In the airy Venice apartment where Damon Lawner and Natacha Merritt are working to escalate the sexuality of L.A. night life, two slobbery chocolate Labradors ambled about with a tennis ball. A couple of actors and designers huddled over a long table, pencil-sketching some stage-blocking ideas for the duo’s upscale fetish party Sanctum. By the stairwell, a vermilion-haired model cheerily tried on lingerie with varying degrees of structural difficulty, and Merritt posed the girl’s limbs just-so.
For a clandestine nightclub with an aesthetic that’s half pagan sex cult, half entertainment-mogul after-party, the scene at Sanctum headquarters seemed almost wholesome.
“We want people to take sensuality seriously,” Merritt said. “At the first performance, my favorite part was watching couples having conversations about what they liked. That meant the night was a success.”
Sanctum is Lawner and Merritt’s forthright effort to incorporate underground fetish culture into exclusive bottle-service terrain. L.A.’s Gulfstream set has never needed prodding to explore their lustful curiosity. But Sanctum is a new, secretive place for them to try it on.
Before Sanctum premiered in March, Lawner spent the last few years gallivanting at high-fashion photography and party-promoting at Bali hotels. His concept for Sanctum was a mix of Illuminati imagery (the club’s logo kind of resembles a Black Mass teardrop) and bondage erotica, all given a gentlemanly veneer. True S&M-dungeon; devotees might find it a tad PG-13, but Sanctum makes a frank pronouncement about why we go out at night: If the point of clubs is the pursuit of Eros, why wait for it?
“I love icons and the religious feeling that comes from the awakening of eroticism,” Lawner said, sounding like a yogi but dressed in a rakish bowler hat and shirt unbuttoned to the sternum. Both he and his creative partner Merritt are married (not to each other) with kids, and in conversation they make public sexuality seem positively apple-cheeked.
“I have no desire for a swingers party here,” Lawner said, “but I do want to open up a dialogue about how we can come out of our fear of sexuality.”
With libertinism comes discretion, however, and Sanctum’s smoke-and-mirrors admissions process made it the talk of night-life land when it debuted. There is no phone number, no address, an outright aversion to press and a ticketing process that’s more scavenger hunt than velvet rope.
To land an invite, one sends a Facebook message to Sanctum, where Lawner or an associate vets your clubland vitals (it’s elitist in a curated-dinner-party way: one resolutely middle-class night-life reporter, whose Facebook profile photo shows him eating a gigantic slice of pizza, still made the cut). If they like your style, they send you to a lingerie shop to pick up your tickets on a silver platter, with different colored pins for varying levels of access and participation.
“It’s the opposite of what most club owners want,” Lawner said. “ I absolutely didn’t want 500 people outside clamoring to get in. I love the puzzle of getting there.”
The opening night crowd was heavy on young and moneyed entertainment-biz operators (Tickets run from the hundreds of dollars to several thousand for a year’s membership). Photography was forbidden — staff will come by and erase cellphone pictures — and all the on-site attractions were strictly off the record for one pizza-eating reporter. But after Sanctum’s busy kickoff, it made sense that Lawner brought his longtime friend Merritt onboard to intensify the experience.
Merritt earned some art-scene pearl-clutching in 2000, when Taschen published her book of candid, lo-fi erotica, “Digital Diaries,” a Cindy Sherman-via-Harmony Korine photo essay of exhibitionism. She followed it up by designing shows for Cirque du Soleil, including the popular “Zumanity” and “OVO.” Sanctum combines both of those interests, public sexuality and theatrical spectacle, in one venue.
“My ideal performer was one woman who said ‘I want to perform at Sanctum, become a politician and then get outed in a sex scandal so I can point out the hypocrisy,’” Merritt said. “I was like, ‘You’re hired.’”
Lawner and Merritt agreed that the main thing they learned from opening night was that Sanctum’s audience wants a private space to publicly break the fourth wall and be part of the show. “We ran out of purple and red pins,” Lawner said (those colors let performers involve you in their set). “I was surprised; it’s a wealthy crowd, I expected everyone to be voyeurs. But people were begging to participate.”
That will be the focus of the next Sanctum on April 11. Lawner and Merritt are still hammering out the festivities and how best to involve the crowd, but compared with some of the material they’re into, Sanctum is still relatively churchly.
“I’m also a biologist with a real strong interest in animal and insect sexuality,” Merritt said. “I still have no idea how humans evolved to have the most vanilla sexuality of any species.”