MANCHESTER: when the city danced: For 15 years design and music raved together. Now the party is over, and the retrospective exhibition has opened. Jonathan Glancey reports

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AT THE height of the Gulf war, the cover of Newsweek magazine drew readers' attention away from Scud missiles and Saddam Hussein to the short-lived phenomenon of Manchester's Ecstasy-driven club scene. The US weekly dubbed the city 'Madchester' and perhaps it was right. For a brief moment, Manchester had caught the imagination of the world's media: Baghdad aside, this was the jumpiest, most happening city in the world.

Of course, it wasn't really. It was just that for one brief moment this city of Victorian warehouses and Chinese restaurants had the liveliest music, club and graphic design scene in Britain; a combination that made it a magnet for visiting American and European journalists looking for a wild night out. The most happening place of all, particularly between midnight and three in the morning, was the Hacienda club, a converted yacht warehouse on Whitworth Street West, one of the most wired-up places you could be that summer, short of the cockpit of a Stealth bomber.

Drugs, rather than sex or rock'n'roll, brought Europe's biggest house party to an end when the Mancunian authorities forced the (temporary) closure of the Hacienda; violent clashes between rival drug gangs had taken the fun out of Manchester's vibrant late-night/early-morning club life. It was time to dry out and sober up.

If 1989 and 1990 were the most exaggerated years of Manchester's fashionable notoriety, the previous 10 years had seen the city's musicians, designers and young entrepreneurs produce some of the liveliest and most influential new movements in sounds, graphics and interiors. From the regurgitated graphics of punk, through the cool minimalist chic of Eighties design (the Hacienda itself, designed by Ben Kelly, was the high point of this style) to the psychedelic, Day-Glo album covers of rave-bands such as Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses, Manchester has had a potent and pervasive effect on European design during the past decade.

Now that the dream is more or less over - although the influence is far from dead - Manchester's Cornerhouse cinema and gallery complex has mounted an exhibition, Sublime, that summarises the city's effect on music and design between 1976 and 1992: instant musicological, design and social history, it is well worth seeing.

In the Sixties, Manchester had seemed on the fringe of music, fashion and design. The Rolling Stones and John Lee Hooker might have played the night away underground at the Twisted Wheel, but Liverpool was the cradle of British pop culture - or at least Liverpool removed to London, shoehorned into tight suits. The rival Manchester sound was led by The Hollies and undermined by Herman's Hermits. The nascent club scene was destroyed by bulldozers as much of central Manchester was transformed into a weak copy of downtown Bucharest in the late Sixties.

Manchester's music and design scene lay dormant in the Seventies, although a new wave of design talent was building up at the city's polytechnic. The talents of music entrepreneurs such as Tony Wilson of the Factory Organisation, the designers Malcolm Garrett, Peter Saville and Ben Kelly, and punk bands that included The Fall and the Buzzcocks gelled from 1976 and began to boom three years later.

While Messrs Garrett and Saville set the tone with their inventive and impressive record sleeves for Manchester's punk bands, Ben Kelly shaped the Hacienda club, the focal point of the city's club and subculture. Kelly, a Mancunian trained at the Royal College of Art, had designed the Seditionaries shop in London for Vivienne Westwood; Peter Saville asked him to design the Hacienda.

Using images from motorways seen as if by night - yellow, white and red warning lights together with illuminated bollards and Catseyes - Kelly created a massive 'place where things can happen' that also caught the spirit of Eighties design. The Hacienda seemed minimal, cool and altogether too architectural to be the kind of place where anyone could let rip.

When it opened, would-be clubbers skulked in the corners of this vast space, which could accommodate up to 1,500 without inducing mass claustrophobia. It needed a shot of Ecstasy before the joint started to jump - that and a whole new wave of post-punk music. The combination of 'E' and rave bands equalled energy, noise and the kind of excitement that pushed the club towards its own closure.

More than any other designer, Ben Kelly framed Manchester's music and club scene at its peak. This was the time when, for a brief spell during the credit-led economic boom of the mid-to-late Eighties, designers enjoyed the status of pop stars and Kelly was in the Top Ten. After the Hacienda he designed what is still a fashionable bar, the Dry 201, in Oldham Street in 1989, and a year later, the headquarters of the Factory Organisation on Charles Street. Kelly's interiors and graphics by Messrs Saville and Garrett were distinctive, knowing and attracted attention as readily as the excesses of the contemporary Mancunian club scene.

Perhaps it was inevitable that such talent should be siphoned off into the mainstream of London's design industry. Peter Saville set up his own design agency after leaving Tony Wilson's Factory Organisation; his polished and politely avant-garde clients included George Michael, New Order, Yohji Yamamoto and the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Today he works for Pentagram - the BMW of the graphics business and a world removed from New Wave Manchester. Kelly continues to evolve his rigorously abstract, if increasingly colourful, interiors.

It seems curious that as designers such as Kelly produced their most sophisticated work in Manchester, the music and club scene was completely off the leash and set on self-destruction. Perhaps this is what made the Manchester scene unique. In 1989 and 1990, the Hacienda - an interior feted not just in Newsweek, but in the pages of the most sophisticated international architecture and design magazines, from Abitare and Domus in Italy to Brutus and A plus U in Japan - was the scene of a wildly anti-culture backlash, fuelled by poppers and uppers. It was the thing to dress in massively flared trousers and baggy tops and to talk, even if you were from salubrious south Manchester, with a Salford accent that had been dragged, if not for real, across the city's football terraces.

When the Hacienda closed, the rave bands began to fall from public favour and the city's music and design scene suddenly appeared to have been too much of a wild, if not necessarily good, thing. The Sublime exhibition at the Cornerhouse - a cultural venue that rides out the vagaries of local fashion - is a summation of the high points of Manchester's music and club-driven design scene of the past 15 years. It is fascinating, but somehow rather sad.

Sublime: Manchester Music and Design, 11am-6pm to 18 October, Cornerhouse, 70 Oxford Street, Manchester (061 228 7621). Closed Mondays.

(Photographs omitted)