feel.

“You have to get so many people in [a big space] to make it look like it’s inviting,” she says. “Some larger clubs are trying to break up into smaller spaces so it doesn’t take as long to look full.”

This intimate concept is even touching part of the Las Vegas strip, home to the most elaborate nightclubs in the world. Michael Morton, owner of the N9NE Group, also designed the Wynn’s new lounge La Cave, a large space he decided to break up into smaller spaces.

“It’s a different world in these mega resorts,” Morton says. “What we’re doing there is taking something small and making it smaller.” At most, a seating area at La Cave will have maybe six chairs.

The furniture is what emphasizes the flexibility and customization of these smaller spaces. With customizable banquettes, ottomans with high backs, ottomans tucked under glass tables, couches with short backs, chairs with oversized armrests and others with no armrests, groups can rearrange items — sitting, leaning or standing on them however they see fit.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest in more modular pieces,” says Josh Lucas, AutoCAD designer with Modern Line Furniture. “They can be individual or combined together. We find that the nightclub and bar setting is not just one thing anymore. They’re looking to rent out for big events or close [areas] for small events; they want to maximize potential without breaking the bank. … Versatility is where it’s going — maximizing space without maximizing budget.”

The make and material also adds to the flexibility of furnishings. At the new Butter NC located in the Charlotte, N.C., Music Factory, NC Music Factory owner Noah Lazes made sure there was a layer of Kevlar under the leather on all of the booths in order to withstand the pressure of a dancing stiletto heel.

“The normal architect would never think to put Kevlar underneath that leather on the couch,” he explains.

Some nightclub venues are making the furniture flexible for the property as well, by adding pieces that could work in the lobby, restaurant or in the club depending on which space demands more seats that night, according to Lucas.

Ed Jacobs, president of Ambiente Designs, a line of high-end venue furnishings, says, ideally, all nightclubs should change from night to night, both in concept and arrangement of furnishings. On Monday it’s Latin night, on Tuesday it’s rock music night, on Wednesday it’s gay night, and so on. With the right space, planning and flexible seating, a club can widen its appeal.

“The one audience concept is old,” he says. “You need to build a place now that is multi-faceted. I’d rather have customer loyalty coming [from different audiences on] one specific night a week than the same audience five nights.”

Exclusivity for All

Nightclub guru Victor Drai, who recently opened Drai’s Hollywood at the W Hollywood in L.A., doesn’t mince words about VIP areas.

“They are bullshit,” he says. “I believe the entire place should be a VIP area.”

Butter NC follows this same credo and has “no ropes in the whole place,” Lazes says. “The idea of a roped off section is not the way to do it.”

To make the entire club a VIP area requires splashes of design that highlight the club’s inherent exclusivity. And much of this comes from lighting, which Drai called “95 percent of the design.”

Currently, LED lights account for approximately 90 percent of that 95 percent, providing energy efficiency, multi-color changing options and versatility. The versatility is the most important for adding high-end touches to the design.

“Using LEDs helps to abide by the national energy code. You have to be careful to restrict wattage per square foot,” Bushey says. “So we see a lot of LED lighting with dimmable options and color changing. Also, we’re seeing mood lighting more than anything, with backlit panels.”

Jacobs says LED-lit furniture is in high demand right now. “It’s extremely popular for rooftop venues with both indoor and outdoor facilities,” he says.

LED ramps up much more than furniture. A less expensive route that provides the same pop would be light-up ice bucket stands for bottle service — suddenly that regular booth has a new air about it.

“It’s a matter of knowing what areas to highlight, as lighting is normally the décor of a space,” Jacobs says.

The advent of LED tape “allows us to be creative in lighting bars or edge-lighting glass and floor patterns and ceiling patterns,” says Robert Polacek, chief creative officer for San Francisco-based Puccini Group, which designs restaurant and bar concepts for hotels. “It’s becoming the new neon.”

But while LED lighting is impressive and exclusive, like a smartphone, its true utility is often in its discreetness.

“We blow fire at Rain [Nightclub at the Palms, Las Vegas] and can do 3-foot fire balls, but it’s like any other element when you get into the sensory experience,” N9NE Group’s Morton says. “You have to tell a story and can’t overdo it. It will lose its special nature.”

Portability: Take it Outside

More and more, guests want to take the nightlife experience outdoors. A street-level patio or a hotel rooftop gives guests a contrast to the inside and gives club owners a chance to provide a new experience while creating another revenue-producing space. Typically, the outside space is more laid-back and comfortable. For example, the inside of a venue might feature largely black and white furniture, while the outdoor space makes more of a statement with bold color cushions. But like the inside, it likely has modular seating, with the inclusion of a day bed or two, says Lucas of Modern Line.

For the most part, outdoor areas are free from a lot of the bells and whistles of the indoor décor. The attraction of the patio area is the outdoors itself, so the crucial amenities of the outdoors are all meant to enhance that experience — umbrellas, heaters, fans, fire elements, clear walls and retractable roofs. Such fixtures and features make outdoor revelry possible in any climate. If you want to sit outside on a cold winter day in New York, there’s a space for that; if you want to sit outside in the Las Vegas heat, there’s a space for that.

“Those views don’t go out of style,” Morton says. “So it’s less of a tech experience and more about embracing the outdoors and being outside.”

But some technology can enhance the outside, like fans that circulate the air to ensure guest comfort. Some elements make a statement, such as at Moon, the rooftop nightclub Morton designed. Push a button to open the roof and fog fills the space with lasers shooting in different directions. In 90 seconds, the fog is gone and everyone looks up to see a beautiful sky.

Outdoor areas also are incorporating more fun social activities, according to Puccini Group’s Polacek. “I’ve recently seen a lot of new bars open that are more about fun and play than VIP service,” Polacek says. “Some have ping-pong tables on decks. In Vegas, that’s become a more mainstream idea with Wii, PlayStation and Xbox. And I think that’s a trend that will move forward because it adds more fun and excitement to nightlife.”

Polacek nails the big trend in nightlife design. Elements that make the experience fun, personal and exciting — illuminated tables, intimate seating clusters, innovative lighting, artful umbrellas or platforms for playing video games — define today’s nightlife environments as cutting edge and worthy of a return trip. NCB

Design for the Times

Flexibility and fun are the buzzwords in nightlife design today. Here are some tips for cashing in on the trends.

• Buy furnishings wisely. Options abound — from custom-built to modular — so look at what you’re trying to accomplish in the space. Will the venue’s seating configurations remain unchanged, or do you want to move pieces around, creating several arrangements to accommodate various themes or clienteles on different nights? Also investigate materials with an eye on durability, ease of cleaning and replacement/repair options.

• Think creatively about lighting. Illumination from unexpected places, such as table bases or wall panels, provides both light and ambiance, along with a “wow factor.” Consider power sources and energy efficiency, as well as durability when making selections on such products.

• Keep your environment at optimal temperature for guest comfort. State-of-the-art cooling and heating systems shouldn’t stop at the air vents; ceiling fans can enhance their effect and also add a unique design element.

• Maximize the great outdoors. When creating an outside space, make sure the outdoor elements of the night sky and fresh air remain at center stage. Select umbrellas, heaters, fans and seating that enhance the outdoor experience; look for graceful umbrella stands, quiet heaters that are less industrial in appearance and seating that is both weather-resistant and attractive.

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