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Club Culture, And The Design It Inspired, Finally Gets A Visual History

A new book celebrates the influential graphic design that emerged in the U.K.’s club scene. It’s long overdue.

There’s an old, now-mythical anecdote about Factory Records, the Manchester record label behind Joy Division, the Happy Mondays, and many other influential bands of the era. According to lore, cofounder Tony Wilson once spent a princely sum on a bespoke conference table designed for the indie label’s headquarters, enraging his partners and musicians. The story was immortalized in the movie 24 Hour Party People, where Wilson–played by actor Steve Coogan–explains his reasoning: “It’s the design. You’re paying for design.”

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The story illustrates how much money was floating around the music industry in the 1990s and hints at a truth: that music labels like Factory often did invest it in design. That included the errant conference table, sure, but it also included real graphic design, branding, and even architecture. The music industry launched the careers of designers like Peter Saville and created a canon of graphic art that rivals any other genre of popular music.

“Clubbing was huge,” says Rick Banks, designer and publisher behind a new book on the design of club culture, Clubbed, in an email. “Clubs and labels had massive budgets to employ the top designers in the country. And this showed in the work.”

[Photo: courtesy Rick Banks]

Banks is a graphic designer with his own studio, Face37 Ltd, and he’s been an avid dance music fan since his teens. He fell in love with the cover art and posters of the ’90s and ’00s, and cites it for sparking his interest in design.

Though he was too young to actually go clubbing then, he obsessively collected the club scene’s graphic ephemera. “I didn’t know it at the time but looking back I was infatuated with the details within the design. I would obsess over the logos and try to redraw them in my school books,” he recalls. “I’d sit in my bedroom and read all the tiny five-point copy on the packaging for Gatecrasher CDs or admire the stunning abstract still-life photography on a Renaissance flyer. I’d open the inner booklets and read all the footnotes, and memorize who designed what and who produced what. I would study the grid system counting how many columns compilations and club posters showed. I soaked up everything and tried to replicate what I’d seen by making mix-tapes with accompanying–albeit awful–artwork!”

[Photo: courtesy Rick Banks]

While the era’s design is beloved, it hasn’t been fully acknowledged in design history or through publishing yet–which may be changing. Clubbed, which Banks and Bill Brewster are funding on Kickstarter, is a 360-page tome devoted to more than three decades of design around dance music. It’s a visual history of club culture–and an understated ode to wildly experimental outsider design.

Because so many of the pieces in the book were one-offs, or simply entirely analog pieces without digital copies, building the book required painstaking work to reproduce the original designs for print. (In some cases, that meant recreating pieces entirely from scratch.) All in all, it involved contributions and coordination from dozens of designers who worked in the music industry during those years, from Saville to Designers Republic’s Ian Anderson and Pentagram’s Angus Hyland.

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Banks says he was blown away by the response from the dozens of designers and musicians involved. “Many of them were my heroes growing up and still are!” he says. “Everyone wanted to pitch in and help with the book. I think it was quite nostalgic for them, too. A lot of them went that extra mile in digging out designs from their ’80s and ’90s archives.”

Various Cream fliers designed in-house, and bespoke typeface by Design Dolphin. [Photo: courtesy Rick Banks]

While the book spans more than three decades, the work itself is cohesive and mirrors the emergence of post-1970s design. From the spare utilitarianism of the Hacienda and Factory Records, to the futuristic and sometimes ostentatious look of late ’90s Gatecrasher, it’s easy to see the pieces in the book as bellwethers for what was to come. The work from the present–including posters from Boiler Room and the London club Oval Space–has the iterative, referential aura of contemporary design.

Fabric, designed by Jonathon Cooke & Tom Darracot. [Photo: courtesy Rick Banks]

Seen in a certain light, Clubbed is also tinged with sadness. The club scene has dwindled as music venues have been pushed out of many cities, including London, where skyrocketing real estate prices and other factors have forced many to shutter. “Even the ones who aren’t getting shut down generally don’t have the budgets to employ top design talent,” Banks adds, though he says some clubs, like Numbers, have bucked convention and keep producing beautiful graphic art.

Digital streaming has taken its toll on album design, too, as many labels have de-emphasized cover art. “I find it strange that nowadays, this whole experience is often reduced to a tiny square JPEG, often poorly designed, in the bottom corner of Spotify or iTunes,” Banks adds. “Admittedly, I’m not the biggest clubber in the world, but I still buy and listen to dance music every day while I work. And I always look out for its corresponding design, as they are my two biggest passions. The designs in the book–the very same ones I loved when I was a teenager–formed the designer I am today.”

You can find Clubbed on Kickstarter here.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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