Black walls, strobe lights and a cooler full of beer just don't cut it on the nightclub circuit anymore.
When it comes to decor, jaded clubbies demand more from their nightspots, and apparently they're getting it.
At the Gate, guests lounge on velvet ottomans in what appears to be a spacious English manor house. At Glam Slam, the dance floor is awash in constantly changing colored lights, and at Hell's Gate, gilded skulls line the walls.
Some of the intricacies--such as hand-painted faux finishes, inlaid wood bars, hidden alcoves, plush fabrics and ornate lamps--might even go unnoticed at first. But all the elements work together to create the all-important atmosphere, be it danger, romance or decadence.
"I design a club that will give people the full run of night life," says Steve Edelson, a club builder and designer whose L.A. clubography includes Hell's Gate, Martini, Glam Slam, Union and Dragonfly. He's also designed clubs in Chicago.
"I find a lot of faults with clubs that are just one room, and if the music's really loud and you want to have a conversation, you're nowhere. We try to combine a quiet space and an active space in each of our clubs, so there's always something to do.
"People pay a lot of attention to detail these days," he adds. "I attribute that to boredom. After you've gone to many nightclubs, you get bored very quickly."
"This place is elegant," says Albert Gersten, president of the Gate on La Cienega, a 1 1/2-year-old club done in what he describes as "English country manor" style.
That style was co-executed by Camilla Bennett in overstuffed brocade and velvet sofas and ottomans, dark wood, rows of bookshelves, sconces and hand-painted finishes.
"It's more like you're in someone's living room rather than a club," she says. "Each space has its own feel, like the libraries (small, bookshelf-lined alcoves). The (dropped) ceiling probably contributes to it feeling like a more intimate space, rather than this huge space where you feel out of touch with everyone."
Gate partner Mario Oliver, formerly of the nightclub Vertigo and the restaurant Tryst (both now defunct), agrees that's the feeling club-goers want now.
"Vertigo was the '80s," he says. "People liked big rooms with big dance floors. People wanted to hear the music and go crazy. Now I think we've gone back more to ambience, where people want to feel cozy."
One unusual feature of the Gate is that the roped-off VIP gallery, as Gersten calls it, is in full view of the rest of the club. Usually VIP rooms are hidden away to keep the riffraff away from celebs and important customers.
Gersten explains his concept simply: "I think people in the gallery want to be seen, and people not in the gallery want to see them."
There is no VIP room in Edelson's Hell's Gate, which he describes as having the atmosphere of "a gangster's dungeon in the middle of London."
The funky, unmarked, smallish club on Yucca in Hollywood has a long bar made out of an airplane wing at the entrance. Walls are covered alternately with gold skulls, padded velvet panels and hand-painted designs. The bar ends at the dance floor, which features changing colored lights and a smoke machine. That segues into the patio, decorated with colored lights, more skulls, shrunken heads, fake guns and covered over with army camouflage netting.
"It's really done in survivalist fashion," Edelson says.
"(Design) ideas are something that just come. I sit down with my partners and we talk it out. The club evolves as we build it."
As it evolves, one other element is thrown into the mix: an atmosphere of sensuality.
"You'll see it in the pillar statues (of entwined naked figures) at Glam Slam," Edelson says, "(in) the black-and-white padded walls at Martini and (in) the patio at Hell's Gate. They're all very romantic kinds of crazy places with a sense of danger or an element of surprise. You can't have a great nightclub if you don't have a sense of the unexpected."
Designer and architect Jordan Mozer has built a reputation on the unexpected. His clubs and restaurants in the United States and abroad are whimsically fanciful, down to the very last detail. His Iridium restaurant in New York features chairs with legs that look like dancer's limbs en pointe and covered with leg warmers. The Cypress Club restaurant in San Francisco has curvy, fat, streamlined furniture, elaborately tiled floors and colorful murals.
The Chicago-based Mozer will soon bring his talents to Los Angeles, designing a club on Sunset Boulevard that was once the site of Carlos 'n' Charlie's. Elie Samaha, a principal partner in the nightclub Roxbury, plans to turn the 16,000-square-foot building into an entertainment megaplex complete with coffee bar-breakfast room, dance floor, restaurant and more, due to be finished at the end of the year.
"I want people to walk into a club and be in Wonderland," Mozer says, "to go through the looking glass. Everything should reinforce that. It should be special, not like the rest of your day."
Mozer also believes in making a club "comfortable, like you don't feel you have to hold your stomach in or comb your hair every few minutes. . . . People now in the '90s are sexually conservative, and they're looking for less predatory atmospheres."
The design process, he says, "starts when we break it down. We'll have an idea or collection of ideas and ways we think about the narrative nature of the place. We'll tell stories with the tile and the lamps and the chairs.
"At Iridium, we have lamps with tutus and columns that look like Cubist opera singers, because it's across from Lincoln Center. We have cabinets in ballet positions and tile that looks like music. It fits in with our theory about what music would look like if you could see it."
He explains that his concept of design is "more like a CD-ROM, where you can go anywhere, they're not necessarily linear ideas. . . . As we develop our narrative, we think about the relationships between the spaces, how people move through them, and we'll start to sculpt the spaces out of air. If we want to create a dance space, we'll try to make it big and tall, monumental, special, something that does kind of take your breath away.
"The city has a lot to do with (the design) and the sense of style," he adds. "We want to elicit emotional responses from the architecture, so it's important for us to understand the collective consciousness of the city--what do people think about when they think about a restaurant? What is a club people grew up with in L.A., or a restaurant? What is the archetype?
"I really love nightclubs," Mozer says. "I'm kind of a voyeur and I'm a visual person, so I like to stand off to the side and watch things. When I think about creating public spaces, I think about actors who like to be the center of attention, and people like myself who like to go off in a cozy corner and watch the performers."